young child lining up playdough in the colors of the rainbow from red to violet.

Invisible Abuse: ABA and the things only autistic people can see11 min read

If you want to upset a self-described Autism Mom, all you have to do is tell her that ABA is abu­sive.

This argu­ment breaks out on social media so many times every single day.

Autism is an unusual con­di­tion because the com­mu­nity is so sharply divided.

On one side you have the neu­rotyp­ical par­ents and fam­i­lies of autistic chil­dren, and on the other you have the online com­mu­nity of adult autistic people, many of whom are par­ents to autistic chil­dren.

The two sides dis­agree on vir­tu­ally every­thing, but arguably the most con­tentious sub­ject is Applied Behaviour Analysis Therapy.

ABA Therapists and many fam­i­lies of autistic people hail it as the most effec­tive, most sci­en­tif­i­cally proven way to help autistic chil­dren develop life skills such as speech, potty training, and going to the gro­cery store without going into full melt­down mode.

Autistic adults– many of whom have been through ABA as chil­dren– say that it is abuse.

You can imagine how that state­ment sounds to loving par­ents whose chil­dren adore their ABA ther­a­pist and who would never know­ingly abuse their beloved child.

You can imagine how it feels to be told that the gold-standard treat­ment which is bleeding your finances dry so that you can help your child is actu­ally abuse.

The dif­fi­culty is that when people hear the word “abuse,” they think of pain and vio­lence.

ABA has a big his­tory of those things, too. Its founder, O. Ivar Lovaas, used elec­tric shocks to stop chil­dren from engaging in their obses­sive, repet­i­tive behav­iours. He sys­tem­at­i­cally trained them with equal com­bi­na­tions of love and pain to behave more like non-autistic chil­dren.

He thought he was saving them, turning a raw bundle of nerve end­ings into some­thing resem­bling a human being.

One way to look at the job of helping autistic kids is you have to con­struct a person. You have the raw mate­rials but you have to build the person.

-Lovaas

Whenever ABA comes up, so does Lovaas.  Autists point out that he used these same tech­niques to pio­neer gay con­ver­sion therapy, which, like ABA, has also been proven to be deeply harmful to the human psyche. They also point out that while fewer ABA ther­a­pists use things like elec­tric shock, it is still used and con­sid­ered impor­tant by sev­eral insti­tu­tions.

“But ABA has changed,” people argue. “My ABA ther­a­pist never uses pun­ish­ment. It’s all pos­i­tive and reward-based.”

That is very true for many people. Most ABA ther­a­pists don’t set out to hurt chil­dren. And yet, despite making ABA therapy fun and pos­i­tive, the under­lying goals of ABA have not changed.

And it is these goals that, like gay con­ver­sion therapy, do long-term damage to the human psyche.

The reason par­ents and ABA ther­a­pists can’t see it as abu­sive is because they can’t see it from an autistic point of view.

Let’s take a moment to look at some ABA in progress.

 

 

 

So? Did you see any child abuse?

Probably not.

How about here?

Or here?

Sure, the child was unhappy in the first video but the teacher was patient and she recov­ered, right?

And in the second video, they’re trying to teach chil­dren not to be dis­rup­tive, but they aren’t pun­ishing the child or any­thing.

In all of these videos the chil­dren are never yelled at, scolded, shamed, or injured. They are praised and rewarded when they get things right, and often the kids seem to be enjoying the games.

No elec­tric shocks, no aver­sive, nothing to make the expe­ri­ence trau­matic, right?

Wrong.

Allistic people can’t see it, because they don’t under­stand how it feels to be autistic.

Let’s go back to that first video.

While they do not address it in the voice-over, if you watched it again you would notice how often the ther­a­pists take the chil­dren’s hands and fold them into the chil­dren’s lap.

You would also notice how often the child’s feel­ings are ignored.

In the first video, sev­eral of the chil­dren begin rub­bing their eyes and looking tired, but they do not address this.

In the video with the girl in the super­market, an autistic person can spot that she was get­ting over­stim­u­lated, exhausted, and was increas­ingly des­perate to escape this envi­ron­ment.

In the video with the crying child, an autistic person won­ders why she is so unhappy. Is she exhausted? Overtired? Overwhelmed? And when she stops fussing and goes back to doing the work, we can see the res­ig­na­tion on her face.

She isn’t hap­pier. She’s just accepted that her feel­ings don’t matter and the fastest way to escape the sit­u­a­tion is by com­plying.

In the last, you can see that ABA ther­a­pists delib­er­ately ignore attempts to com­mu­ni­cate or pro­duce behav­iours that have not been demanded by the ther­a­pist.

The child wants his moth­er’s atten­tion. Would I ignore my child while trying to listen to what his doctor was telling me? Probably. But I would “shhh” or pat his arm to let him know that he was heard, and I would be with him in a minute.

Notice that ABA doesn’t tell you to go back to the child after and find out what they needed or wanted.

And that is the problem with ABA.

Not the rewards, not the silly imi­ta­tion games. The problem with ABA is that it addresses the child’s behav­iours, not the child’s needs.

Think of those happy little chil­dren in that first video.

Now under­stand that ses­sions like this are not a couple of hours a week. ABA ther­a­pists rec­om­mend that small chil­dren between 2 and 5 go through 40 hours a week of this type of learning.

40 hours a week.

No WONDER those kids are rub­bing their eyes.

My allistic eight year old doesn’t do 40 hours a week of school. He goes to school from nine to three and gets a half hour recess and a half hour lunch. That’s 5 hours a day five days a week. 25 hours of active learning. And much of his class time is actu­ally quiet reading, playing with learning mate­rials, gym, or talking in a circle with his peers. So make it less than 20 hours a week of being actively taught.

Imagine asking double that for a preschooler.

Now con­sider that ABA is designed to ignore any protests the child might make.

ABA is not designed to con­sider the child’s feel­ings or emo­tional needs. 

I’m not making a jump when I say that. You can go to any ABA web­site and read what they say and you’ll see that there will be no dis­cus­sion of the child’s emo­tional wel­fare or hap­pi­ness, only behav­iours.

To ABA, behav­iour is the only thing that mat­ters. ABA con­siders autistic chil­dren as unbal­anced kids who need to be bal­anced out, and if you bal­ance their behav­iour, they are fixed.

