How I teach autistic students without using ABA


By Henny Kupferstein, M.A.

Applied Behavioral Analysis (ABA) for autistics is based on Pavlov’s operant conditioning for dogs. In this video, you can see the lone dog waiting for permission to have fun. Watching this clip, I can almost hear the ABA kid saying, “Miss Ashley–what am I working for? After I swim for 5 minutes, can I have 15 minutes of iPad time?”

Many of my autistic piano students are ABA survivors. They have been led to believe that they have no original thoughts, intentions, or free will. Everything they do is scripted, and everything they don’t do is conditioned. It takes us weeks to begin undoing the damage. In the worst cases, it takes months or years, depending on their age and the length of the ABA-induced trauma.

To investigate child development, 19th century behaviorist Ivan Pavlov experimented on dogs. Back in the days before ethics banned such experiments, he assumed that dogs will comply with the training because they are motivated by food. Operant conditioning is a way to manipulate (condition) the environment (operation) to produce an outcome. If the behavior is rewarded with a good consequence, more of that good behavior will keep coming. Likewise, if a behavior is negatively reinforced, the behavior will dissolve.

standard ABA reward chart
standard ABA reward chart

ABA (applied behavior analysis) is considered an ‘evidence-based treatment’ for autism, only because the evidence is based on Pavlov’s dogs. When applied to humans, the parent who prefers a favorable outcome will be delighted that their child finally learned to go potty. The problem extends into the ethics of those in position of power who determine the goals. The therapist and parent get to decide on a list of behaviors to enforce, and a list of behaviors to diminish. This can include much-needed self regulatory stimming (Also read: Reframing Autistic Behavior Problems as Self Preservation: A Freudian View). As in child sexual abuse*, the victim will lifelessly comply if they are groomed with compliments and treats. Just like Pavlov speculated, we are more likely to repeat a behavior once we learn that it produces positive consequences.

In the above video, you can see a non-speaking autistic piano student who was kicking and screaming straight through his first lesson. By the second week, he was playing and reading independently. By the third week, he was happy to follow my guidance to correct his fingering. One month later, this student is now playing with two hands and waits all week for his lesson time, ready to shine. In the first lesson, he had to be convinced to read and play only after the dreaded reward chart was shown to him. After the first month of lessons, he is happily seated at the piano without any rewards mentioned.

With my autistic piano students, the work starts from the first lesson when the student realizes that playing the piano is the ‘reward’ and not the ‘task’ with which to work on for a reward. Rather than dumbing the material down to rehearsing Twinkle-Twinkle, I start the first lesson with sophisticated music so they can hear the the sound of their own intelligence. This no-fail approach always leads to lightbulb moments where the kids begin to come back to life. For the parent witnessing their child’s strengths, the lessons are a dramatic change from the rest of the week’s structure.

* While I recognize the complexity of the psychology around sexual abuse, I am in no way implying that ABA is comparable to sexual abuse. Rather, I am troubled by the way in which they are similar: both are adult-imposed manipulation on a vulnerable person for producing an pre-planned outcome.

More articles: A Dog’s Life Pedagogical Flaws in Repetitive Piano Practice for Autistic Students



Henny Kupferstein, who identifies as an autistic scholar, is a doctoral student with a specialization on autism research. She holds a Masters degree in Transformative Leadership from the California Institute of Integral Studies in San Francisco, and a Bachelor of Science degree (magna cum laude) in Interdisciplinary Studies for Music Leadership in Society from the State University of New York.

Henny’s research interests include perfect pitch, sensory integration, and autism. She is classically trained in piano, voice, and guitar. Henny also enjoys African drumming, Klezmer music, free improvisation and composing. Her current work focuses on advocacy, research, and scholarship.

The above article was originally published under the title “Undoing Operant Conditioning Trauma with Autistic Piano Students” on Henny’s website.


  • Totally bloody awesome. I put my daughter into ABA once (upon the urgings of other folks who didn’t like her ‘behaviours’)- for two weeks when she was 10 and felt ill at myself and the ‘therapists’ (whom I discovered were just young students following a prescription) and vowed to never again expose her to such horrors. We forged a new path instead. If I had not, 10 years later she would be one of those traumatized survivors. Instead she is a happy and functional autistic 20 year old who honours who she is and has no use for folks who would like to train her.

  • I fully agree! ABA came from a dark age when we accepted animal experiments, and abuse toward different abled people. We are moving into a more humane age, when we see the sacredness and intelligence in everyone.

