Becoming an ABA Registered Behavior Technician Before Knowing I Was Autistic: Part 1 — Restraint Training9 min read

Editor’s note: This article ref­er­ences sexual assault, ABA therapy, self-harm, and restraint training for use on chil­dren with dis­abil­i­ties.  Reader dis­cre­tion advised.

A Career Shift

I was living life as a non-autistic pro­fes­sional– or so I thought– when I found myself training to be an ABA tech­ni­cian.  

To ful­fill the required super­vised hours for my clin­ical psy­chology license, I accepted a posi­tion working with adults with per­va­sive mental ill­ness and other per­son­ality dis­or­ders. My spe­cialty at the time was trauma.

But my new employer was dealing with an influx of refer­rals for some­thing called Applied Behavioral Analysis (ABA) and asked me to first to help reduce that backlog before focusing on my spe­cialty.

So, I was pushed into ABA, the most aggressively-advertised therapy for autism.  I was told it was the only hope for autistic kids to live a normal life– the “gold stan­dard” of care.

ABA is an abbre­vi­a­tion for applied behavior analysis. To become a reg­is­tered behavior tech­ni­cian (RBT), I had to take an online course that took approx­i­mately 30 hours.  That was it.

For the employer, I had to attend a few train­ings on the ground: HIPAA, patient rights, and some infor­ma­tion on ben­e­fits pack­ages and human resources. There was only one training on the whole schedule lasting more than two hours, and it was the only training spe­cific to my posi­tion as an RBT. 

This training was called “Therapeutic Options.”

Therapeutic Options

Therapeutic Options.  It looked innocuous enough sit­ting there on the last day of the ori­en­ta­tion schedule. I had no idea what it entailed, but I was not emo­tion­ally pre­pared for the reality of this training. 

It was essen­tially an 8‑hour course in defen­sive mar­tial arts.

I. Was. Terrified.

I don’t like to be touched or to touch others unless it is someone with whom I’m extremely com­fort­able.  Touch aver­sion makes doctor appoint­ments, hair cuts, and crowded spaces very dif­fi­cult. But, this was a training in how to deal with aggres­sive clients– “eth­ical” defense maneu­vers and restraints.

What that trans­lated to was hours and hours of allowing a large man or one of the other trainees to grab me from behind, for me to grab them from behind, for people to run at me, lunge at me, swing at me, and for me to do those things to others.

My fear was that I would be so upset by all of this touching and grab­bing that I would not be able to con­tain myself, and that I would run away, or scream, or worse… that I would lose con­trol and break away or elbow or throw my head back­wards much like someone might do when they’re being tickled to the point of tor­ture.

At the time I believed this to be a man­i­fes­ta­tion of com­plex PTSD, a diag­nosis I had hard-earned. 

My log­ical mind knew that being touched like that was not an actual attack; how­ever, the more I had to tol­erate what was dis­tressing me, the more my anx­iety built to a point I doubt most people have ever come close to expe­ri­encing. 

What Non-Autistics Need to Understand

I’m a word person.  I have all the words, but there will never be enough words to describe how intense my anx­iety is when intol­er­able sen­sory input con­tinues beyond my threshold.

Sensory input that involves other people comes with extra layers of account­ability.  Messing up and tip­ping my hand would’ve meant losing my ten­uous grip on having a pro­fes­sional life. I’ve been through years of dialec­tical behav­ioral therapy and decades of being a trau­ma­tized autistic person. 

My ability to suffer in silence is monastic. 

I have taught myself to shoulder such pro­found suf­fering and appear cen­tered that– not once, but twice– I’ve shown up to work with sepsis and mul­tiple organ failure, yellow as a lemon.  I was wearing heels, my hair was fixed, my clothes were starched and ironed, I was on time, and I smiled at everyone there as I walked in.  I made small talk and eye con­tact. 

I am a #meToo sur­vivor.  I was bru­tal­ized to the point of needing sur­gical repair; how­ever, sexual assault did not leave me with the intense trauma imprint that this Therapeutic Options training did. 

At least during the rape, I did not have to main­tain pro­fes­sion­alism and force eye con­tact.  At least I did not feel the full weight of my future col­lapsing with the poten­tial loss of my my dream job before it even got started.  At least it didn’t last 8 hours.  At least I had the option to fight back.  At least after it was over, I did not have to think I was the only one in the world who had those feel­ings.

Every hard and soft part of anoth­er’s body pressing into mine, the tem­per­a­ture shifts on every microm­eter of my skin, the indi­vidual hairs on my arms bending and responding to the static charge and the myriad tex­tures of every­one’s clothes, the soaps and foods and per­fumes and hair prod­ucts, the smells of sinus infec­tions, bad teeth, and dehy­dra­tion, the height and weight dif­fer­ences, the tex­tures of scratchy sweaters and soft cotton, mas­cu­line arm hair and beards, the crunch of styled hair, the give of anoth­er’s soft stomach under my hard elbow as I imi­tated assaulting them– they were a hun­dred mil­lion indi­vidual events my brain could not weave together.

