I Abused Children For A Living

https://madasbirdsblog.wordpress.com/2017/04/25/i-abused-children-and-so-do-you-a-response-to-an-aba-apologist/

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!

135 thoughts on “I Abused Children For A Living

  1. Thanks for this post. I hope you write some followup and explain how you came to realize what you were doing isn’t good for kids.

    I’m struggling with this decision right now; I thought once we knew what was up with my child, we’d know what to do to help him, but nope. No one can tell us what will help him the most, whether he will be able to be independent, what he can achieve. It’s frustrating and while my mother’s heart says “nothing, ever, that my baby doesn’t like” I also have to deal with the question of what can help him in the long term. And no one can tell me that.

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    1. Thank you. I am actually working on a follow up right now. It is a response to another blogger’s response to my blog.

      I am kind of swamped with comments in need of moderating and emails, etc. I will get to all of them (the good, the bad and the ugly.) I started this blog as a form of self care and had no idea this would reach so many people- I don’t even think it’s been a month since I started it.

      Unfortunately, as much as I’d like to say I left ABA for these reasons, I actually didn’t realize the harm I had done until years later when I got involved with the Autistic community and met so many Autistic people, and read the work of so many autistic people who were harmed by ABA.

      I actually left to start a family & later found out that both my daughter and I are Autistic (which is why I sought out autistic people.)

      While I worked there, I never saw it as abuse, but like so many of the therapist commenting and emailing me shared, it was more of a creepy feeling, like something wasn’t right.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Thank you for this article. It was shared in a fb group I belong to. I was on the border of starting our daughter in ABA and my research coupled with your article has reaffirmed my first gut instinct that it was not going to be right for her. Please keep blogging!

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  4. Love this. I felt ill at the thought of putting my son in traditional ABA therapy…so I didnt! He was in a play based home program and he rocked it.

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  5. I was wondering what your thoughts are on RDI? I have always known there was no way we would do ABA as it doesn’t fit in with our family or parenting values. We were considering doing some RDI therapy.

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    1. I don’t know enough about RDI to speak specifically about it. I had briefly looked into it as well as floortime after learning how problematic ABA is. I didn’t get too far into researching those (though more into floortime) because I soon learned that I was missing the point.

      The point being that autistic kids don’t need therapy for autism. This is based on the ableist assumption that being autistic is a problem which needs fixing.

      Autistic kids may need various therapies, educational supports, etc. but they don’t need therapy “for autism.” And the kinds of therapies they may or may not need will vary.

      It is best to focus on the individual challenges and needs of the person as they will be vastly different than the challenges and needs of another autistic person.

      For example, maybe your child has a problem with communication. So you hire an SLP who knows a helluva lot more about communication challenges than an ABA therapist.The SLP can start working with the child to find an appropriate means of communication that works well for your child instead of focusing on “getting the child to talk.” An SLP would also be able to recognize whether there was a physical or cognitive issue contributing to the speech challenges.

      If your child has sensory challenges you could get them an OT to help come up with strategies. Or even talk to autistic adults who have similar issues for advice.

      The best thing you can do for your child is connect with autistic adults. Listen to Autistics and not just one, but as many as you can. We won’t all have the same challenges and experiences as your child but I guarantee you at least one of us does.

      Learn about Autistic culture and introduce your child to Autistic culture. Expose them to their community. Teach them how to advocate for the accommodations they need. Because at the end of the day, the most disabling thing for Autistics isn’t autism. It’s bigotry and inaccessibility and oppression.

      Liked by 1 person

  6. Fantastic, fantastic post. Thank you for sharing, genuinely.

    I do want to say, though, that I myself was “treated” by speech and language pathologists. I’m certain that it was a better experience than ABA would have been, but I would absolutely NEVER reccommend someone else put their child with an SLP. It might have just been my school and the methodology the SLPs used (“social thinking therapy”), but the experience was still horrible for me. Lots of “discreet trial training” (see: more dog training), manipulation, with a sprinkle of gaslighting. Nothing they “taught” me or told me or my parents was useful. still scarred by that.

