This is part 2 of a series on becoming a registered behavior technician (RBT) before finding out I was autistic. Part 1 on restraint training can be read by clicking here.
The ABA Online Course
To be certified as a registered behavior technician (RBT) in ABA, I took an online course. It was called Relias, one of the most commonly-used certification courses for RBTs.
I am, like most autistics, an enthusiastic learner. I do not like to go into anything related to other people– especially children– unprepared; and, since I’d not heard of ABA, I felt wildly unprepared. I was desperate to soak up all the information I could. I would not be doing something I didn’t feel qualified to do.
The online course was a series of videos with questions at the end of each section. If you failed a section, you watched the video again and took the quiz again.
The other trainees hired at the same time as me had told me that I could just let the videos play and look up the answers on my cell phone, but I actually wanted to learn. I have a very good memory, almost eidetic– and I’ve excelled in my adult years academically.
So, it’s fair to say that I’m a quick study. But the training was too densely packed with jargon and new information to be effective instruction. It is safe to assume, with my 14 years in education and the effortless 4.0 GPA I maintained with my graduate education in psychology– that if I felt lost and like I’d learned nothing after I completed the course, then most people would leave the course with at least the same level of confusion.
That was my first major red flag.
This data-driven, highly-analytical field couldn’t even design an effective training module.
I was able to do the whole thing in a weekend, and it was the most boring, tedious, counter-intuitive learning experience of my life.
The overarching question that kept popping into my mind was: what the hell?
So, ever the pedantic autistic, I’m going to make a list of some of the things I can remember which prompted the resonating what-the-hell? Finishing this certification effectively qualified me to perform this job, but I didn’t feel prepared nor convinced.
While I’ll do my best to reflect only on what was in the online training course, and my memory is pretty succinct, this was three-four years ago. It’s possible some of the details are conflated with what I learned from other employees during those first two weeks.
1. I’d never worked with young kids before.
I didn’t have a child at the time and had managed to make it to age 35 without spending any significant amount of time with young kids. My expertise started with around age 11 and went up through adults.
When I asked that I work with only older children, I was told that there wasn’t enough room in the schedule to pick-and-choose clients. I did, actually, have a lot of relevant experience with older kids– autistic or not. But this was a business. Businesses thrive on numbers.
Why were they going to let me transport these children in my car, care for them, and work with them for so many hours per week with no professional background or even anecdotal experience working with very young children?
In anticipation of working this job, I bought a new car. I could not be transporting children who had difficulty coordinating motor movements in a two-door vehicle. I take everything I do professionally this seriously.
They expected me to diaper strangers’ children and to take children wherever and do whatever: just me and a kid, in my car– and they just met me. They’d just met all of those people. Most of them had no education beyond high school.
In public education, I had to have constant ongoing education, at least a bachelor’s degree, and multiple supervised internships and mentors before I could teach children in a very transparent and public atmosphere. Special education teachers require much more education and training.
And I had damn sure never changed a diaper of a student. While some did have issues with continence, there were professionals who were trained to support them with toileting, hygiene, and changing clothes. In fact, it was considered a biohazard to handle bodily fluids, and only trained staff were allowed to do this.
I didn’t even know how to work a car seat. How could these people be trusted? How could I be trusted? No one had even contacted my references…
2. Why are the RBTs so intense?
We were supposed to be loud, energetic, and hands-on. In fact, they encouraged us to be very loud.
I kept thinking of the people in the videos, What is wrong with you? Have you lost your damn mind? Is something wrong with your eyes that you cannot see how invasive and overwhelming you’re being? Can’t you see how anxious you’re making these poor children?
Why were they talking in a near-shout while holding their faces just a couple inches away from the child’s? That would feel like an aggressive violation to me. Why do they instruct us to be so loud? Did they not realize how large the room was?
I felt abused on behalf of the children. I felt their discomfort.
3. Why did I feel manipulated?
The whole time I watched these videos, I couldn’t escape the feeling that I was being manipulated, essentially like how I feel during an infomercial.