  • Hi,

    Interesting article. However, what you present here is a straw-man version of ABA. There are glaring inaccuracies in your account of the history and “theory” that underlies this practice. These things absolutely matter, they set the stage for interpretation. Pavlov is not part of the historical foundations of ABA. That is a very different type of “conditioning”. Also, he did not study development and your understanding of operant conditioning is not accurate at all. I imagine that as an academic you make every attempt to eliminate biased thinking and reasoning from your understanding and explanation of things. Your objections would be much more powerful if you demonstrated a more thorough and accurate understanding of what you are criticizing. That being said, I have heard some very scary ABA stories. Some of these stories make me uncomfortable and prompt me to become angry at the “therapists”. However, when I have asked for more detail I always find myself informing the person that the ABA they describe is nothing I recognize. In fact, it is probably only ABA in name. In other cases I come to recognize that their interpretation of the therapy is based on their perception that ABA is a mechanical process meant to train dogs how to jump through hoops. Seen through this lens, it is no wonder some parents find it objectionable. Once they have this idea in their heads, they easily find confirmation in the therapy of how this is true. However, it would surprise you to know that in your video there are many behavioral principles at play, absent a dog to be trainded. You may not know them as such, but that is the main problem with people’s understanding of ABA. They see it as “rewarding” for the sake of manipulation, like you would a dog. But what they don’t understand is that the process of selection of behavior by consequence is one that is naturally taking place all the time. For example, when wanting the letter “R” to appear on the screen one must hit the “R” key on the keyboard. Behavior of pressing “R” leads to “R” on the screen. If you attend to your behaviors, both external and the actions taking place inside, like thinking, you would find there are functional consequences that gave birth to that behavior and ones that currently maintain it. Such as when we emit a pattern of sounds from our mouths (words). The pattern of sounds we make is maintained by a consequence of functional communication with others. When we think of these patterns of sounds, it allows us to make better sense of what is going on in our heads. Both of these are examples of how the behavior of speaking and of thinking is maintained by the consequence of functional understanding. In the video the mom promises xbox if the child “listens”. It seems this was a rewarding enough consequence for the child. As a matter of this promise, he attends to the piano and seems drawn to it. This is called intrinsic reinforcement. It is sort of like a feeling you get when you encounter something that you like. The behavior of hitting the keys, hearing the sound, creating music leads to an internal feeling of satisfaction or even happiness. This is the consequence that maintains this behavior and promotes its progress. In fact the primary purpose of ABA is to use what are called contrived reinforcers or un-natural reinforcers to expose the child to the possibility that a new skill (playing with a piano, talking, attending, eating and so on…) will bring the into contact with natural reinforcers, as was done in your video. Like I said above, there are behavioral principles at play in your example. It is not just a matter of interpretation, it is science. As for original or creative behavior, it is the goal of ABA to set up a foundation on which a child may build upon. This very much includes the generation of original thoughts, feelings, desires, and abilities that define us as individuals. Again, the negative stories that are bound to come up when ABA is the subject matter are to be taken seriously. Especially when those clients in these therapeutic settings do not have a voice. At the same time, these mischaracterizations of ABA and its guiding philosophy and science do a lot of damage to the dialogue that should be had about how to move forward and develop a technology that would maximize the opportunity for all us us to reach our maximum potential.

  • Also, the “adult-imposed manipulation” you mention is happening all the time. It’s called raising a child. We “manipulate” through schooling, teaching to wait ones turn, teaching to share, teaching to get dressed, that the color blue is “blue”, to be able to tell “left” from “right” and by “forcing” the language they speak. We manipulate when we set up environments and consequences to make our child more rigid and shallow in their thinking, or when we reinforce creativity, curiosity and compassion. We make it more or less likely that they will be independent thinking beings.We as adults are very much responsible for the world our kids interact with. We help set the foundation for the people they will become. It is all “adult-imposed manipulation”. Of course a parent can only do so much. There is a larger world out there also “manipulating”, this is why sometimes things go of the rails. Imagine understanding this natural “manipulation” to the extent that we can tap into it and generate world that “manipulates” the live’s of children so that they may one day realize their full potential. This is very different then the type of manipulation you are implying, the type used to irreparably harm a child. Your right though, it is all shaping of behavior. However, the goals could not be more different. It’s not a fair comparison.

  • Nothing is no fail, you claiming so just looks like a red flag. You even admit the piano becomes the reward. The child wanting to play the xbox would behave and sit with the xbox just like he now sits with the piano. You just changed the reward to something a parent would actually value. How are you different from an ABA therapist? Because you like the piano?

  • Thank you for this piece.

    My son is in ABA (and going well, really – but I’m very involved in not ruining his life) and “earned rewards” doesn’t jive with me, so I was looking up perspective to solidify my argument.

    Not quite what I’m looking for, but it was an interesting read.

    And Pavlov’s dog or not, the history of ABA is horrendous at minimum.

  • So many problems with this article….I think Mr. Martinez did a thorough job of debunking everything Ms. Henny stated. First off, Pavlov studied RESPONDENT conditioning…or classical conditioning – which studies reflexes….NOT learned behavior. You say that it is called evidence based because of pavlov’s Dogs…first off, wrong science, second, it is called evidence based because ABA uses clinically proven procedures to address problem behaviors to enrich the lives of ALL individuals (NOT JUST INDIVIDUALS WITH AUTISM). Also, ABA is based off of B.F. Skinner’s radical behaviorism…a hybrid science that studies covert AND overt behaviors. And when you mentioned that you were shocked that a child works for something? Yeah, that’s called MOTIVATION. We all do operant (or learned) behaviors because those behaviors have been reinforced somehow in the past under certain antecedent conditions, or because of rule governed behavior (If I do this, then this will happen). I don’t mean to be rude, but the amount of misinformation is too high in this “article”. ABA is the study of WHY organisms do a particular behavior, and how to replace said maladaptive behaviors with socially appropriate behaviors that serve the same function. You should be ashamed of yourself in your attempt to turn people away from the most scientifically backed approach to help those on the autism spectrum just to sell your music therapy books or whatever (which there is no empirical evidence behind music therapy whatsoever).

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