Applied behavioral analysis therapy is one of the most popular and established forms of autism therapy, but it is not without controversy.

Much of the criticism of ABA is based in older practices that are no longer use, including the use of harsh punishment. Today, ABA focuses on positive reinforcement.

Spectrum asks if the methods of helping autistic individuals overcome the impulse to behave inappropriately use cruel methods, and many anecdotal stories online warn of traumatic or abusive situations. Central to all this is the concept of punishment in ABA, leading many parents and caregivers to question whether punishment should be used during ABA therapy at all.

What Is Punishment?

In applied behavioral analysis, the word “punishment” has a very different meaning than it does in everyday use. Most people would understand punishment to mean punitive actions for committing a violation of some kind. In ABA therapy, on the other hand, punishment refers to the chances of a behavior happening again decreasing because of something that happens after the behavior.

This is a common concept in human psychology. People are less likely to do something again because of what happens after that action.

Despite the connotations, punishment is not inherently good or bad. It merely describes how behavior changes.

In ABA therapy, punishment is only employed after many other reinforcement strategies have not been effective. And when punishment is used, it should always be used in combination with reinforcement. Punishment on its own is never enough to compel appropriate behavior.

Positive & Negative Punishment

Applied behavior analysis recognizes two types of punishment: positive punishment and negative punishment. Again, these terms are derived from general human psychology.

Positive punishment takes place when something is added after the behavior occurs, and the behavior is stopped (and reduced) as a result. In a general setting, a person may be cited for parking somewhere they aren’t supposed to park. The person is more likely to avoid parking there in the future because they don’t want to pay another fine associated with a future ticket. In this example, the punishment is the ticket.

What does this look like in an ABA setting? An ABA therapist can decide to use a positive punishment to decrease inappropriate behavior from a child.

For example, the child may be given a set amount of time to stay on task, and if those guidelines are followed, the child is given a reward (reinforcement). But if the child becomes distracted, starts talking, or wanders away, the therapist might reset the timer, thereby adding time as a positive punishment. If this works — if the child understands that leaving their seat is an inappropriate behavior, and therefore decreases their distractibility — resetting the timer and adding more time until the reinforcement would be considered a positive punishment.

But where does negative punishment come in? If something is removed from the setting, this is a form of negative punishment. The (temporary) removal of perks, privileges, and other benefits can be considered negative punishment if they are successful in changing unwanted behavior. Removing a child from a situation if the child is behaving inappropriately is also a form of negative punishment.

In this way, punishment is a form of natural learning. Everyone, neurodiverse and neurotypical alike, learns from having desirable things taken away or undesirable things imposed until behavior is sufficiently changed and future behavior conforms to expectations.

The Punishment Controversy

Psychology Today explains that punishment is a controversial topic in applied behavior analysis therapy because there are concerns that it is too restrictive of an intervention. In other cases, punishment (either positive or negative) can be applied inappropriately, to the detriment of a child who does not understand the connection between their behavior and the punishment.

To avoid this, a behavior therapist should consult with support staff and other caregivers to determine whether punishment would be an appropriate form of behavior modification for a given child. Here, suitability is determined by whether or not the punishment will actually help the child change their behavior in the future. If the behavior is not sufficiently decreasing or if it is even increasing, that is a red flag that the punishment approach is not working and should be suspended in favor of another method.

Therapists should remember that introducing positive or negative punishment can cause the unwanted behavior to temporarily spike before the desired decrease is seen. It is vital that a steady approach is used even during difficult interventions. A therapist should also be ready to make the decision that the punishment is ineffective and should be stopped if they feel that it is not truly helping the child make better behavioral decisions.

Using Punishment Properly

Positive or negative punishment should not be lightly used in ABA. In fact, board certified behavior analysts are required, by their certification, to secure consent from parents before introducing punishment as a form of behavior modification. The therapist also has to very carefully consider how to implement punishments in such a way that they not only elicit the desired behavior in the most effective way possible, but that they are also as minimally disruptive as possible for the child and the learning environment.