“…what you need to do is reduce those excesses like the self stim­u­la­tory behavior, repet­i­tive behav­iors, and increase the skills. And then what will happen is after the child really learns a set of foun­da­tional skills; then they will start relating more to other people.”
— Deborah Fein PhD

 

As you can see from the above video, “self-stimulation”, one of the “excesses” of autism behav­iours, is con­sid­ered a kind of boredom fidget– some­thing use­less that replaces real learning and inter­ac­tion.

When they are erased and replaced with “life skills,” then this is cel­e­brated as a suc­cess.

Any autistic person will tell you is that this is NOT what stim­ming is.

Stimming isn’t just like doo­dling when you’re bored, or throwing a bas­ket­ball.

Stimming is a com­forting self-soothing behav­iour which helps us reduce stress, feel more com­fort­able in uncom­fort­able envi­ron­ments, and reg­u­late our emo­tions.

Many of us feel that our stims are a form of com­mu­ni­ca­tion — just as a smile or a frown com­mu­ni­cates some­thing about our internal states, so do our stims, if you would just pay atten­tion.  Moreso, in fact, since many autistic people smile when they are anx­ious or frown when they are per­fectly con­tent. Studies show that non-autistic people are ter­rible at inter­preting our facial expres­sions. 

If my hus­band sees me stim­ming more than usual in the middle of the day, he frowns and asks if my day is going okay.  But many times he mis­takes my emo­tions based on my facial expres­sions. My stims are better at trans­lating my emo­tions than my face is, unless I’m actively ani­mating my face in an allistic way for the ben­efit of my allistic audi­ence.

Which is exhausting, by the way.

40 hours a week is too much for me so I can’t imagine how a small child man­ages it.

Grabbing my hands when I stim the way ABA rec­om­mends would NOT help my day go better.

It would be an excel­lent way to piss me off and make me feel frus­trated and anx­ious, though.

It’s one thing to stop a child from hurting them­selves by banging their head. It’s another to stop a harm­less stim like hand flap­ping. You’re causing the child emo­tional dis­com­fort just because the behav­iour strikes you as weird.

Go back and watch some of those videos again, noting how often the autistic chil­dren are inter­rupted from hand-waving, making noise, crying, or oth­er­wise trying to express and relieve their emo­tions.

Notice how often they get the child to make eye con­tact. Many autistic people find eye con­tact extremely uncom­fort­able.  The way the chil­dren’s bodies are touched and manip­u­lated so fre­quently, in cor­rec­tive redi­rec­tion, is upset­ting the chil­dren.  Their faces reflect con­fu­sion and some­times dis­tress.

But learning to tol­erate dis­com­fort is what ABA is all about. 

Watch that child enter the gro­cery store. See how she looks all around? The noise and the lights are stressful and dis­tracting. She wants to please her family and get the cookie pieces so she goes along with the act of putting food in the cart, but after a while she is worn out and can’t stand it any­more.

The mother com­ments that if they relented at this point and took the child out of the store, her daughter would be rewarded for behaving this way.

That is prob­ably true. If you are in pain, and you scream “Ouch!” and someone comes run­ning and relieves your pain, you’ll prob­ably yell “Ouch” again the next time some­thing hurts you.

Is that… bad?

The par­ents say the ABA really helped their daughter.

Did it really help the child, though? Or the par­ents?

The gro­cery store isn’t any less noisy or bright or over­whelming. And the child obvi­ously still finds it dif­fi­cult to go in. Instead, she has learned to keep her feel­ings to her­self, to try and focus on pleasing her family, and bottle up her stress inside until she can’t take it any more.

That’s a healthy thing to teach a child, right?

With time she may become excel­lent at this. She may be able to go to the store, put items in the cart, and go home without a melt­down.

But the melt­down WILL come.

It will come over some­thing minor, some silly thing that seems like nothing and pushes her over the edge where she was already tee­tering. And they will wonder where it came from.  They’ll talk about how unpre­dictable her melt­downs can be.

It isn’t unpre­dictable to us.

We can see it coming. We can see that her autism hasn’t been treated to improve her life so much as to improve her fam­i­ly’s life. And while that is impor­tant too, wouldn’t it be better to find a solu­tion that works for everyone?

Did they try ear defenders, and dark glasses?

Did they try encour­aging her to stim if stressed?

Did they teach her a polite way to let them know when she has had enough and needs to leave the sit­u­a­tion?

I don’t know. I don’t know them. I don’t know their child.

But I do know what autism feels like.

I know that ear defenders are not part of stan­dard ABA pro­to­cols.  Instead of teaching them to under­stand their sen­sory needs and self-advocate for having their needs met, they are taught to ignore them.

I know that ABA demands the child’s atten­tion but refuses to give atten­tion back when the child demands it.

I know that ABA aims to be pos­i­tive and rewarding for the child, but doesn’t allow the child to tap out when­ever they need to.

I know that ABA con­siders vital emo­tional reg­u­la­tion tools to be prob­lems that must be extin­guished.

I know that neu­rotyp­ical pre-schoolers are not usu­ally expected to learn for 40 hours a week.

I know that neu­rotyp­ical chil­dren are encour­aged to express their emo­tions, not smother them.

I know that ABA believes in removing a child’s lan­guage tool like the iPad when they are naughty.  I notice that the ABA ther­a­pist working with the 8‑year-old boy only handed him his com­mu­ni­ca­tion tool in between “dis­crete trials.”

I know from activists like Cal Montgomery that even adult autistic people have their com­mu­ni­ca­tion tools rou­tinely taken away from them if they don’t “comply” to the demands of their ther­a­pists and care­givers.

I know that if I ask someone if they think it is abu­sive to remove a child’s only way of con­tacting their par­ents, or to ignore a child in dis­tress, or to force a child into a sit­u­a­tion that they find uncomfortable/painful, or refuse to help a child when they are suf­fering and over­whelmed, they will say yes.

As long as I don’t men­tion that the child is autistic, anyway.

Autistic kids are dif­ferent, appar­ently.

Whenever autistic people protest ABA, we are told that we don’t under­stand, that we don’t know how hard autistic chil­dren are to live with. They talk about improving the child’s inde­pen­dence and argue that it isn’t cruel to teach a child to write or play with toys.

They don’t see how weird it is to try to sys­tem­at­i­cally shape a child’s behav­iour to teach them to play with a toy the “right” way.

