I abused children for a living. It didn’t look like abuse. It didn’t feel like abuse (at least not to me) but it was definitely abuse. I see that now. Back then, I actually thought I was helping those kids. In fact, it was and still is considered ‘therapy.’ And not just any therapy- the most sought-after autism therapy, often the ONLY therapy insurance will cover. To this day it’s lauded as the only “evidence-based treatment” for autism.
You see, I was an ABA therapist. My official title was ‘Behavior Technician’ which in itself is really telling. I was hired off the street with no background in child development, no knowledge of autism or ABA, and no experience working with children, let alone autistic children. I. Literally. Did. Not. Know. What. Autism. Is. And I wouldn’t find out what autism is in the years that I worked there either.
To be honest, I wouldn’t need any of that knowledge or experience for this position, because to ABA, autism is a ‘behavioral disorder.’ To ABA, an autistic person is nothing more than the unruly embodiment of behaviors to be reinforced, shaped, or extinguished, a list of ‘excesses’ and ‘deficits’ to be tallied and managed. A defiant child to be made compliant. Basically, I was a glorified dog trainer.
And if your only goal is to offer treats for compliance and withhold them for non-compliance then it makes sense that you wouldn’t bother to learn even the most basic knowledge about autistic neurology. Oh, we had continuing education meetings once a month, but we didn’t learn anything about autism.
We learned things like ‘planned ignoring’- how to ignore a distressed child until they comply with your demands, how to ‘properly’ restrain a 2-6 year old child, how to not show empathy when a child has a meltdown- that would only reinforce the behavior and we can’t have that, how to ‘desensitize’ a child to painful or uncomfortable sensory experiences (hint; they aren’t actually desensitized, just forced to endure it until they successfully and consistently don’t react), how to change the environment- not to make it more accessible, but to make it more conducive to compliance (ex; feed the child salty chips so that she’ll drink more water so that she’ll use the potty chair at the designated time.)
Sensory overload? Executive function or sensory-motor difficulties? Exhausted from 40 hours of child labor? Different style of communication work better for you? Upset about being treated like a circus animal? Not my problem, kiddo. I’m here to lure you with candy and manipulate you into doing my bidding, no questions asked. Which will make you excellent prey for sexual predators, abusive teachers, caregivers, and partners later in life. Oh and let’s not forget the bullies, but we’ll just call them “friends,” because every classmate or child the same age as you is automatically a friend, right? Need to stim? Don’t worry, do enough tricks for me and you can earn the privilege to move YOUR body the way YOU want to…just 4 more tokens to go! Until then, quiet hands!
During the 3+ years that I worked there, different things would come up. “Why does he have to have quiet hands? He’s not hurting anyone.” “Why can’t we just find out what’s bothering him & help him find a solution?” “Why do we need to track that he knows 1000 words when he obviously knows way more than that?” Every time I would question their methods or their reasoning, my questions would be answered with some variation of, “This is the only evidence-based treatment for autism. It’s the only way they can learn.”
And against my intuition, I believed them. Because they’re the professionals, right? What do I know? They’re the ones with college degrees. All I’ve got is a GED and a minimum wage job which I’m lucky to have. And while I don’t personally believe in rewards and punishments, it is the way most parents raise their kids, this is just an extreme version of that. Besides, it’s scientific. It’s been proven to help autistic kids. That’s how I tried to make sense of it.
Since I didn’t have a clue what autism really is, I didn’t know that it’s not something that requires “treatment.” I certainly didn’t know anything about ABA’s barbaric history & the fact that it’s sadistic founder, O. Ivar Lovaas tortured kids with electric shocks and beatings in a morbid yet futile attempt at both Autistic Conversion Therapy and Gay Conversion Therapy. Yet this creep is hailed as a hero by the industry. The “evidence” that they love to cite is based on torture. Would you comply with demands if tortured enough? Probably. Does that make it effective? Well I guess that depends on what your goals are. If your goal is to gain compliance (which is the goal of ABA) then yeah I guess it’s effective at that goal, but that’s a pretty shitty goal to have, and at what cost?
I wouldn’t find out just what the cost was until years later when I discovered the Autistic community. Now if you listen to the Autistic community (and hopefully you do) then you already know that it is a real challenge to find any adult who was subjected to this ‘therapy’ as a child who does not now have PTSD or C-PTSD.
I know what you’re thinking…”It’s not like that anymore.” “My ABA is different.” “Timmy loves his ABA therapist.” Or maybe you’ve heard that if it doesn’t seem abusive, it’s probably something else and the company is calling it ABA so that it will be covered by insurance (aka: insurance fraud.) So first off, I think it’s important to note that ABA that uses aversives (electric shock, etc.) IS STILL A THING. It is not a thing of the past. And yes, there is definitely some insurance fraud going on too. But what I’m writing about is the so-called “good ABA” aka: “not my ABA” because it may not look like abuse, but it still is.
How, you ask? Well let’s start with the ultimate objective of ABA:
The ultimate objective of ABA is to make the child “indistinguishable from peers.” This in itself is abuse because you are teaching the child that the only way that they will be tolerated is if they pretend to be like everyone else. They must sacrifice 40 hours a week instead of playing because there is something “wrong” with them which they have to spend all day everyday trying to fix. This not only gives the child internalized ableism, but also forces the child to move, communicate, play, and socialize in ways that are unnatural, uncomfortable, and often painful in the hopes that they will possibly not be treated poorly by their so-called peers. It is an act that often results in autistic burn-out later in life.
If “indistinguishability” is the end, what is the means to that end?
Compliance. This is possibly the most abusive part of ABA (and again, I’m talking about the ‘playful,’ ‘fun,’ ‘positive reinforcements only’ kind of ABA that Timmy just loves! Timmy might be laughing. He might really love those gummy bears, or Thomas the Train. He might even genuinely love his therapist & have fun playing during the 15 minute breaks he gets each hour. But guess what? It’s still abuse.
Timmy is being taught that his body is not his own. Timmy is learning that he has to ‘earn’ access to his own belongings. Then when the therapist leaves, his favorite things are stored away until the next session. I don’t doubt that Timmy is having fun in the moment. The kids I worked with often seemed to be having fun. But the thing is, a lot of this abuse takes place on a subconscious level. The child might not even realize he’s being abused because he’s distracted by candy, or balloons. But there is a power imbalance. And little Timmy’s brain is picking up on all of this and filing it away.
Some of the things getting filed…
-People with more power than me can force me to do whatever they want
-Nobody, not even my parents will come to my defense
-Other people are in charge of my body
-I’m not allowed to say no, or protest
-It’s OK for people to physically move me if I’m not doing what they want me to do
-If I am having a hard time, adults will ignore me instead of helping me; they don’t care
-My parents must hate me too because they won’t even give me a break (a big deal is made in ABA about ‘consistency’ and making the parents and everyone the child is around use ABA on them in the off hours too)
-I am the sum of my behaviors, I have no inherent value
Like I said, the child might not even realize that they’re learning these things but the messages are there, getting absorbed all the time.
Anyway, in my quest to show how bad the “good” ABA actually is, I went to my old company’s website to see if they were still doing things the same way and to get some info that I could use to back up my point. While I was there, I was disgusted at what I found and I have decided to do a series breaking down pretty much everything on their website. So this post turned out much longer than I expected it to be and I’m going to follow it up with an even longer series on ABA because it seems I have a lot more to say on the topic. So stay tuned!