Understanding ABA Therapy: Pros and Cons Explained

By Brad Fenton | 25 January, 2024
For Parents - Pros and Cons of ABA Therapy

Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA) therapy is a scientifically validated approach primarily used in treating individuals with autism spectrum disorder (ASD). While many have reported significant positive impacts of ABA therapy, especially in enhancing communication and social skills, others have voiced concerns and shared negative experiences. 

The debate surrounding ABA therapy’s pros and cons is multifaceted, with perspectives ranging from healthcare professionals to those who have undergone the therapy themselves. This article aims to present an unbiased examination of both the advantages and potential drawbacks of ABA therapy.

Pros of ABA Therapy

ABA therapy has garnered significant attention and support due to its structured and systematic approach to behavioral improvement. Its methodologies are rooted in decades of research, and many families and professionals have reported positive outcomes. Let’s delve into the key benefits of ABA therapy.

Evidence-Based Approach

ABA therapy is grounded in empirical research and has been recognized as an evidence-based treatment by several reputable organizations, including the American Psychological Association and the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, besides other renowned scientific organizations. This means that its techniques and strategies have undergone rigorous scientific scrutiny and have been found to produce measurable positive outcomes, especially for children with autism.

Individualized Treatment Plans

Another standout feature of ABA therapy is its adaptability. Therapists design individualized ABA treatment plans tailored to the unique needs and abilities of each person. This ensures that the therapy is relevant, goal-oriented and maximizes the potential for positive change.

Improvement in Core Life Skills

ABA therapy isn’t just about addressing challenging behaviors. It also promotes the development of essential life skills. The long-term effects of ABA therapy can be profound, with many individuals experiencing enhanced abilities in areas such as communication, social interaction, self-care, and even academic performance.

Data-Driven Decision Making

ABA therapy is anything but static, and that’s one of the reasons why it’s so popular with children on the autism spectrum. Therapists continuously collect data on a child’s progress, allowing them to adjust strategies and interventions as needed. This data-driven approach ensures that the therapy remains effective and evolves in response to the individual’s changing needs and progress.

Reduction in Problem Behaviors

By understanding the root causes and triggers of problematic behaviors, ABA therapy offers interventions to reduce or eliminate these behaviors. 

This understanding allows therapists to implement proactive strategies, often preventing these behaviors before they start. As individuals learn alternative and more adaptive ways to communicate and cope, the frequency and intensity of these problematic behaviors can diminish.

Generalization of Skills

In addition to all the previously mentioned Applied Behavior Analysis benefits, there is also its focus on the generalization of skills, something the parents of children with autism are trying very hard to accomplish. 

Generalization of skills means that behaviors and skills learned in therapy sessions are not just applicable in that setting but are also transferred and applied to different environments, situations, and people. This ensures that the individual can function adaptively beyond the therapy room.

Enhanced Parent and Caregiver Training

A notable advantage of ABA therapy is the emphasis on training parents and caregivers. This collaborative approach ensures that the strategies employed during therapy sessions are consistently applied at home and in other settings. 

By equipping parents and caregivers with the tools and techniques used in ABA, they become active participants in the therapeutic process, reinforcing learned behaviors and skills. This collaborative effort often leads to more sustainable and long-lasting positive outcomes for the child.

Who Benefits from ABA Therapy?

ABA therapy, while often associated with children on the autism spectrum, offers benefits to individuals across various age groups and conditions. Its strategies are not limited to those with formal diagnoses; even individuals without specific conditions can harness ABA techniques to enhance skills like self-regulation and communication.

Here’s a glimpse into the diverse applicability of ABA:

  • Autism Spectrum Disorder & Asperger’s Syndrome: ABA focuses on refining communication and social interactions, helping individuals interpret non-verbal cues and manage emotions, including anxiety.
  • ADHD: ABA provides a structured approach that emphasizes self-regulation, impulse control, and improved communication strategies, benefiting both children and adults.
  • Oppositional Defiant Disorder (ODD): ABA assists in emotion regulation, positive interactions with authority figures, and impulse management. Reinforcement techniques are often employed to motivate adherence to rules and task completion.
  • Intellectual Disabilities: For conditions like Down syndrome, ABA emphasizes behavior modification to enhance independent living skills, from social interactions to daily routines.
  • Anxiety: ABA aids individuals in identifying and managing emotional triggers, crafting coping strategies, and developing problem-solving skills for stressful situations.

It’s crucial to understand that while ABA therapy has a wide reach, insurance coverage might be contingent on specific diagnoses, with autism often being a primary consideration.

