Why ABA Piano Students Struggle to Believe in Themselves, Despite Musical Gifts

I teach piano to non-verbal and autistic students every day. Most have perfect pitch and a very high degree of musical aptitude. Along with their diagnosis comes a trail of baggage from earlier teacher-student relationships. Students as young as five may display behaviors that can be interpreted as aggressive and harmful to themselves and others, behaviors that make them seem like they aren’t paying attention, or behaviors that make them appear as if they don’t understand the instructions of the task at hand. I experience ignorance and intolerance of sensory accommodations from ABA therapists and behaviorally-trained educators observing my work with the Rancer Method. Their focus is on the ABA-type treatment interventions. It is the majority and sadly not unusual.

VIDEO: Why ABA Piano Students Struggle to Believe in Themselves, Despite Musical Gifts

The distinct differences in the success of my students are directly linked to their early exposure to esteem-building teacher-student relationships, and whether ABA was a big part of their early intervention. It becomes apparent when a student has been exposed to ABA for more than 10% of their lifetime (e.g. 6 months for a five-year-old child). They become prompt dependent for minor tasks. They lose track of their inner awareness and become unable to take clues from their inside-body to self regulate. Dysregulations turn into complete brain-fry. These system shutdowns are neurological and not in their control anymore.

When a student is in a verbal loop, repeating the same word over and over, and their body is shaking, it becomes time to physically redirect the body into a different setting. I will advise the parent to turn their child on the piano bench so their back is to the piano. The loop instantly stops because he is now in a different environmental state. The student will automatically turn his body back to the piano, completely regulated, and ready to resume. It is a shame that we allow people to grow up with a mindset that they have to allow others to tell them how to function, how to be, what to work for, and when to take a break. We owe it to our students to teach them how to prevent overwhelm without physically prompting them into an environmental redirect. See this article for strategies: Teaching piano student to stim as overwhelm prevention  

Autistic ABA Survivors Grow into Soul-Crushed Teenagers: Tracing the Roots of the Damage

All humans are born with the capacity and drive to seek out a distinct individual sense of self. This agency is robbed of autistic people who are conditioned under behavioral therapy with ABA (applied behavior therapy) to have a misconstrued sense of influence and control.

ABA is discrimination because the behaviors to be modified are targeted on the basis of disability. ABA is also extreme oppression because it is silencing a minority when their behavior (stimming) is not a threat to the majority and it allows them to function in a healthy way. The specific focus of the intervention is not primarily on helping a child to learn functional life skills such as brushing their teeth. Rather,  ABA practitioners are systematically forcing children to perform tasks without stimming, which autistic people must employ to move comfortably and efficiently through the environment.

Amy is an autistic teenaged piano student with perfect pitch. After every measure of four notes played, I ask her if she played it correctly since I know she can hear it and identify her mistakes by ear. For more than a year, she has always responds with, “I don’t know. Was it?” Recently, I asked Amy, “How do you know you are a good person?”

She answered, “Because people say, Good job, Amy.”

I probed a bit more: “So if you watch TV and don’t do math homework, how do you know you’re a good person?”

“Well, then I’m not a good person. I suck!”

Amy has grown to define her identity by the verbal affirmations of the tasks she has performed, whether good or bad. The consequence of the plummeting dignity and pulse of her human spirit is that educators feel compelled to keep lowering the bar to reflect her outwardly dull shell. Amy is now being rewarded for showing up to 3rd grade math class even if she fails the tests. She now presents like a robot that inhales and exhales daily, while completely disconnected from her ability to self-check her own performance for anything. Amy just lives her life waiting for a particular kind of feedback from the world around her to know how to operate next.  

B.F. Skinner was a 20th century American behaviorist who believed that thoughts, emotions, and actions are exclusively products of the environment. With that premise, he centered his discipline theories on rewards rather than punishment. The ABA practices rely heavily on operant conditioning so the student can modify their behavior to earn a reward. Practitioners will condition the environment so students will modify their behavior not because they fear the punishment, but because they fear losing the reward. That to me is still relying on fear as a deterrent, which is a very concerning psychological stressor.