Punishment is only added to a therapy plan after other options have been exhausted. Punishment should not ever be used as a first response to a behavior problem.

Instead, years of research strongly indicate that reinforcement is often more effective as a primary approach to modifying behavior. All ABA therapists will be taught, and should understand, that they should first find something to increase when working on behavioral changes and not just focus on a behavior that they want to stop.

Healthy Ways of Using Punishment

Some experts recommend that punishment, either positive or negative, should be used only sparingly. Instead, positive reinforcement (giving a child a reward for completing a task or not acting inappropriately) is thought of as the more humane and effective form of modifying unwanted behavior.

One way to make the punishment method more effective is to establish the consequences in advance. Having frequent and visual reminders that a certain behavior will directly lead to a specific punishment, and then following through with this every time, will help establish and solidify the association between the two variables in the child’s mind.

Punishment should be paired with a verbal cue because the child needs to know why they are receiving the consequence. If this is not established — either because the verbal cue is not given or because the individual’s autism is so severe — then the punishment method is compromised and should probably not be used.

Bad Ways of Using Punishment

Another thing to keep in mind when using punishments is that they can be exclusionary, such as when a person is removed from a space as a way of negatively punishing them for inappropriate behavior. This removes the person from a space they might want to be in but cannot properly express this desire, and it deprives them of critical learning time.

For some children, being removed might unexpectedly reinforce negative behaviors. In some cases, removing a child from a space might actually be rewarding for the child if the space is one they want to get away from. Instead of learning to curb that unwanted impulse, they might instead associate acting inappropriately with getting that desired escape.

It might even be as simple as the child wanting to avoid doing a work task that they don’t want to be doing, or the child getting one-on-one attention in the most direct way they know how. Even negative attention is attention, and many children will instinctively prefer negative attention to no attention at all.

The takeaway of this is the behavior analyst should carefully consider how they are using the punishment method and whether the punishment is actually succeeding in changing the child’s behavior. Other important considerations are how the child feels about the process and whether the behavior change has long-term impact or will only be short-lived.

Reinforcement vs. Punishment

When it comes to using punishing during ABA therapy, the primary school of thought is that both punishment and reinforcement are valid tools for managing behavior in children on the autism spectrum. While reinforcement is designed to introduce or increase a desired behavior, punishment works best if saved to reduce or completely remove an inappropriate behavior.

When used properly, punishment can be an effective application of ABA therapy for any learner in any environment. But the key for using punishment in ABA is that it has to be used consistently and fully.

If a therapist determines that a child will benefit from the application of positive or negative punishment, they have to see the process through to the end. Discontinuing punishment because it temporarily makes the child unhappy will not result in any significant learning or behavior change, especially if the goal is to help the child improve their future behavior.

Similarly, there are some children who will not be good candidates for any form of punishment therapy in ABA. They may be too young to grasp the logic of the process, or their autism may be so severe that any attempt at positive punishment or negative punishment may be overwhelming and confusing.

There have been many cases of punishment in ABA being used too liberally, traumatizing children who genuinely do not have the cognitive ability to grasp what is expected of them or even what is happening to them. But when done properly, punishment is never intended to harm or hurt. It can be a natural, even healthy part of learning and development.

Even so, it should only be used as a last resort in ABA therapy. Instead, positive reinforcement is the preferred method of changing behavior.

References

The Controversy Over Autism’s Most Common Therapy. (August 2016). Spectrum.

On the Effectiveness of and Preference for Punishment and Extinction Components of Function-Based Interventions. (Spring 2005). Journal of Applied Behavior Analysis.

Positive Punishment and Operant Conditioning. (May 2020). Verywell Mind.

Punishment in ABA Parent Training. (March 2019). Psychology Today.

Applied Behavior Analysis Therapy for Autism. Autism Parent Magazine.

The Study of Punishment in Psychology. (April 2020). Verywell Mind.

Rewards Are Better Than Punishment: Here’s Why. (September 2008). Psychology Today.