It didn’t feel instructive. It felt persuasive. I do not want or need to be persuaded or “sold” on the value of anything. I have since learned that this is a trait many autistic people share.
If something is worth learning, I will enthusiastically learn it. I will learn all the things about it– to a degree most would find twelve miles past what is necessary. But, if it’s not, I can barely muster the focus– or I viscerally reject it.
The repetition of material without substance, the feel-good music, the personable tone of the instructor like I was an insider and would “get it” while the kids really needed me so they could be productive and not so broken… it all felt like an infomercial with children as the products.
I should be able to be convinced to subscribe to something based on its merits alone. As soon as persuasive techniques– which I’d spent over a decade teaching to students– enter education, it feels more like evangelism than substance.
I hate little more than I hate manipulation. Facts are persuasive to me.
4. Why were behaviors deemed “not functional”?
Stimming (repetitive behaviors like rocking, flapping, or repeating a movement over and over) and echolalia/scripting (repeating words or phrases from people or from movies/shows) were called “non-functional.” To me, it was extremely obvious why the children were stimming.
I didn’t realize how easy it was for me to put myself in the children’s shoes because I thought I was neurotypical. I thought I was on the other side of the equation.
With the echolalia, I recognized it as something that my husband did, albeit at a more sophisticated level than a 3 year old might demonstrate. He does it to buy time to process and think. I had never thought of this behavior consciously until seeing these videos because it just seemed a natural way to corral your thoughts.
It was something I did, though my scripting wasn’t from cartoons or superhero movies but from classic literature and quotes from prolific thinkers and scientists… and maybe sometimes from old Jim Carrey and Chris Farley movies.
5. Why were the RBTs so aggressively touchy?
I would see the videos and literally jump because I was so affected that I was startled. The RBTs were so touchy, constantly taking the children’s hands and placing them on the toy/picture card/food they wanted the child to touch.
When the child would perform a simple task, like stacking a block or touching his cheek, the RBT would hug the child, or pick the child up and spin her around, or shake his shoulders in extreme praise while shrilly and loudly– to the point of shouting– telling the child what a super-great-wonderful-amazing job they had just done.
6. It was so patronizing.
One thing that has caused me subtle-but-ongoing conflict in all my professional endeavors was that I was too honest with the wrong people. As a teacher, I was too honest with my kids or took their sides when an adult had acted unfairly. I weighed in on situations given the details, not because I felt any loyalties to fellow faculty.
It caused problems when I asked why the custodians and cafeteria workers couldn’t address us using our first names, but their first names were embroidered on their shirts. In sales, I was too honest with customers when they asked questions like, “Would this product be useful for my needs?”
Now, I realize that autistic people don’t sense the same hierarchies in social structures as neurotypical people do. To me and to most autistics I know, a child deserves the same rights, privileges, and respect as an adult.
Of course, with children there are limits regarding safety, hygiene, and other obvious boundaries parents must enforce; however, a toddler deserves to be included and respected as much as any other human. A custodian deserves the same reverence and respect as a CEO.
In fact, we were taught these things. We had human rights training, which aligned with my philosophies perfectly. All of my trainings have aligned with my philosophies in all of my positions; however, I always found myself in conflict when none of my co-workers or supervisors seemed to be as dedicated to those views of rights and personal autonomy.
So, to praise a kid for following a command to do something useless, just for the sake of complying, felt like sending the message to the kid, “Your value is in your ability to make me proud.”
And, there was no way in hell I would have been able to treat a child that way.
6. Most of the target behaviors were pointless.
I’m sure to some people, it might seem important to get a child to touch its nose-ear-hair-chin because they asked the child to, but I couldn’t see a point in such behaviors. I couldn’t see a point in forcing a kid to do a puzzle in a scripted environment. Why would anyone want to do anything outside of relevant context?
I really couldn’t see the point of taking a child to the park to document how many times he made eye contact and used sarcasm with age-appropriate peers.
In fact, in almost all of the videos I watched, I couldn’t see a point in the child being pulled into the behaviors they were being pulled into. The only point I saw was obedience.