An extreme behavior modification that is intentionally conditioned to be a response to an external stimulus can be a direct contributor to a permanent psychological trauma. Carl Jung agreed with Sigmund Freud’s experiments on word associations: a disturbance occurs each time a stimulus word has touched upon a psychic lesion or conflict (Jung, 1989, p. 147). An intervention that undermines a fundamental right of human functioning is a civic transgression, and a legitimate moral worry that must be publicly deliberated. One hundred years ago, Skinner tried to demystify the human condition. Today, autistic culture has a long way to go before it can be accepted for its unique contribution to the future of mankind.  

For all those who argue that ABA helped their child develop speech, know that speech is only a mark of achievement when a child is not like Amy: She is verbal, but her spirit is dead. How can we fix this? Read UNDOING OPERANT CONDITIONING TRAUMA WITH AUTISTIC PIANO STUDENTS.


Jung, C. G. (1989). Memories, Dreams and Reflections. New York: Vintage Books.

IMPORTANT! Please take the ABA Early Childhood Intervention Survey for my Research Study click here for the link (Survey for Autistic adults 18+, or parents of autistic children)

Undoing operant conditioning trauma with autistic piano students

ABA for autistics is based on Skinner’s operant conditioning for dogs. In this video, you can see the lone dog waiting for permission to have fun. Watching this clip, I can almost hear the ABA kid saying, “Miss Ashley–what am I working for? After I swim for 5 minutes, can I have 15 minutes of iPad time?”

Many of my autistic piano students are ABA survivors. They have been led to believe that they have no original thoughts, intentions, or free will. Everything they do is scripted, and everything they don’t do is conditioned. It takes us weeks to begin undoing the damage. In the worst cases, it takes months or years, depending on their age and the length of the ABA-induced trauma.

To investigate child development, 19th century behaviorist Ivan Pavlov experimented on dogs. Back in the days before ethics banned such experiments, he assumed that dogs will comply with the training because they are motivated by food. Operant conditioning is a way to manipulate (condition) the environment (operation) to produce an outcome. If the behavior is rewarded with a good consequence, more of that good behavior will keep coming. Likewise, if a behavior is negatively reinforced, the behavior will dissolve.

Standard ABA reward chart

Standard ABA reward chart

ABA (applied behavior analysis) is considered an ‘evidence-based treatment’ for autism, only because the evidence is based on Skinner’s behaviorism on Pavlov’s experiments. When applied to humans, the parent who prefers a favorable outcome will be delighted that their child finally learned to go potty. The problem extends into the ethics of those in position of power who determine the goals. The therapist and parent get to decide on a list of behaviors to enforce, and a list of behaviors to diminish. This can include much-needed self regulatory stimming (Also read: Reframing Autistic Behavior Problems as Self Preservation: A Freudian View). As in child sexual abuse*, the victim will lifelessly comply if they are groomed with compliments and treats. Just like Pavlov speculated, we are more likely to repeat a behavior once we learn that it produces positive consequences.

In this video, you can see a non-speaking autistic piano student who was kicking and screaming straight through his first lesson. By the second week, he was playing and reading independently. By the third week, he was happy to follow my guidance to correct his fingering. One month later, this student is now playing with two hands and waits all week for his lesson time, ready to shine. In the first lesson, he had to be convinced to read and play only after the dreaded reward chart was shown to him. After the first month of lessons, he is happily seated at the piano without any rewards mentioned.

With my autistic piano students, the work starts from the first lesson when the student realizes that playing the piano is the ‘reward’ and not the ‘task’ with which to work on for a reward. Rather than dumbing the material down to rehearsing Twinkle-Twinkle, I start the first lesson with sophisticated music so they can hear the the sound of their own intelligence. This no-fail approach always leads to lightbulb moments where the kids begin to come back to life. For the parent witnessing their child’s strengths, the lessons are a dramatic change from the rest of the week’s structure.

* While I recognize the complexity of the psychology around sexual abuse, I am in no way implying that ABA is comparable to sexual abuse. Rather, I am troubled by the way in which they are similar: both are adult-imposed manipulation on a vulnerable person for producing an pre-planned outcome.

More Articles: A Dog’s Life: Pedagogical Flaws in Repetitive Piano Practice for Autistic Students