They don’t see that 40 hours a week of brain­washing a child to put up with stress and dis­com­fort without expressing their feel­ings might be a bad idea in the long run.

They don’t see how wrong it is to teach a child that their way of feeling com­fort­able and soothed is wrong and that ignoring your feel­ings and phys­ical needs is good and gets you approval from your teachers and par­ents.

They don’t see that it is abu­sive to ignore a child’s attempts to com­mu­ni­cate because they aren’t “com­plying” with a demand that makes them uncom­fort­able.

They don’t see how dan­gerous it is to teach a child to do what­ever they are ordered to do, no ques­tions asked, and to never object or say “no.”

They don’t think about the fact that 70% of people with ASD have expe­ri­enced sexual abuse by the time they are col­lege age.

They don’t think about how this person will learn to stand up for them­selves or advo­cate for their needs when they were sys­tem­at­i­cally trained in preschool never to dis­agree, speak up, or dis­obey.

Do what I say. 

Put your hands in your lap.

Don’t cry. Don’t com­plain.

Listen to me.

I won’t listen to you.

This is not abuse.

…But, you know, the kid gets bub­bles and tickles so it’s obvi­ously safe and totally okay.

What do we know?

Our feel­ings don’t matter anyway.

 

 

219 Comments

  1. Great job guys…
    You read an article about how autistic people truly feel about a therapy that’s aimed to “help” them…
    They tell you that it com­pletely ignores their emo­tional health, it’s abu­sive and they just want to be heard.

    AND YOU WANT TO ARGUE WITH THEM?!

    NO! IT’S GREAT! BECAUSE I’M CERTIFIED IN IT! YOU’RE NOT BEING ABUSED!!!

    AGAIN, rein­forcing the “Stop doing that, do this, and don’t com­plain about it.”

    I’m neu­rotyp­ical by the way. It’s just that obvious judging from the responses in this post alone.

    Do some self reflec­tion. This is fucking heart breaking.

    Ps: tiffany, you are not the authority in the way someone with autism expe­ri­ences the world because you have a degree. Cut it out. Its obnox­ious.

    1. I would like to clone an army of you <3

      Thank you. A mil­lion times, thank you for being an ally.

    2. Lol never said I was. I said that this is not an accu­rate depic­tion of what ABA is. Did not men­tion any­thing about anyone’s feel­ings or expe­ri­ences with the world 🙂

      1. And yet, this reply, in itself is one of the most telling and accu­rate com­men­taries one could make on how an autistic expe­ri­ences the world…

      2. Any and every NT person (parent, teacher, and oth­er­wise) who believes ABA is accept­able is simply not lis­tening. From one NT mom and teacher to another, sit down, zip it, and listen — to our autistic spouses, chil­dren, stu­dents, and adults we haven’t even met in person. Our job is to learn not to make *them* more like *us.*

        1. HOW do we KNOW how we/our child would have turned out if we had/not had ABA?
          Then I have a lot of prob­lems we what is cur­rently called autism as a diag­nosis of any problem.
          Autism is a descrip­tion of cer­tain behav­iour pat­terns, not a diag­nosis of what is the cause of those prob­lems.
          I have seen far too many ‘men­tally retarded’ kids diag­nosed as ‘Autistic’. These kids/people need help to sur­vive in our society, maybe ABA really does help many of these people.

  2. I am the parent of a (now grown-up) autistic woman and I would NEVER put her through this dan­gerous, degrading crap. I’m NT and all you NT’s thinking “but it’s for the best to make them fit in” Just NO! You are destroying them, that is not the act of a loving parent. Don’t inflict ABA on your chil­dren!

  3. I think the end goal of every parent, espe­cially for the par­ents of non-verbal indi­vid­uals, should be at least attempting to get their child to learn basic self care. Toileting/Hygiene, picking up after them­selves and making easy, basic food, that way, even after the parent passes on, one can be at least some­what able to take care of them­selves.

    Reducing stim­ming? Fuck that noise.

    Reducing non-verbal vocal­iza­tions? Fuck that noise.

    All the autistic behav­iors that harm none (even the autistic indi­vidual) should just be accepted by NT’s. How does hand flap­ping harm YOU? it doesn’t! My stim is jig­gling my leg. I don’t flap, I jiggle my leg. How does someone making non-verbal sounds harm YOU? It doesn’t, unless you have a migraine, then take your meds and go lie down in a dark room. BUT, helping one get a basic grasp of self care, goes a very long way in basic human dig­nity for the Autistic person. I know I wouldn’t want to be in dia­pers my entire life, or be bathed by someone else for my life. I would want to be able to do that myself, and I have that, so does my Autistic daughter.

    I have a feeling teaching the big three can be done without using the abu­sive tac­tics of ABA.

    1. It’s not about teaching. It’s about val­i­dating inad­e­quate and resentful NTs.

  4. I feel bad for not noticing all this in the first videos. I’m autistic myself (although I have Asperger’s, which is kind of dif­ferent I guess) and all I thought was that they’re doing every­thing so quickly and expect the child to keep up.
    These videos were over­whelming to watch because I really felt like the kids couldn’t breathe. Also, it’s like they’re dogs. A handle to hold the child? Just… Wow.

    1. I noticed her putting the hands down right away. It made me crazy. Then the jumping from one thing to the next!!! Why? It takes longer to process and think things out some­times. Go slow. Flap stem. Think about it. We let our guy do what he wants in the stores. We get weird looks all the time. Honestly he’s a great kid, why would I want him to suffer.

    2. I wouldn’t treat a dog like that!! It is abu­sive for dogs as well as humans.
      Treat the cause, NOT the symp­toms.


  5. This article was really inter­esting and infor­ma­tive, thank you! I’m NT and the only things I really picked up on in the videos was how loud the ther­a­pists were and how much touching and grab­bing they did, which seemed like it’d be dis­tressing to the kids. It kind of drives me crazy that this therapy is osten­sibly meant to help autistic chil­dren, but when adults who’ve gone through it show up with a huge list of rea­sons why it’s harmful and what are better alter­na­tives, they’re turned away as not get­ting how stressful it is to raise an autistic kid, com­pletely missing the point of how stressful and dam­aging the therapy is to the chil­dren them­selves.