The very word “obey” repels me viscerally. I have a strong, instinctual reaction against it. If something doesn’t need to happen, why praise someone for doing it? “Great job on playing with this boring toy by pretending it’s a boat!”
Because kids need to learn that doing everything they’re told, without objection or question, is ideal?
Again, emphatically, No.
I’m wired to my core to reject that kind of blind compliance.
7. It looked like dog training.
Kids were constantly being fed/given treats, rapidly, with no time between the command, the behavior, and the reward– before the whole pointless cycle was started again. “Jump, good boy, have a Skittle, now Jump again, good boy, have a Skittle!”
No joke, the trainers were even using clickers like what are used to command the attention of a puppy.
I was later told that I could purchase my own clicker from PetSmart. Literally, I was told to go to a pet store and buy a gadget used to train animals– for under five dollars, no less!
I don’t ever pretend to know how someone else would feel. My natural instinct is to imagine how I’d feel if someone did [insert behavior] to me– and the thought of someone using a clicker or “reinforcing” me so frequently filled me with rage.
I imagined how it would feel to have someone telling me constantly how great I was for doing something pointless or for performing some menial life task:
You opened that envelope so well, Terra! Here’s a Cheeto. Now, here’s another piece of mail. Looks like a credit card offer. Open it up! … Great job!
(Fresh-out-of-high-school teen reaches in to tickle me, then documents my success)
Okay, here’s another envelope from Physician’s Medical Center. Let’s go three-for-three! YES! You did it! High five on that one!
How long would it take for me to shut down, or try to escape, or to lash out? Because if I had to do that for forty hours per week– or even four– I would stab myself with a letter opener. I’m not being dramatic, either.
Honestly, as metered as I am, I can’t guarantee that I wouldn’t eventually slap someone.
8. I don’t enjoy most praise.
I don’t ever want to be told I’m doing something great, or that I am great. That kind of compliment is ignoring who I am and speaking directly to my ego. It’s an implication that I am doing something for reasons that benefit me personally and selfishly, and not for the Greater Good. I prefer someone to ask me about what I have done– or to tell me how it was relatable or helpful to them.
I have since realized that relating to most people by sharing my closest lived experience reads like an invalidation of their feelings and like trying to make the conversation about me; however, other autistics generally appreciate this type of interaction and see it as an extension of solidarity.
I can imagine that the different perspectives might be related to how non-autistics often assume they know other people’s feelings and intentions by intuition. I can’t feel this way because I’ve learned that most people don’t feel the same way as me or have the same motives for their actions.
If ABA focused on providing children with opportunities to engage their special interests in ways that allowed for social and civic engagement, kids would find that rewarding enough on its own merits without the patronizing and infantilizing praise.
9. It was pigeon training.
The field was largely based off B. F. Skinner’s operant conditioning model from the 1930s. The first video in the course, in fact, referenced ABA’s common application in animal training and offered the example of people training whales to do shows at theme parks.
In fact, here’s a screenshot of it:
Conveniently, Relias has some sample videos on their website. You can view a portion of this one by clicking here.
The last thing a whale should be doing is performing tricks in captivity for human entertainment. The course didn’t really redeem itself after that, either. In fact, there were footage videos of Skinner’s lab, wherein pigeons were trained to perform tricks for food. This was supposed to be a convincing part of the sales pitch…
I ask myself, How would I feel if someone told me to perform a trick for every bite of food before I eat it? I would feel hungry, because I would willfully starve to death before letting someone do that to me.
I mean that literally with no hyperbole.
That instinct in me, that defiant self-respect, would’ve saved me from so much degradation and hardship in my life had it been nurtured and empowered. I would’ve known that it was okay to say “no”–even if someone told me it was impolite– instead of disregarding my gut because my behavior was “impolite” or “socially inappropriate.”
And those people who “trained” me so aggressively have eventually and tragically learned that my instincts about dangerous people were right.
