No Dog Training for Humans

This intriguing article from The Aspergian got me thinking. The author, Carol Millman, (whose biography at the end of the article says she has a diagnosis of autism and is a dog trainer), took a hard look at ABA and compared it unfavorably to dog training. It is well worth a read.

She writes that good dog training takes into account the needs of the dog. After all, an active dog needs exercise, not to learn to sit quietly with no stimulation all the time, because that’s not good for the dog, nor is it in the dog’s nature. It can learn to be a good dog, just not a different sort of dog than it is. For example, no one would think to try to convert a lapdog, like a bichon frise, into a retriever dog that swims for ducks, or into a sheepherder tending to an entire flock. The nature of these breeds is hard-wired. So the high-energy dog can’t be trained to become a low energy dog. It can learn to sit, stay and behave itself, but it can’t learn to be a couch potato dog. Exercise it. It will be a better dog.

Millman argues that ABA is not taking into account the nature and needs of autistic people. She likens it to conversion therapy, and tellingly, ABA founder, Ivar Lovaas was an early practitioner of that disputed treatment, claiming, as he did with early ABA research, that many of the recipients of his treatment appeared to be indistinguishable from their typical peers. But this doesn’t factor in emotional wellbeing or inner needs. Saying “hands down!” over and over doesn’t stop an autistic person’s neurological need to move his hands. ”Scientific” ABA thinks commands are treatment enough and the root causes of behavior are irrelevant.

Hands down! Quiet hands! Mouth quiet! All done!
Blah and blah and High Five! Good job! And that, plus data collection, is “science.” Perhaps if they can explain why ABA fails to help so many people with so-called “severe” symptoms it would be worth a read in a scientific journal. As it is, they just have to say that the person’s autism is “too severe” to be helped.

Millman argues that ABA is indifferent to the nature of autistic people, that it is so programmed to shape autistic people into normal appearing facsimiles, it misses the humanity of the person. The wiggling, high energy, motorically restless kid can’t just be trained to stop wiggling, to stop jumping or flapping. The need to move is in his neurology. But he can move more purposefully, exercise more, learn to have more self-control and learn to communicate his ideas.

Millman’s essay largely focuses on the robotic ABA training of someone who can communicate verbally. I argue that for the autistic nonspeaker, ABA is so much worse in so many ways.

Imagine that the entire purpose of your “gold standard” training is to make you appear normal, but your body won’t let you show what you know. Your artificially cheerful, baby talking instructors treat you like a thick-witted infant and drive you nuts with repetitive, remedial drills and flashcards, well below your actual cognitive level, all the while misinterpreting the real essence of your disability, and mistaking a motor issue for an intellectual one. I have seen this result in some pitiful situations, and I say “J’accuse” to people who won’t consider that they may be wrong, even sometimes, occasionally, or possibly in certain cases.

Not scientific.

My novel, In Two Worlds, has a lot to say about this.

My dogs learned a lot of rules, but they still act like dogs. I never imagined training them to act like cats. I never imagined converting my terrier to a Doberman guard dog or my shepherd to a little Chihuahua.

Autistic people can learn to communicate, to exercise, to be educated and to reduce their stims, but they can’t learn to become a non-autistic person. I am in favor of learning skills and information.
I reject the dog training of people.

12 responses to “No Dog Training for Humans

  1. Amen! I am so honoured that you read and approved of my piece. As a speaking autistic person with only mild motor problems I can only imagine how awful it must be to be considered “not home” and being forced through those awful drills.

    Behaviourism, plain and simple, does not address the needs of autistic people. We don’t need training. We need support and understanding. Because I have a degree in psychology and have practiced behaviorism techniques for a decade I am focusing on destroying ABA from within – demonstrating that even within the field of behaviourism their tactics are wrong (stay tuned for my article on why ABA goes against everything BF Skinner believed in). But ultimately it is ABA survivors like you who are shouting the plain truth from the rooftops – WE DON’T NEED TO BE TRAINED.