  6. Thank you for this article. I always had the sneaking sus­pi­cion that this type of therapy and other methods sim­ilar to it were abu­sive, but it’s so so nice to have some proof. I’m not autistic, but I have SPD, which is basi­cally expe­ri­encing senses in a dif­ferent way than most people, plus being extremely sen­si­tive to sen­sory over­loads. To all the par­ents of autistic or neu­ro­di­ver­gent kids reading this article, please dont do this yo your kids. I’m paying a heavy price down the line for com­plying with this as a kid. It leads to all sorts of social issues with other kids, and huge self esteem issues. This type of “therapy” tells you as a very small child that you are not good enough as you are, that you have to change to fit every­ones stan­dards. Then you spend your whole life believing them I’d you’re not careful.

    1. How do we stop it?

  7. It’s abuse. If you saw it being done to a POW or polit­ical dis­si­dent, you would imme­di­ately rec­og­nize it for what it is.
    Unless of course, you were the oppressor; then you would just call it Behavior Modification.
    But it would still be abuse.

    1. Shame truly. This entire article is just an opinion, nothing fac­tual other than others agreeing, which is easy for people to agree and dis­agree. Have studies been done to make this claim about ABA being sooo extremely abu­sive? Probably not, as it’s pretty ridicu­lous to claim a ser­vice as a whole, as abu­sive.

      Are some com­pa­nies teaching in a manner that could follow your article sure, have some expressed abuse through ABA sure, I’m not saying it hasn’t happen. But do not gen­er­alize the entire ABA industry on your expe­ri­ence.
      Have you gone out your way to visit dif­ferent cen­ters and see their teaching, asking to sit in, talking to the doc­tors who run these clinics about it to sup­port your claims? Probably not. It’s not fair to gen­er­alize the entire ABA com­mu­nity , when I per­son­ally know very affec­tionate, loving and caring ther­a­pist on my end.

      Studies have been done though about the suc­cess rate of ABA. I work with they most amazing doctor I know, who has never once ignored the NEEDS of our kiddos.

      In fact their needs are just as impor­tant!! And yes, I’m a ABA ther­a­pists, and I LOVE each kid I work with, with ALL MY HEART.
      We don’t put demands on them when they are sick or tired. And kids who aren’t diag­nosed and out in gen­eral Ed classes, still go to school when they are sick, so isn’t that abuse? By your logic.

      Are teachers abu­sive because they are telling stu­dents to line up and follow the rules when cer­tainly those kids don’t want to stay in line or follow the rules?

      1. Yes. But DO you under­stand them???

      2. As I under­stand it, ABA is ‘for­malised’. This is what you do “IF … “.
        All autistic kids are dif­ferent. There are many rea­sons for a “problem behav­iour” and a one-size-fits-all response is unlikely to help them.
        Maybe it is the ‘diag­nosis’ that is failing these kids?
        Would it not be better to help these kids
        I got that as a kid. Nobody cared at all that I found some­things totally unpleasant./distasteful. Just do it! Then I was in trouble for all my stress ill­nesses. “It’s all in your head. Imaginitis 🙁 Just pull up your socks, You are so cranky.”
        Would it not be better to help these kids cope with a world they find confusing/weird/ unpleasant rather than trying to make them simply out­wardly comply?
        As for ‘gen­er­al­ising the ABA com­mu­nity’ I think it is the ABA com­mu­nity that has gen­er­alised them selves.
        I am Asperger’s enough to know that I HATE HATE HATE inflex­ible rules of con­duct.
        I have per­son­ally had asso­ci­a­tion with the ABA dog trainers. “Do this this way! No you are wrong, do it THIS way. Deliver the food this way! Your treats are too large, too small, wrong food” and worse,
        I’ve had over 20 dogs in my life time and I know each of them needed training/socialisation in their own way.
        By the way, release from stress is NOT a sen­sible ‘reward’ to use. It is NEGATIVE rein­force­ment. It is very stressful for the recip­ient.

  8. This is very inter­esting to me. I don’t have autism but I’m not neu­rotyp­ical either, having ADHD, and an array of the bits and pieces that go along with basic neu­rode­vel­op­mental dif­fer­ences.

    I have a 3 yo who doesn’t have autism and I would never allow him to endure that inten­sity of inter­ac­tion and con­trol purely because it would be utterly over­whelming. Destructive in extreme because there’d be no room for him. Suffocating. Traumatizing. Erasing. Learned help­less­ness = depres­sion. So 40 hours… hell on earth. I see how that’s so so abu­sive.

    To train key func­tional tasks that my child was not intrin­si­cally moti­vated to learn, or couldn’t learn through mod­eling and encour­age­ment, I’d use the behav­ioural tech­niques for sure. But not on that type of schedule. It’s inter­esting isn’t it that the rec­om­mended weekly amount coin­cides with 1 x FTE job… basic eco­nomics. Keeping people employed.

    Like others, I don’t think the problem is the tech­niques — it’s not the sci­ence. It’s how it’s applied and the implicit dehu­man­izing value set it can bring. Something that this post makes explicit really well. Behavior without values/choice is autopilot, obe­di­ence, sub­ju­ga­tion.

    We need to make room for the indi­vidual to thrive and guide their devel­op­ment in all their unique­ness, within their own emer­gent value set, within any func­tional training pro­gram.

    1. Author

      Very well put!

  9. Neurodivergent kids are all­ready under more stress with oper­ating in a world designed by the majority, for the majority. Whilst I can under­stand why a parent of an Autistic kid might be des­perate to have their child appear to be more con­forming to soci­eties norms, there might be a few key missing points when they think this way:
    1) An autistic child is much more unique than the majority of people
    2) An autistic childs unique­ness is cen­tral to who they are and it always will be
    3) An Autistic childs unique­ness is also the core of their unique poten­tial and tal­ents
    4) Whilst this may be uncom­fort­able and chal­lenging for some, it is a good thing
    5) Your child is already under more stress bridging their mind to the world which rarely accom­mo­dates for their unique­ness.
    6) Supressing or forcing an autist to mask the way they are will invari­ably have a neg­a­tive impact on the child and all the poten­tial they have.
    7) Any treat­ment has to invari­ably be as unique as the child is. There is no copy and paste solu­tion, because of the childs unique­ness.

    So why on earth would you exert extreme stress on the child to force them go mask what comes nat­u­rally?