But, that is the burden of being autistic and not knowing it. I lit­er­ally feared a heart attack or seizure. It was as intense and unbear­able as elec­tro­cu­tion.

And I had to appear fine

I can feel, in full dimen­sion, every con­tour of the ter­rain of some­one’s anatomy against mine like indi­vidual pixels on a photo. To take in that much infor­ma­tion, to manage all the social nuances and see every microex­pres­sion, every pore on some­one’s skin, every light spot on every tooth and every hair in every nose– to make sense of it all imme­di­ately and then behave “nor­mally” is like nav­i­gating a space shuttle through a labyrinth with the thrusters at full blast.

I was the one acci­dental method actor in the room.

But, that was the sen­sory man­age­ment.  The psy­cho­log­ical hell was worse.  The social hell of being autistic has plagued me my whole life, and I’ve thought I was insane and broken. 

I don’t any­more.  It was not me with the per­cep­tive prob­lems. 

I went through this training with the rapidly-building panic about the social and pro­fes­sional con­se­quences of let­ting the world know how abnor­mally I was reacting to what others were casu­ally making out to be like a joke. 

The trainees gig­gled as they lunged at each other, imi­tating aggres­sive sounds and “get­ting in char­acter.”  Some flirted.  There were innu­endos and self-effacing jokes about get­ting so inti­mately entan­gled with each other. 

I could not find any humor in imag­ining restraining someone over­come with emo­tion or in deflecting a phys­ical attack from a child with a devel­op­mental dis­ability. 

They weren’t imag­ining the chil­dren, though. They weren’t let­ting the weight of the big pic­ture press them into the earth and crush them.  They were having fun like this was a chore­og­raphy class for a flash mob.

They were in the moment, having a laugh with their trusted col­leagues (even though they’d just met), and I didn’t feel that bond with them enough to have their bodies braided into mine. In their minds, they were dif­ferent from those chil­dren. 

I wasn’t feeling that many degrees of sep­a­ra­tion.  I didn’t have a choice.

I was– as in just about every vignette and venue of my life– on the wrong side of the sit­u­a­tion. I was the person whom these people would be restraining if that training had lasted any longer or if I allowed one more large man to come up behind me and grab me.

How to Survive as an Autistic in Sensory Overload

I broke a tooth– a molar– in the middle of that training from grinding my teeth so hard. Somehow the pain of it, the taste of blood in my mouth, and the dis­trac­tion calmed me down. 

Self-injurious behavior was one reason to use restraints.

If I had been a child there, I would have been restrained.  No one would have con­sid­ered their role in get­ting me to that point.  No one would have thought about how abnormal and toxic and decid­edly not-funny it is to have a class prac­ticing what they told us at the begin­ning had killed chil­dren before.  Killed.  Ended the lives of chil­dren. Broken spines and bones. Crushed wind­pipes.

I had a pain much less pen­e­trating on which I could focus.

To be a cer­ti­fied instructor in “Therapeutic Options,” one needs four days of training. That’s it.  Four days to learn how to teach people maneu­vers that kill and trau­ma­tize autistic kids.  To restrain autistic chil­dren, you need 8 hours of training in a group of silly adults who are not going to remember a single maneuver after the course. 

It typ­i­cally takes someone years to earn a black­belt in defen­sive mar­tial arts.  There is great care to rein­force at every step how and when using force is accept­able, and it is as a last resort.  No one in mar­tial arts training would advo­cate that it’s accept­able to defend against someone who is being held hostage. 

But this wasn’t dis­cussed.  Not once did anyone men­tion that maybe chil­dren shouldn’t be sub­jected to com­pli­ance training.  It was a joke, and people like me were the punch­line. 

I didn’t stay in the job long.  It was clear I wasn’t a fit.  I would have never gelled with the posi­tion, wouldn’t have ever been com­pliant enough to accept the strate­gies.  I was let go shortly there­after when the BCBA was fired, and I have never worked since. 

That day ruined me.  It broke my soul.

The Take-Away:

When reading some­thing written by an autistic person, non-autistic people often are left won­dering what is the point.  We tend to state the facts and hope that your per­sonal life expe­ri­ences will pro­vide you con­text to draw your own con­clu­sions. 

For example, if you’re a parent of an autistic child, a teacher, an ABA prac­ti­tioner, or an employer, I would hope that you could under­stand how an autistic per­son’s sub­jec­tive expe­ri­ence of a sit­u­a­tion can be so dra­mat­i­cally dif­ferent from your own.  

If you’re an ABA prac­ti­tioner, you would not have picked me out from the crowd that day as expe­ri­encing problem behav­iors.  You wouldn’t have seen my self-harm.  I would have been indis­tin­guish­able from my peers. 

You would’ve con­sid­ered my behavior training a suc­cess.  I was com­pliant, I smiled, I made eye con­tact.  And four years later, I still am having panic attacks just trying to write the story down.