10. The time commitment for the children was intense.
For children under 5 years of age, the recommended commitment was 20-40 hours per week of this kind of therapy. I could scarcely imagine a more miserable, exhausting, dehumanizing life than having someone “train” me so rigorously for so many hours a week to do– well, anything.
This is during the most neuroplastic, critical period of development. How would someone who reflected on their earliest memories feel about being trained like an animal like a full time job to be different from how they were at their core?
Even though I didn’t know that I was autistic, I related to this from the standpoint of a child raised in a sexist, patriarchal, fundamentalist religious environment. There was so much pressure to accept that my innate nature was perverse, sinful, and “put Jesus on a cross” that it caused me to need over a decade of therapy to recover.
How was this any different?
11. It was so incredibly creepy.
One thing that really unsettled me was “pairing.” Here’s a brief quote from the video series:
One idea is to bring a “magic bag.” The “Magic bag” will have games, treats, and toys that the student only gets when you are around. Think of it as an “automatic fun dispenser.” You are needed to access those cool, fun toys. You are now valuable to the student.
Yeah, this doesn’t sound at all like, “If you offer the kid candy, you’re more likely to get them into your utility van with painted-over windows.” Except, that’s exactly what it sounds like.
All I could think was that it was bribing kids into denying their instincts about people and their emotional reactions and conditioning them to be interested in material objects and rewards. Why weren’t they relying on inspiring kids to explore their natural curiosities? Or using logic to explain the reasons for doing tasks?
I suppose if the tasks don’t have a logical purpose, then that’s not going to work…
12. Imitation was a valued skill.
At my core, I reject imitation. It’s a paltry skill, a desperate one. It is the antithesis of originality. But, this training talked about the grand merits of imitation on development and how most kids do it effortlessly. It followed that sales pitch on the merits of imitation with,
Most children with autism spectrum disorder, however, have a core deficit in in the ability to imitate.
Well, good for them, I thought.
They often show little interest in the behaviors of those around them, and do not often attempt to imitate what they see.
YES! That is a wonderful trait– the hallmark of an original thinker!
Poor imitation skills indicate that the child with ASD is not observing and learning from the world around him. Failure to imitate means that new skills are not practiced, rehearsed, or mastered.
Um, no. Failure to imitate is not failure at all, first of all! Second, they were complaining about imitating speech as being “not meaningful” earlier, and now it’s a problem?
Then, look at this, starting at around 1:54. It shows the imitation skills the RBT is teaching to the autistic child.
She gives him a candy or piece of food, he eats it, then she physically manipulates his body to be facing hers. After that, she commands [mands], “Do this,” and claps right in his face. He turns away, in fact. The look on his face is, “This lady done lost her damn mind.” I know that look, because it’s the same look I was wearing when I watched it in horror.
He turns away with his whole body when she doesn’t get the point. He’s saying, “I am uncomfortable with this. I don’t want to do this.” And honestly, who would? I’d feel assaulted if someone clapped in my face like that.
The end goal is to generalize imitation skills so students are able to copy the behaviors of others, especially peers, and continue to imitate behaviors in the absence of direct instruction and continuous reinforcement. Our aim in teaching foundational imitation skills is for imitative learning to become a natural way for the child with ASD to learn new behaviors and skills.
I remember this so vividly. “Foundational imitation skills.” I thought, imitation is NOT a foundational skill. This should have been my biggest ah-hah moment of the course– the one where I realized that I was the children and not the teachers.
I thought, children do not learn this way. This is so strange. Why would they call imitation a foundational skill? Curiosity is a foundational motivator for behavior and perhaps, at times, even imitation. Not just imitating for the sake of imitating. There needs to be a purpose!
The whole course taught me more about my differences than about ABA. The foundations underscoring the approach were different from everything I’d learned in developmental psychology, special education, and general education courses. With over 240 college credits and 500 continuing education units under my belt, and having been deemed as the teacher who was “magical” with autistic students– this went against every instinct I had.
It was because this course was teaching me to deny all my instincts, to go against my very nature, and to teach children to be nothing like me.