    So what are the answers for tools for living an inde­pen­dant life for some Autists (toilet training, dressing, hygiene)? The answers will be as unique as each Autist is unique. To unravel this, you need to under­stand what is behind every­thing. Do your home­work, be patient, get to the root of things, Learn, think, but most of all, don’ t try and change your child just so they fit in with soci­etal norms. Throwing money at strangers to try and fix some­thing is bound to fail.

    The best people to help the child are the people who know them best. The par­ents. Step up. Don’t abdi­cate.

    My Advice? Get used to our home motto. In our house, we don’t do normal.

    I am writing this as an undi­ag­nosed adult autist, with a diag­nosed Autistic Son. Was potty training hard? You bet it was. Dressing and self care. ohh yes, you bet. Is our son suc­cessful.
    Absolutely. Kind, polite, con­sid­erate, deep thinking. Tick. Extraverted?
    Tick. Stims a lot in class (yep, run­ning back and forth across the classrom). Tick. Do teachers care? (nope, they know more is going into his head than the kids sit­ting down ) Mainstream schooled? yep. 5As in this years report, tick.

    And would we have ever con­sid­ered a treat­ment to mould him into some­thing he simply is not? No way. We chose to learn what works for the way he is, not the other way around. If we did the oppo­site we would be seri­ously emoti­inally broken, low self esteem, flunking at school, get­ting into trouble.

    Why do I think that? Because he would be working over­time being two people, not one. Bugger that for a life

    Each to their own, I am not looking to argue any points. Just pro­viding a per­spec­tive based on our expe­ri­ence and I com­pletely recog­nise, each parent and each childs sit­u­a­tion and chal­lenges are com­pletely unique and that our expe­ri­ence may not work as well for others.

  10. Im sorry that you feel that us neu­rotyp­ical mums are all on the one side.… my son was diag­nosed when he was nearly 10. We had both suf­fered incred­ibly and would suffer more. ABA always seemed dis­gusting to me because it ignored his whole body expe­ri­ence. I was left with nearly NO infor­ma­tion but found Aspergers Experts and then even­tu­ally Dr Holly Bridges. Im absolutely cer­tain there are quiet, deter­mined, “not on social media” par­ents who ran from ABA and sought a love response to the gift that is their autistic child. Don’t forget about us. We have always been “other cen­tered” love people. Seeking more for our child.

    1. If you’re against ABA, you’re not the kind of NT parent any of this is talking about.

      1. I’m an NT mom who despises ABA and wants to diminish it ASAP. How do I shut it the fuck down and replace it with some­thing that’s funded by the gov­ern­ment like the DIR floor­time. Thoughts?


  11. I am a NT mother of a 24 year-old autistic son who just grad­u­ated from uni­ver­sity. I did not use ABA, nor would I! I am totally against ABA! So, how about you learn about us NT mothers of autistic kids before you go around saying that we all defend ABA!! We do not! Autism is not an ill­ness! It is not some­thing that needs to be “cured”! Society needs to learn to adapt to our awe­some kids, not the other way around!!

    1. Problem with this is, it’s a bit like the “not all men” argu­ment in fem­i­nism. Not all NT par­ents are the same, for sure. Some are amazing allies. Like you (and I com­pletely agree with your last couple of sen­tences, being autistic myself). But as long as the majority stamp on the minority, the minor­i­ty’s allowed to com­plain in very gen­eral terms.

  12. Hi everyone. My son is 4yo and was diag­nosed just after his second birthday. With help from our local regional center, we were able to start center based early inter­ven­tion almost imme­di­ately, and ABA therapy a few months later. He started with 20 hours of ABA and is now at 14 12. I fight with the sched­uling coor­di­nator because they want him at 15, but that means a 4 hour Saturday ses­sion. It’s too much. Well, I feel embar­rassed that I’m fighting over 30 min­utes when I’m reading about how ter­rible ABA is for autistic chil­dren. And I’m feeling over­whelmed and broken hearted. Acceptance, self love and equality are extremely impor­tant to me and have been love before I became a parent. So the thought of doing some­thing so harmful to my beau­tiful boy is too much to bare. And now I feel so con­fused. He is such a happy child, always singing and dancing, giving hugs and kisses, laughing and playing with us. ABA taught me to com­mu­ni­cate with him when he was non-verbal. It’s taught me how to make tran­si­tions easier for him, it’s given me patience to handle and under­stand melt­downs. I have worked with women and men with family mem­bers and sib­lings who are autistic. They’ve given me so much guid­ance. They loved Logan and were so encour­aging. I never felt like they’ve pushed him too far or over­worked him. But they have said they would place less demands on him if he seemed sick, sleepy, or gen­er­ally fussy. ( I’m assuming this would be the soda scenario…he woke up ready to blow). I lit­er­ally have only become aware of the harm of ABA within the last couple of months. So, I feel lost. I feel scared. And I feel like I’m let­ting my son down after what I’ve read. So, if not ABA, then what?

    1. So how exactly has ABA been abu­sive to your son? I think I missed some­thing in your write-up.

    2. The type of therapy your son is get­ting may not be actual ABA but may just be clas­si­fied as ABA for insur­ance rea­sons. Either way though, it’s good that you’re ques­tioning it. Are there any forms of Augmented Alternative Communication (AAC) that you’ve found helpful for com­mu­ni­cating with your son? PECS is a really good one. With picture-based sys­tems you may have to use actual photos of things around your house though, because some kids have trouble con­necting the pic­ture with the abstract idea that “this pic­ture of a bed rep­re­sents every bed, including mine.” So taking a pic­ture of the actual objects can help.

      DIR/Floortime is a great alter­na­tive therapy to ABA, but you have to be careful that who­ever admin­is­ters it doesn’t com­bine it with ABA prin­ci­ples. Same with OT.

      Thank you so much for wanting to help your son. I can’t imagine how con­fusing all of this is for you. That you want to learn how to help, listen to and respect your son is already proof that you are a good mother.

    3. Don’t give up mama, it could just be a matter of changing to a dif­ferent super­visor or even vendor. I was lucky to have found early inter­ven­tion through our regional center and the ABA com­pany was great. They always con­sid­ered how tired my child was or if he needed a break. I always expressed my con­cerns and talked about my child’s feel­ings. My boy is doing so much better. He can comu­ni­cate better and I feel like ABA is needed, at least until you can estab­lish a comu­ni­ca­tion system (for those who remain non­verbal). The world out there is harsh, we need to pre­pare the for it.

