Does ABA make kids act like robots?

Does ABA make kids act like robots?


By Harvey Bayliss, MA BCBA

Recently, I have been contemplating a difficult criticism of ABA therapy: that we train and reinforce a very narrow topography of responses with our clients. The criticism being that we train our clients to “respond like robots.” The thought of this is terrifying to me. To deprive a client of their individuality is the last thing I would ever want, and seems to go against our beloved “Applied” Dimension of ABA (Baer, Wolf, and Risley, 1968). Yet, positive reinforcement can quickly lead to a narrowing of response topography (Iversen, 2002). So what are we supposed to do to avoid “robotic” responses?

Credit@ Studio Roman

Luckily, this is not a new concern, and we have plenty of tools at the ready to make sure we are keeping our clients’ autonomy and individuality at the forefront. Teaching and reinforcing behavioral cusps with natural reinforcers is a great start to avoid narrowed response topography. A behavioral cusp is a behavior that allows someone to access new opportunities of reinforcement (e.g., learning to read allows someone to read a menu).  By reinforcing behavioral cusps, we naturally reinforce variations of a response, and the client is coming in contact with a reinforcer that is highly preferred. In the home and community (natural environments), I relish any of these opportunities. That is not to say it cannot be done in the clinic by any means (much respect to those addressing this during precision teaching)! We have to be even more mindful and observant of any opportunity that becomes available. In a contrived environment, we can also make sure to program in generalization training and make sure that natural cues for the behavioral cusp to occur are incorporated into training.

When choosing target behavior (both skill acquisition and reduction behavior), we should always think about our client first. How is this acquisition or reduction going to lead to our client’s independence? Are we keeping our client’s preferences in mind? Is the target behavior socially significant? Even if it is, what are reasonable expectations? Remember, everyone has a right to “eat too many doughnuts and take a nap!” (Bannerman et al., 1990).

I hope I will always be anxious about training “robotic” behavior. Quite simply, it is not ABA. A strong intervention will incorporate and embrace a client’s individuality and have independence at the heart of any goal. It is our duty to protect our client’s autonomy and embrace the wonderful individuals that they all are!


Baer, D. M., Wolf, M. M., & Risley, T. R. (1968). Some current dimensions of applied behavior analysis. Journal of applied behavior analysis, 1(1), 91–97.

Bannerman, D. J., Sheldon, J. B., Sherman, J. A., & Harchik, A. E. (1990). Balancing the right to habilitation with the right to personal liberties: the rights of people with developmental disabilities to eat too many doughnuts and take a nap. Journal of applied behavior analysis, 23(1), 79–89. 

Iversen, I. H. (2002). Response-initiated imaging of operant behavior using a digital camera. Journal of the experimental analysis of behavior, 77(3), 283–300.