You would have had no idea the power dynamics at play and how omi­nous and imposing the advan­tage you wielded over me was as you touched my body in ways that were deemed socially-appropriate according to the status quo.  You wouldn’t have known how impor­tant it was for me to be able to escape.

You wouldn’t have known that you were doing some­thing to me that would take center stage in my trauma flash­backs– even over a rape.

I fooled you into thinking I was one of you, but that wasn’t a sus­tain­able vic­tory, and nobody won.

I would like you think about how much a vic­tory it really is when a woman walks into work with her hair curled and her make-up per­fect while in kidney and liver failure– but still making that nor­ma­tive eye con­tact and still flashing a smile.  I’ve done that twice.

The world taught me that magic trick, with or without ABA.  My observ­able behav­iors aren’t a reflec­tion of my expe­ri­ence.  

My super­power is per­sisting.  This is why heart dis­ease from stress and sui­cide are top causes of death for autis­tics and why we have an average life span of 36.5 years of age.  

I want you to apply the con­text of your expe­ri­ences against the glimpse you’ve had into mine. 

Further Reading:

Earlier this month, sev­eral national civil rights orga­ni­za­tions, including COPAA, the Autistic Self Advocacy Network, and CommunicationFIRST, joined four stu­dents in a fed­eral law­suit against Fairfax County Public Schools for abuses relating to the restraint and seclu­sion of chil­dren with dis­abil­i­ties. In this press release, it’s noted that one stu­dent was restrained 745 times. 

From CommunicationFIRST’s web­site:

CommunicationFIRST is the only non­profit orga­ni­za­tion ded­i­cated to pro­tecting and advancing the civil rights of the more than 5 mil­lion people of all ages in the United States who, due to dis­ability or other con­di­tion, are unable to rely on speech alone to com­mu­ni­cate.

To read more about restraint and seclu­sion, follow International Coalition Against Restraint and Seclusion (ICARS) on Facebook and Twitter


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  1. This “therapy” seems insti­tu­tional mal­prac­tice

  2. Yikes. That whole expe­ri­ence sounds awful. I’m sorry you went through that. Wow, if ABA tech­ni­cians need to go through that sort of training you would think the whole prac­tice of ABA would be ques­tioned.

  3. Many thanks for shining a light onto these prac­tices. How such prac­tices can be con­sid­ered “training” and how the appli­ca­tions of such tech­niques can be sold as “therapy” just tells us what kind of society we live in.

    Everyone knows that tor­ture “works”, that humans are capable of inflicting immense amounts of psy­cho­log­ical and phys­ical pain on others, to the point of breaking people. That an entire industry is able to pro­mote and apply tor­ture as a “sci­en­tif­i­cally proven” or even as “the only sci­en­tif­i­cally val­i­dated” form of “therapy” to “help” autistic chil­dren is beyond dis­gusting. There is no word that fully describes how this makes me feel. When I think about the fact that humans are capable of such tor­ture, I feel ashamed to be human.

  4. OW!!! I attended ONE Yoga ses­sion. It required us to walk around the room in a cir­cles mas­saging the person in front’s shoulder/neck mus­cles and in turn have someone unseen behind us mas­saging ours. It utterly freaked me out, I went home with a ter­rible migraine and have avoided ALL alter­na­tive any­things ever since.

    1. I will admit to being ‘Asperger’s. Both of my par­ents would have been so diag­nosed, I have two seri­ously affected Asperger’s nephews, one a bril­liant physi­cist and the other a druggy on a pen­sion 🙁 I believe that my two sister (with the Asperger’s sons) are also Asperger’s, But I don’t con­sider myself or them abnormal or needing any inter­ven­tions, We are just on that end of the ‘normal spec­trum’ of per­son­al­i­ties’.
      I worked for a brief while with CSIRO. It was Wonderful 🙂 All these nice inter­esting people. I felt DO com­fort­able there.

    2. Good for you, Jenny H

      [about avoiding the alter­na­tive any­things],

      And that is part of the reason I’d not been in any med­i­ta­tion or yoga — at least the touching parts.

      Great to meet your family — the par­ents; the nephews; the sis­ters and you.

      CSIRO is great! It is really sad the cuts in funding and the nar­rowing of inno­va­tion.

  5. Speaking of bru­tal­ized minds:
    *Lots of tor­tured screaming*
    “Frieght car”
    *The screaming stops*
    “Ready to comply”

    1. Author

      I want to know more about this.

  6. I am so sorry you had to go through this.

    I too am a #metoo sur­vivor, and went through what was then called “restraint training” about a year after I was raped. The trauma that was re-triggered during the training was enor­mous — and when I had to play the restrainee, I found myself fighting for my life in a way that I was unable to when I was raped. This was not for an autistic envi­ron­ment, it was for another type of pri­vate facility.

    This training that I went through was about 14 years ago, and I think it was a 4hr long training! I left that job more trau­ma­tized than when I started… It was ter­rible. I did not stay in that field and am since hap­pily ensconced in a cubicle in a large office.

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