    4. Don’t fall for this my friend. Im an ABA ther­a­pist of 13 years and I have clients who thank me to this day for the work we did together. Don’t give up and ABA is not abuse. Fyi I’ve never ignored the “needs” of my clients. You need to do more research and speak with your providers.

      1. Just because some par­ents thank you doesn’t mean all par­ents feel like thanking you — or that all par­ents nec­es­sarily under­stand their prob­lems their child is going though. it does not mean the child feels any better. Nor does it nec­es­sarily mean that you are a good ther­a­pist.
        I did ‘therapy’ as a pre-schooler because my Mother thought I was ‘men­tally retarded’. SHE said I wasn’t yet talking — I thought on the other hand she was just being rude to me by pre­tending she didn’t under­stand what I was saying. I was lucky, I think, my ther­a­pist taught me poetry which I loved 🙂
        I thought other people both adults and chil­dren were very rude — I did not want to be touched, talked to or in any other way have any­thing to do with strangers — espe­cially those wearing per­fumes and cos­metics ad going into a hose where Ammonia was use as a cleaning agent was hor­rific to me. I always hos the hor­rors because my M‑I-L always wanted to ‘do’ the social kiss. Yuck. Why????

    5. I believe that ABA can change a life for the better if done right.  I think the key is really to find the best place to do this helpful therapy. ABA Treatment Miami has great ther­a­pists with a lot of expe­ri­ence working with chil­dren who find it dif­fi­cult to cope in what we con­sider everyday expe­ri­ences. I really love how sen­si­tive they are to meet your family’s needs and how they make the envi­ron­ment for your child to feel so nat­ural and happy.

  13. I can’t believe what I have watched. I have worked and lived with autism for years now. These are thinking, feeling, sen­si­tive chil­dren .…not dogs to teach tricks to with rewards!! So called rewards… how many hyper sen­sory chil­dren can bare to be tickled. If you are trying to encourage a child to make deci­sions and choices but can’t, so grab their hands and manip­u­late the action (like forcing a thumbs up) quite frankly you have failed to get through or teach any­thing lasting. Done well, 1:1 pos­i­tive game play stim­u­la­tion can create a safe space to encourage better under­standing of the world around an autistic child. There shouldn’t be short­cuts and there should be a core under­standing of indi­vidual needs. Patience and the devel­op­ment of trust with a ther­a­pist brings life­long self belief. Reward based bul­lying breaks down iden­tity and we need to build up these kids!!!
    Sorry I have gone on but am frus­trated at well meaning but dam­aging prac­tices!!!!

    1. Those “ther­a­pists” putting their hands all over those kids and pushing down their hands, tick­ling them, poking at them like it was “fun”… the whole thing was repul­sive to me. A lot of us with ASD are very touch-averse, and being touched like this is the LAST thing we want. Yet had I been diag­nosed as a child, I’d have been forced to let people touch me for 20, 30, 40 hours a week? Forced to do ridicu­lous mim­ic­king games for seem­ingly no reason? I don’t even under­stand the point behind most of these “games”. I can’t imagine what the chil­dren having to sit through all this non­sense must think of it.

  14. I’m not get­ting in the debate; I have no clue. However, as a highly obser­vant aspie who has done far too much research, I am always bewil­dered at how many par­ents of kids on the spec­trum con­sider them­selves neu­rotyp­ical. , 🤔 Some of you are, but then your partner must not be. At least one parent is on the spec­trum. That’s how soyou cre­ated an autistic child. 🤷‍♀️ There is no need for all the guessing as to what we feel like or how we see things. Because at least ONE of you gets it.

  15. Thank you so much for this article. My 5 yo was diag­nosed with autism a few months ago. Our OT rec­om­mended we check out the open house for the new ABA therapy group in town. The facility was lovely but when they told me they wanted 40 hours per week, or at least 20, I balked. That’s insane! I’m not giving up that time with my kid! I’ve since had some other moms rec­om­mend it and wanted to hear from adults with autism what they thought of it. This was eye opening! Those videos made me sick. There is nothing wrong with my daughter, she’s amazing. Sure, I would love for her to be better under­stood by peers and to more easily func­tion in the class­room but in nei­ther of these sit­u­a­tions is she the one who needs to change. I would love some sug­ges­tions on ther­a­pies that are helpful and not abu­sive, from people who have actu­ally been through them. I am so thankful for you and this com­mu­nity and the work you are doing to help autists be better under­stood and accepted.

    I don’t think most NT par­ents would put their chil­dren in ABA if they under­stood this. At least I cer­tainly hope they wouldn’t. So thank you for putting this out there. Your per­spec­tive is so valu­able.

    1. can’t speak for all autistic people, but my mum inad­ver­tently did a lot of good training with me when I was young, basi­cally because she wanted to share art and film with me. I was raised on a lot of films, from var­ious eras and genres (As in, I didn’t realize “colour” was stan­dard until I was about 8–9.) and, while I may be a little more dra­matic or quotation-oriented than NT folk, It actu­ally really helped me develop a base for inter­ac­tion, because it’s scripts. scripts intended to feel nat­ural. scripts I can analyse, rewatch, learn, develop to, and inte­grate.

      In terms of school, my mum went the home­schooling route after 5th grade, which helped, but other things before that were things like a teacher rec­og­nizing how much move­ment dis­tracted me, so making a spe­cial “room” for me to take tests in (A card­board box around a desk with draw­ings, tbh) A bit much, but the basic premise is sound in that she saw what was causing my lack of focus and worked around it.

  16. Thank you, this has finally put the rea­sons why ABA is seen as abuse in a way that I can under­stand it.

    I’m a late diag­nosis, this year in fact, along with my 2yo son. So I under­stand not only how it feels to be autistic and have those feel­ings ignored, and how it feels to des­per­ately want to be “normal” but not under­standing why I’m not, and also how it feels to want to do every­thing I can to give my child every­thing he needs for a good life. It’s been hard for me to exactly under­stand what “it’s abuse” means when that’s all people gen­er­ally say. I’ve had trouble my whole life under­standing short blanket state­ments, it’s like, “yes I believe you, but I don’t have an under­standing of what exactly you’re telling me.” My son is in ABA, and does love his ther­a­pist and armed with all of the things that I under­stood to be abu­sive I chose our ABA provider. They agreed that stim­ming is impor­tant, he doesn’t need to sit and remain sit­ting for an activity, he can take breaks when­ever he needs, and they’re working closely with our OT whoes #1 con­cern is sen­sory needs. That being said I will be paying very close atten­tion during his ABA ses­sions next week to see if I can spot any of these con­cerns. It prob­ably hap­pened even more than the providers realize.