    So, unfortunately, I don’t know if SLPs are the best option. I don’t know if my experience there was an outlier, but I still worry about suggesting such things to others.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. I think the problem is that “normalization” techniques (including ABA techniques) are seeping into every field- even general ed teachers are using them. So it’s really important to not only research the therapy itself, but to make sure you are comfortable with and can trust the therapist themselves. Let them know your boundaries and make sure they don’t violate those boundaries.

      I am sorry you had to endure the Social Thinking program. That’s terrible.

      I had it specifically written into my child’s IEP that they were not to use that program. One day my daughter comes home from speech in a bad mood saying she didn’t like the app they were using and I asked her about the app. From the wording she used (“expected” “unexpected”, etc.) I knew it was a Social Thinking based app.So I told the SLP I didn’t want them using it again, sent an email explaining why and that it was actually in the IEP, etc. She worked with me.

      Eventually we dropped speech altogether just because I didn’t think it was necessary in my daughter’s case and she didn’t enjoy going anymore. The IEP team agreed that in my daughter’s case, learning these thing naturally would work better for her.

      She doesn’t have any therapies right now. We just help her with whatever specific needs she has, make sure she has the accomodations she needs, teach her how to get her needs met and advocate for herself, self-knowledge and coping skills, etc. She’s thriving.

      We also homeschool her so that she can spend her energy on learning and playing rather than being in constant fight or flight from being trapped in a sensory hostile environment and we don’t have to worry about her being bullied or abused. She’s a happy kiddo who loves to learn. She plays with other kids when she feels comfortable doing so. We don’t force “socialization” on her and she socializes in her own beautifully Autistic way.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Regarding “expected” and “unexpected”, in the context it’s being used there, a lot of kids would likely learn that “unexpected” is a synonym for bad. In other words, whether or not the ABA people, SLPs, and the like actually intend to load the language, the language they use becomes loaded because the emotional vacuum left by words that are not supposed to be emotional will inevitably be filled by emotional connotations as understood by the kid. In this case, the word “unexpected” is paired with “consequences”, which are experienced by the kid as punishment, which means they are punishment regardless of how the person administering the consequences defines them, which means that “unexpected” behavior becomes, in the kid’s mind, a synonym for “bad” behavior, regardless of how often authority figures gaslight them by saying that “no, no, you’re not bad” even though they are saying that to a kid who gets punished a lot. What else is a kid who gets punished a lot supposed to think, except that they are bad?
        And there is another thing, about the way ABA apologists like the one in the article responding to this one: “Our therapists have never once told my child that they couldn’t say no or protest. My son has been told that it’s okay to be angry, it’s okay to not want to work on chores, but you still have to do it. My son is allowed to be angry, but he’s not allowed to use that anger to hurt others or himself”.
        Here’s the thing:
        I went to a school that was was emotionally abusive towards me, and they could have claimed to be positive only; recently, looking at their website, I’m pretty sure they did essentially claim that (though they didn’t use the term ABA at all, only techniques associated with ABA). One thing I remember is that I ranted once to prevent myself from crying, which my school had previously forbidden me from doing, and I had trouble stopping crying until I tried ranting instead in order to maintain control by stopping tears, which I believed were the worst thing I could do because of what they previously said. The teacher responded to this with a saccharine, very slow “you have….the right….to be ir-ri-ta-ted”, and then followed that up by threatening to call my parents if I did not stop ranting, even though I wasn’t screaming or anything like that. In other words, they said I had the right to be irritated, they said the words, but they did not actually mean it, not really, and they certainly did not mean I had the right to express irritation. I suspect that the supposed “right to protest” posited by ABA apologists is the same thing, empty and saccharine and devoid of meaning. That quote might sound kinda-sorta-reasonable, but it is the implied message that is the takeaway, and the implied message the kid is getting is most likely not what the quote says – besides “not allowed to hurt others” could easily become “not allowed to outwardly express” because outward expression of anger could be classified as disruptive or hurtful. I take such things as what that apologist said with a massive grain of salt.