    • Hi Carol,
      I was amazed to read the Code of Ethics and even more amazed that Lovaas’ role in Conversion Therapy hasn’t been exposed. He sure was a controlling fellow. I look forward to your next essays.
      Thanks for doing this.

  2. I so agree with you, Ido! I have never been a fan of ABA. I have read your first book and am coming to the end of the second. You have given me so much insight into my 18 yr olkd grandson, sho, also, has down syndrome. Thank you for all you have done and are doing to open the window to autism!

  3. So agree that all needs must be taken into account; medical, physical, social, sensory, emotional, etc… As a parent and someone who now works in the field of developmental disability, i think job # 1 has to be building a real relationship with a student, or any person receiving support services. I have learned the value of this from seeing how much this has helped my son who has autism spectrum disorder, and initially from reading the works of Herb Lovett. I want to see a person first with needs addressed, who is engaged and possibly more motivated to work and interact with some one who knows, cares, and respects him/her….so much better than the “neutral no”, of old school ABA! Ido, thank you for keeping the conversation going!

  4. My son is not treated in they manner discribed here by his ABA therapist. His needs to move, vocalize, and say no are respected. I don’t know what ABA centers you are looking into but clearly they stink. Trying to destroy ABA is incredibly harmful to the people getting quality therapy. My son has no voice of his own, so I will do my best to speak on his behalf. The ABA center is miles above any other setting I could find for him. The school system is at best a joke, but typically it’s a haven for abusers. Please think about what kids like my son would be forced into without ABA, before trying to destroy what they have.

    • Hi Betsy,

      I really think maybe Ido and Carol are also doing their best to speak on your son’s behalf! Please don’t let you’re feeling attacked because ABA seems your only choice stop you from trying to deeply listen to what they are trying to tell you.

      ABA’s sole focus on behavioral outcome is actually the very core of the problem, and that persists even if the quality of the therapist is kinder than the ones many others have sadly had to experience.

      Isn’t it horrible that even to these days ABA experts doubt Ido’s authentic communication because it doesn’t fit their theoretical mold? Would you not want your son’s own unique inner voice and soul to be freed in whatever way fits him, rather than his outer behavior controlled in accordance with a small-minded behavioralist world view?

      It’s a crime if ABA is the only/best choice available, also for you as an obviously concerned and caring parent, but the solution is not to then just continue on with it. There are other approaches that must be further explored.

      If you read Ido’s book you know he never doubted the love in his parents’ choices for him, even when they were the wrong ones. There are unfortunately many theoretical models on autism that are missing the mark.

      I don’t think either Ido or Carol advocate for your son to be at the mercy of an abusive school system. They just don’t want kids to be at the mercy of an abusive ABA system either! And that abuse is real. They are thinking about kids like your son all the time, that’s why they advocate! Your boy may not be verbal, but he has a voice of his own. Communication is manifold, but needs to be able to be heard/seen/understood. I think that is all that they seek to tell the world.

  5. M I love reading your articles Ido. I am so proud that you are becoming a leading advocate for non verbal autistics .

  6. Well not said, as usual, Ido!

  7. Ido and family!
    First, y’all are awesome and the world is better because you all are in it…
    Second, I’m an associate professor of special education and also help organize a nonprofit called the All Y’all Social Justice Collective. ( We are focused on justice and inclusion in schools and community. We hold a free conference for teachers each summer. This summer we are in Charleston, SC on July 8th and 9th. I know y’all are probably super busy, but I wondered if you’d be interested in emailing about ways you could maybe Skype in and let teachers experience what you all have to communicate first hand?

    Thanks so much for what you’re doing, Ido!

  8. Let us all remember every child autistic or not ADHD or not whatever the situation may be each one is different and what works for one may not work for the other we as parents need to help them figure that out because in the end it’s all about what is best for them and not what is best for ourselves just thought I’d remind everyone incase you all forgot

  9. Hi Ido,

    My name is Holly. I’m an MSc (pre-qualifying) Speech and Language Therapy student, and I’m trying to research autistic people’s experiences of Applied Behavioural Analysis (ABA). I was wondering if I could advertise the research here or on any other platforms you know of? Please see for more information. Thank you.

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