  17. I’m sur­prised if people don’t see abuse in the first few videos. It’s pretty obvious I think. For starters, they’re con­stantly invading the child’s space… isn’t this what Autistic chil­dren are often in trouble for? Invading space?

    They are loud and over­whelming… another thing chil­dren get in trouble for.

    They’re con­stantly touching them… again

    They’re very repet­i­tive… hmmm

    They keep feeding them junk.

    I wouldn’t cope with this for 5 min­utes let alone 20–40 hours per week.

    There’s no con­sid­er­a­tion for those chil­dren at all, these ther­a­pists are con­de­scending, in your face, dom­i­nating, over­stim­u­lating, repet­i­tive, loud, way too hands on. They would never treat their allistic chil­dren this way and allistic chil­dren would never stand for it either.

    The later videos such as the shop­ping trip… why is this even nec­es­sary? What are they training her to be, a child slave?

  18. Thank you C.L Lynch for a well rea­soned and con­cise sum­mary about the effects of ABA.

  19. The author of this article is Canadian. There’s no social­ized health­care in the USA so the “40 hours of ABA a week” entirely depends of what the pri­vate health insur­ance autho­rizes and not about the clin­i­cian rec­om­men­da­tions. What it means is that if the insur­ance plan is crappy , the clin­i­cian will ask for 40 hours to at least obtain 10 hours, if they ask for 10 then they would get 5. It’s rare that a pri­vate health insur­ance autho­rizes 40 hours and usu­ally it’s because both par­ents work full time and day­cares for neu­rotyp­ical chil­dren won’t accept autistic chil­dren not potty trained and with behav­iors so their only choice is to send their autistic chil­dren to an ABA clinic all day . For that many hours the ther­a­pists are actu­ally LAZY and will only make sure the kid is safe. This author knows nearly nothing about how ABA works

    1. Upon reading this, I actu­ally felt my IQ drop.

    2. OK so maybe there is no “socialised health care” in the USA (I pre­sume you mean public health care which funds treat­ments like ABA), but that’s an anomaly in the Western world. Most coun­tries have public health care, and 40hours/week ABA is still rec­om­mended, so…


  20. I agree with some of what you say and dis­agree with other points. As a mom it is my job to teach both my NT and ASD chil­dren how to behave, the proper way to play, work, com­mu­ni­cate etc. in this world live in. So I set the same goals for both my kids. Each needed help with this and needed to to taught in their own way. But we did care (as did our ther­a­pists) about what they were feeling and what was over stim­u­lating them. For both our kids we gave them more appro­priate ways of coping with stress and a code word when they have had enough. My NT kid could pick up things by watching peers and copying them. My ASD son needed to be shown step by step mul­tiple times. We and his ther­a­pists knew and under­stood that his brain just processes dif­fer­ently and we needed to work with that and the real world and using ABA we were able to teach him all he needed. We set the goals the same for both just took dif­ferent paths to get there. Today my NT kid is a speech ther­a­pist and my ASD son is studying to be an OT. I read this article to him and his response? “It didn’t bother me. It helped me. I took com­fort in the sched­ules, rou­tines, and it gave me time to learn new things doing it over and over until I got it right. I can still stim but now I don’t look so dif­ferent doing it. Maybe they didn’t have as good of a ther­a­pist that I had.” I hope par­ents and ther­a­pists can find a com­pro­mise.

  21. Invading their per­sonal space and yanking things out of their hands over and over would never be tol­er­ated by NTs. I know the third vid was impor­tant for infor­ma­tive pur­poses but it’s apparent that the client is aware of being filmed and objects. Has the client since agreed to the use of this video?

  22. I’ll be honest, I’m a bit at a loss as to what we *should* do. There are so many arti­cles about what par­ents of kids on the spec­trum shouldn’t do…but then how do we address some of these behav­iors? I don’t mean stim­ming, my son can stim all day long if he pleases. But what do I do when he’s so anx­ious over every­thing that it’s impos­sible to leave to house with him? We’ve had to start home­school because his melt­downs were that bad. Nevermind the con­stant stress from people telling us we aren’t social­izing him but forcing him to socialize seems prob­lem­atic according to this. What do we do when he won’t let me brush his teeth (they must be brushed, I’m sorry). What do we do when he will only eat 5 foods and his health is paying the price? What do I do when he wants to eat the insides of his diaper? What do I do when he has no aware­ness of safety? What do I do when he’s hurting and can’t tell me how or where? It’s never been about making him “normal” but about making him safer. School wasn’t a right fit, we’re on a wait­list for ABA and I’m hearing ter­rible things, speech would prob­ably be deemed bad according to this author because my son hates it although learning to use his AAC is helping. I’m just. I’m at a loss. As much as I wished I lived in a world where my non­verbal son could just stay at home and eat 3 foods, it’s not pos­sible. I won’t live for­ever. His health won’t tol­erate some of his behav­iors for­ever? Do I allow him to do damage to him­self or do I inflict the damage with ABA?

    …not a NT mom, but not on the spec­trum either.

      1. I can’t believe you’re actu­ally posting a link to this utter shite. The author of this article is disin­gen­uous at best. I’m pretty sure there’s actu­ally an article here ana­lyzing that pre­cise post.

  23. How many of you on the spec­trum com­plaining about ABA would be non-verbal, incon­ti­nent and not able to com­plain about ABA if you hadn’t gone through an ABA pro­gram? Not all ABA ther­a­pies are abu­sive — like any­thing else it depends upon who is doing it and how they are doing it. Would you rather be indig­nant and injured by ABA and be com­plaining about it or in a diaper and unable to talk right now? Life isn’t per­fect and people do the best they can in dif­fi­cult sit­u­a­tions. If YOU had a child diag­nosed with autism and was non-verbal and low-functioning would you just let them sit there undis­turbed or try to help them? The worst form of abuse is neglect and ware­housing. Autism spec­trum dis­or­ders cause lots of prob­lems and people with even mild symp­toms of autism have a tough time of it but it isn’t all the fault of par­ents trying to help their chil­dren. My son, who went through ABA is now going to grad­uate school and is a pro­fes­sional musi­cian — life isn’t per­fect for him but he wouldn’t be living inde­pen­dently if it wasn’t for ther­a­pies we did that included a form of ABA when he was small.

