ethics of behavior analysis and behavior change

Ethics of Behavior Analysis and Behavior Change

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Ethics are the guiding principals of decent human conduct. When a person of authority (i.e., parent, teacher, or caregiver) seeks to change the behavior of another person, a careful consideration of the ethics of behavior analysis are in order. First and foremost, it is wise to follow the first principle of the hippocratic oath: Do no harm. Keep this principle in mind when considering whether or not the behavior should be changed. If changing the behavior will do no harm, proceed with caution. Analyze the behavior and select an intervention that will benefit the child while also doing no harm.

Should you change the behavior?

When determining if the behavior should really be changed, consider the following questions:

  • Does the behavior cause physical harm to other people or the child?
  • Does the behavior cause mental harm to other people?
  • Would the child want their behavior changed?

Also consider the experiences of adults who went through ABA.

I think a lot can be learned from the perceptions of adults who experienced applied behavior analysis as children. Many autistic adults are very opposed to applied behavior analysis. The following video form Amythest Schafer explains the perspective of the autistic community.

Similarly, Asperger Experts find ABA “dehumanizing and demoralizing to someone with Asperger’s” (a condition that is considered part of the autism spectrum under current diagnostic criteria). “It treats them like cattle.” They also feel its sends the message that “ need for them to behave a certain way so badly that the internal experience does not matter” (Asperger Experts, 2017).

What can we learn about the ethics of behavior analysis and behavior change from from autistic adults?

That there is a great risk for causing harm when seeking to change behavior. If the behavior results in harm to self or others, it needs to be addressed. Data collection and analysis should help reveal the missing skills that are leading to the challenging behavior. A behavior plan should teach the child an appropriate way to get their needs met or it will likely fail (see 5 Reasons Behavior Plans Fail). Follow the principles of the Collaborative and Proactive Solutions Model when creating the behavior plan.

If the behavior you want to change is due neurological differences, consider the message you are sending. The message that should be sent is: differences are not wrong or broken, they are diversity. Five Ways to Damage an Autistic Child without Even Knowing by Autisticnotweird provides further insight to this issue.

Final thoughts on the ethics of behavior analysis

It is important to consider ethical implications of behavior change. Examine:

  1. the potential risk to the chid (including self-image and mental health)
  2. the perspective of the child, and
  3. safety issues surrounding the behavior

If behavior change is in the best interest of the child, then proceed with caution. Develop a behavior plan that will teach the child a way to get their needs met and consider using Ross Greene’s Collaborative and Proactive Solutions Model.



Asperger Experts (2017). Here’s What Works. Seattle, WA


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