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“Recalling hidden harms”: autistic experiences of childhood applied behavioural analysis (ABA)

Owen McGill (School of Education, University of Strathclyde, Glasgow, UK)
Anna Robinson (School of Education, University of Strathclyde, Glasgow, UK)

Advances in Autism

ISSN: 2056-3868

Article publication date: 23 October 2020

Issue publication date: 26 October 2021




This paper aims to investigate the long-term impacts autistic adults experienced from childhood participation in the applied behavioural analysis (ABA).


Possible participants were recruited through advertisements on social media and autism and ABA organisations. Possible participants were given the choice between an online or face-to-face interview or an anonymised online questionnaire.


Reflections from 10 participants were indicative of a predominantly detrimental impact of ABA. Reflections gave rise to a core theme “recalling hidden harms of childhood experiences of ABA”. Outcomes are discussed in relation to the impact on autistic identity, current research and progressing understanding of the impacts of early intervention from the autistic perspective.

Research limitations/implications

The practical implications of ABA are discussed alongside recommendations for future practice and research with the involvement of autistic individuals within interventive processes.


This is the first paper to take an in-depth, qualitative approach to autistic experiences of ABA. The findings themselves are driven to conceptualise and give voice to the core impacts which carried through participants’ exploration and understanding of self.



Ethical Statement: The study was granted ethical approval from the School of Education Ethics Committee at the University of Strathclyde. All participants were provided with full disclosure of the study. The authors wish to thank those who participated for their insightful and moving reflections. We also wish to thank the reviewers for their helpful comments.


McGill, O. and Robinson, A. (2021), "“Recalling hidden harms”: autistic experiences of childhood applied behavioural analysis (ABA)", Advances in Autism, Vol. 7 No. 4, pp. 269-282.



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Copyright © 2020, Emerald Publishing Limited

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