    1. And by the way, I am on the spec­trum myself.

    2. Dear Sue,

      You are making a sharp dis­tinc­tion in which you seem to think that anyone who says ABA is abu­sive is saying to never do any­thing with your child and simply allow them to decay. Which no one has EVER said. There are mul­tiple alter­na­tives to ABA that are not abu­sive dog training. Presuming com­pe­tence also mat­ters. I was non­verbal until I was nine and I was never put through therapy that was so dis­mis­sive to my feel­ings and per­cep­tions — but here I am, with a law degree.

      In short, fuck your ableism in the face. How’s that Stockholm Syndrome treating you, Schrodinger’s autist?

      Bite me,
      an autist with the wild idea that we’re people


  24. I don’t know — but the ABA inter­ven­tions shown here would have totally freaked me out as a child.
    I never could stand Adults treating me rudely like this. Keep your hands to your­self and TELL me what you want.
    I’ve never con­sid­ered that I needed ‘changing’.
    But I have as an adult and on anti­de­pres­sants learned to cope with rude and intru­sive behav­iour from others. Still don’t like it.

  25. OK. Stop knocking “NT” people. There is a very very wide range of “Normal”. Though maybe we should say “Within the Normal Range”. And the normal range is not a flat graph but a 3 dimen­sional ‘mound’.
    At what per­centile in any direc­tion do you decide that some­thing is NOT normal?
    Surely one ‘treats” what is a problem, for the indi­vidual (and being totally reliant on others to care for you IS a problem for adults).

    1. Or “Do not do unto others what is hateful to them.” Do NOT touch us! Do not make us do things that we find unpleasant or highly stressful. If what we are doing bothers you then you can leave the room — or let us leave the room and do NOT call us back and tell us how hor­rible we are.


  26. Please don’t lump all ‘autism moms’ together. We all come in dif­ferent fla­vors just like our kids. Ever heard the saying ‘you met one autism mom then you’ve met one autism mom’? No, because it doesn’t exist but it’s still true. I would never send my kid to ABA.


  27. What am I thinking? I’m no longer sure, I feel so apart from myself, it’s become painful to be just myself, the parts that are truly me have been sup­pressed, and ripped away with the words “this is the way you do it not this way”, “this is the right way, that way is wrong”. I’m a woman in my mid 50’s, trying des­per­ately to learn how to take con­trol of my life! When we are not taught to make choices because it may take to long or because it may be polit­i­cally incor­rect for our phys­ical demon­stra­tions of self expres­sion, the what is it w.d. become? With each year that I became older I also became more com­pliant, a robotic trans­for­ma­tion of everyone else. After every­thing we learned it wasn’t that I couldn’t com­mu­ni­cate, it was you who couldn’t com­mu­ni­cate at my level, I felt too much, and couldn’t cope with all of it at once! This pres­sure way of teaching was not my choice and by brain­washing me with the way yo believe I should be taught you took away my ability to pro­tect myself, you taught me to comply, you did not teach what shouldn’t be done to me, you didn’t teach me to keep myself safe, all you did was teach me to be a pet because I was never right! My future became that of someone who learned to pre­tend every­thing and I am good at it, but who am I now, you also left me open to others to molest me, phys­i­cally abuse me, psy­cho­log­i­cally abuse me, and when that doesn’t cover what you gave me, you taught me to be an out­cast!
    I am not all people that are autistic, but I believe I am not so alone in feeling this, and I am slowly learning to reach my own emo­tions and not that of others, my gift of autism to me is my over­whelming emo­tional intel­li­gence, to ques­tion every­thing and everyone no matter how many times people want to assume the worst!
    It took longer for most “normal” people to develop their emo­tions, but to use psy­cho­log­ical abuse to sup­press ours is an assump­tion that’s been made for too long!

    1. I am so sorry for you — having been told as I child what was WRONG with me, and how I could change IF I wanted to.
      However one thing I have found out is that we must learn to like our­selves.
      It came about when I was teaching, and some kids were being hor­rible to another — when I spoke to them they said to me “But, Miss, she loves her­self!”
      My response was imme­diate and from the heart. I said “I should hope so. If you cannot love your­self, how do you expect others to love you?”
      It took even me aback a bit. But since then I’ve also learned that ‘be kind’ to your­self is impor­tant.
      You are NOT hor­rible because you are cranky — you are tired and stressed.
      You are NOT hor­rible if you don’t enjoy noise and jol­lity.
      There is NO REASON to make your­self do things you’d rather not do (going to the dentist/doctor, renewing your dri­vers licence, etc, excepted 🙂
      You don’t even need to make excuses. “No, Thankyou,” is suf­fi­cient

  28. I am a little con­fused by the com­ment made, Maybe you can clarify what you think I meant! Thank you very kindly!


  29. F*** ABA therapy!!! These aba people are crazy! In addi­tion to the hor­ri­fying explicit abuse of ABA, let’s also center in on the dis­gusting prin­ciple of con­di­tional atten­tion. Doesn’t that sound like an abuser?? Someone who pre­tends to love you when you do what they want. F****** *** they are inno­cent chil­dren!!! Bringing candy is so wrong too. And awful for devel­op­ment not to men­tion!!! And the autism diag­nosis has CHANGED! LOVAAS ABA WAS PROVEN EVIDENCE BASED FOR THE 1990 DEFINITION OF AUTISM, NOT THE NEW COMPLETELY DIFFERENT GROUP OF THE AUTISM SPECTRUM!!!!!

  30. Thank you. While I wasn’t treated with ABA (didn’t get diag­nosed till I was 37) I was actu­ally abused into normal and the phys­ical was so much easier to deal with then the mental and emo­tional. And that was the SAME. Exactly. My needs ignored, my trying to com­mu­ni­cate, my melt­downs were all treated as things to be trained out of. And it hurts, still. 40 years on. Thank you.


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