        Liked by 1 person

      2. It’s kind of fascinating to hear someone who has clearly had experience w/ Social thinking. I’ve never met anyone outside my school has had experience with it so feeling justified in my frustration with it and the gaslighting and all that crap is pretty hard. The “unexpected” and “expected” behavior used to really really irritate me; it’s so clear what they’re really saying.

        Regardless, you’re right. So many autism “therapies” can be harmful regardless of type or therapist. It’s difficult to find folks you can trust and keep abusive behaviors towards kids away.

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    2. If you were treated by an SLP, it’s because you had speech and language issues. How is the language therapy you received not useful? We all need to communicate. And real SLPs don’t use DTT.

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      1. I didn’t have any speech and language problems, and neither was I treated for any. When I was very little, I had some – around early Elementary school – but I was treated for them and got over them faster than they’d ever seen anyone do so, and sense then there have been zero problems. I don’t have problems with speech, I am completely verbal. I don’t have problems with language, either. Now, in college, I am consistently the best writer in my classes. Please don’t make assumptions about my abilities.
        As for “real SLPs”, I have nothing to tell you other than the fact that their job title was Speech & Language Pathologist, that they did speech and language work with most students, and that I received DTT and social thinking therapy from them. I am fairly sure of what happened there, as I was forced to live through that crap for 7 years. They were SLPs.

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  7. Exactly. And that’s why I specified in the IEP that I didn’t want any ABA therapist interacting with my child, any ABA like techniques used by anyone who works with her, and no Social Thinking stuff used with her.

    The other thing that bothers me about the Social Thinking curriculum besides the obviously coded language for “bad” and “good” behavior is that the whole program is based on how other people feel/think about the child and getting them to do things that marriage other kids “think good thoughts” about them. It’s really gross and harmful to teach a kid to basically please their peers no matter what and worry about what others are thinking of them.

    That is not what I want for my kid and I wish it weren’t what so many people want for their kids.

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  8. Ok so how the heck do you curb problem behavior? I’ve heard so much what not to do but no what to do! This is frustrating when I’m trying really hard to just get my autistic daughter to not lie and steal so she doesn’t end up in jail. No one has answers.. Just “don’t do this..that..”

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    1. I haven’t dealt with this problem with my child, or any of the kids I’ve worked with, so I can’t offer and advice as far as “I did xyz and it worked.”

      What I can say is that this is not an issue limited to autistic children, and if my autistic child was lying and stealing, I would handle it the same way I would if she were an allistic child.

      First I would find out why she was doing it (this is where a strong relationship built on trust comes in handy, but you may need to use your detective skills as well, particularly if you have not yet found a reliable means of communication for your child.)

      Once you have figured out the “why,” you can determine how to handle it.

      For example with the lying, is it she’s embarrassed of the truth? Afraid she’ll be punished, shamed, or otherwise get in trouble?

      Keep in mind that this can be a fear even if you never punish your child. I try to make it very clear to my child that she can tell me the truth about anything and she won’t get in trouble. I also work very hard to stay calm and non-judgemental, and as brief as possible (I struggle with the brief part haha) when I need to talk to her about behavior, so that I don’t come off as that scary or naggy and unapproachable adult most of us grew up with.

      For the stealing, is it impulsivity? Is it always a specific type of thing she steals, or from a particular person or place? Once you find out why, you can address it and give her a different way to meet whatever need she is trying to address by stealing.

      As for teaching right from wrong, one thing that works in our house is learning from favorite books and shows that deal with whatever the issue is or even from the behavior of others in real life. This needn’t be a lecture, nor do I strive to extract a moral lesson out of everything she reads, watches, does, etc. But I’ve found that most of the “lessons” that have really stuck have come from casual conversations about how characters were treating other characters.

      I highly recommend the Parenting Autistic Children With Love and Acceptance facebook community for parenting advice. You can send a private message to them with a question or issue you’re having and they will either post it anonymously to be answered by the community or sometimes the admins will offer advice. It is a community where you can get advice from actually autistic people, many who are also parents of autistic children. I have found them to be very helpful in my own parenting journey.