Cons of ABA Therapy

While ABA therapy has been praised by many, it’s essential to consider the criticisms and concerns raised by individuals and professionals. Here are some of the primary disadvantages of ABA therapy.

Intensity and Duration

One of the primary criticisms of ABA therapy is the intensity and duration of certain treatment sessions. There were instances of physicians prescribing therapy regimens that require up to 40 hours a week, which can sometimes be too intense for both the individual undergoing therapy and their families. 

For this reason, it’s important to take your time while looking for a trained ABA therapist, as they will be able to determine just the right amount of sessions needed for the patient without overwhelming them or the family.

High Financial Burden

The financial aspect is a significant ABA con that concerns many families. The intensive nature of the sessions, often required over extended periods, can lead to substantial costs. Consequently, families may find themselves facing considerable out-of-pocket expenses. 

In order to overcome the financial challenge, it’s recommendable that you talk to a professional who can advise you on insurance plans covering the treatment, or at least parts of it.

Ethical Concerns

Some critics argue that ABA therapy can be overly controlling and manipulative. They believe that by focusing on changing behaviors to fit societal norms, ABA might suppress an individual’s authentic self or personality. 

There are concerns about the use of aversives (unpleasant stimuli) in some ABA practices, as there are some ABA horror stories you can find online, such as the usage of electric shocks no longer applied). 

Luckily, certain methods are no longer used and others are less common in modern ABA, with many ABA professionals using innovative practices and encouraging independence .

Not Always Holistic

Adding to the pros and cons of ABA therapy list is the claim that the approach is not 100% holistic.

While ABA focuses on behavior, it might not always address the emotional or psychological aspects of autism. Some argue that by concentrating solely on external behaviors, ABA might miss deeper emotional needs or underlying issues.

To make ABA more holistic and address the emotional and psychological aspects of autism, professionals try to integrate emotional learning into sessions, collaborate with psychologists or counselors, and tailor programs to individual needs. Additionally, incorporating play-based strategies, mindfulness techniques, and feedback mechanisms can ensure a more comprehensive approach that respects the child’s overall well-being.


ABA therapy, rooted in decades of research, offers a structured approach that has positively impacted many with autism spectrum disorder. Its evidence-based methods and adaptability are commendable, but it’s equally important to acknowledge its challenges, from its intensity to the financial considerations. 

As with any therapeutic intervention, what works wonders for one might not be the best fit for another. The essence of effective therapy lies in understanding and catering to individual needs. As we’ve discussed the biggest ABA therapy pros and cons, it becomes evident that while it’s a valuable tool in the therapeutic landscape, the decision to pursue it in helping children on the spectrum should be made with a holistic view of its pros and cons.


What is the downside of ABA?

Some of the main ABA therapy cons are its potentially intensive nature, duration, and the financial burden it can impose on families.

What is the success rate of ABA?

Research has consistently highlighted the efficacy of ABA therapy, though the exact figures tend to differ and the success rates differ depending on what exact improvement was targeted. For example, a 2012 scientific study observing 14 randomized control trials of 555 participants came up with results that the ABA success rate was small to medium, depending on the challenge (autism general symptoms, socialization, expressive language, etc.). 

More ABA therapy benefits were confirmed in a different study from 2005 which showed that 48% of children showed remarkable improvements after a four-year period.

Another, very much cited, pivotal study conducted in 1987 by Dr. O. Ivar Lovass found that a remarkable 90% of participants showed significant improvement after undergoing intensive ABA therapy. 

Furthermore, nearly half of the children from this study, or 47%, reached a level where their behaviors and skills were on par with their peers, showcasing the potential of ABA therapy to foster genuine skill development and help children reach their full potential in real-world settings.

What is the consequence in ABA therapy?

In the context of ABA therapy, a “consequence” refers to the outcome or result that follows a specific behavior. The consequence can either reinforce (increase the likelihood of) or punish (decrease the likelihood of) the behavior it follows.  

At what age is ABA therapy most effective?

The efficacy of ABA therapy spans across various age groups, but there’s a strong emphasis on the benefits of early intervention. The general opinion is that initiating ABA therapy during early childhood, from the age of 2, can yield the most transformative results. This early phase is pivotal due to the heightened adaptability of young brains, which are especially amenable to behavioral adjustments and learning.

Is ABA good for autism?

Yes, ABA (Applied Behavior Analysis) is widely recognized as an effective treatment for autism. Grounded in evidence-based practices, ABA focuses on improving specific behaviors, enhancing communication, and fostering social skills in individuals with autism.