Science with a heart: ABA & Empathy

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There is a common misconception that applied behavior analysis is a cold, heartless, and anti-person field that lacks empathy. However, I argue that intent of ABA is to create behavior change that makes life better. Behavior targeted for change is not chosen for the sake of changing a behavior. Rather it is always chosen under the consideration that the life of the person will be improved because of that change. To that end, the teaching program must not only be effective, but must also be positive and respectful to the learner. I believe that any one of us doing that certainly has empathy.

Early in my career I made the mistake of feeding in to such a misconception. I focused so much on the science of behavior and shied away from the art of behavior. It took a parent one day saying that it didn’t look like I was into it for me realize I was missing something. Suddenly, it occurred to me that she was right, it didn’t look like we were having much fun and I needed to work on my approach. I’ve never been the same since, for the better.

The vast spectrum of skills that ABA is used to teach certainly requires empathy to teach. Procedures have been developed to teach social emotional skills including empathy. Certainly in order to teach empathy skills, a teacher must have and be able to model them, right? As service providers we need to remember that although we use the science of behavior, we are working with people, and therefore empathy is a must!


2 thoughts on “Science with a heart: ABA & Empathy

  1. Great post Eric. I agree the integrity behind our science has always been around changing people’s lives for their benefit, not ours. We must remember that in team meetings, discussions with parents, when setting goals with the individual, etc. I always ask myself, “Who does this serve?” and if it’s not the individual, then we don’t address it.

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