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    2. I get what you’re saying! I thought the same thing many years ago until my research landed on something that now makes scientific and logical sense to me. I’m not sure if it’s for everyone, but it’s a guide that does help me know what TO DO. How old is your daughter? I might have some ideas that could help. I’m now a parent mentor and would be happy to talk with you. No fees. Just parent-to-parent friendship and help. Reply if interested and we’ll figure out a way to get in touch.

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  9. As a Young Adult with P.D.A which is on the Autistic Spectrum I find the idea of training people like me to be “normal” though basically glorified dog training is appalling it does no good the the autistic person and is for the benefit of the people around them only is it a wonder that Autistic people who under go ABA in childhood in later life are quite likely to develop PTSD which is the same illness that soldiers in war who have seen such terrible conflict develop you a couseing trauma to the autistic child. We do not need to be made “BETTER” we need to be understood

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  10. The following demonstrates the ABA mentality behind most Autism research and why the phrase “Nothing for us without us” was coined.
    http://www.news-medical.net/news/20170503/Speech-or-language-impairments-may-not-be-linked-to-tantrums-in-children-with-autism.aspx

    Summarizing, the researchers were flummoxed when thier study showed the speech and language “impairments” were only the cause of 3 percent of autistic childrens “tantrums”. Yes tantrums is how they they repeatedly described meltdowns. They theorized that the cause of the “tantrums” are mood disorders and low frustration tolerance and surprise surprise ABA is the cure.

    The really disturbing part is these are not researchers from quack college or Age of Autism college but prestigious Penn State University.

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  11. I can’t reply to “Megan”, but here’s my response to her, with her response to me first:
    “I didn’t have any speech and language problems, and neither was I treated for any. When I was very little, I had some – around early Elementary school – but I was treated for them and got over them faster than they’d ever seen anyone do so, and sense then there have been zero problems. I don’t have problems with speech, I am completely verbal. I don’t have problems with language, either. Now, in college, I am consistently the best writer in my classes. Please don’t make assumptions about my abilities.
    As for “real SLPs”, I have nothing to tell you other than the fact that their job title was Speech & Language Pathologist, that they did speech and language work with most students, and that I received DTT and social thinking therapy from them. I am fairly sure of what happened there, as I was forced to live through that crap for 7 years. They were SLPs. ”

    Like I said before if were seeing an SLP, you had speech/language issues. If you supposedly got over them “quicker than anyone they’ve ever seen” it’s because they were doing their job, not necessarily because you didn’t have any issues. Them tackling your issues early is the reason why you have zero issues now. Speech and language encompasses much more than being “verbal”. The reason you were referred to one may have been for reasons more than just “not talking”. SLPs don’t just teach you how to talk, they teach you proper tongue placement (articulation), social language, they’re also trained to do swallowing and feeding therapy, and to teach use of augmentive communication devices. I’m not trying to come across as making assumptions about your abilities, I’m just trying to explain to you why else you may have saw a speech therapist. I saw a speech therapist too when I was in early elementary school due to surgery from a cleft. I have zero issues with speech and language now, and that’s because I saw an SLP as early as possible.

    If your SLP supposedly did all those things, I doubt they were a real SLP.

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    1. Again, I don’t know what to tell you. I had help with speech problems in about the 2nd grade. When I had SLPs, not a single one taught me anything of what you’ve described besides maybe “social language”. I didn’t have problems swallowing and feeding, I don’t and have never used AAC, and my tongue placement and articulation was fine. The experience I had with SLPs was that they worked with my IEP, performed Social Thinking Therapy on me, would watch me in my classroom, etc.

      I don’t really know what you mean by being a “real” or “not real” SLP. If you’re implying they were legally liscenced, that seems fairly odd. There were quite a number of SLPs at my high school and I know for a fact I wasn’t the only one receiving this treatment by them. It seems unlikely that all of them lied about their accreditation, and the school was additionally aware of what they were doing to me, so…

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