Becoming an ABA RBT When I Thought I Was Neurotypical: Part 2 — The Certification Course16 min read

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.

We all stim, I thought. I would be agi­tated and stim­ming, too, if someone had been in my face that way scream-talking and having their hands all over me. I’d be a ner­vous wreck.

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!”

No.

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:

animaltraining.PNG

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!

Retrospect

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.

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3 Comments

  1. Sigh…truth is, God cre­ated every being to be dif­ferent, but fal­l­eness exists pervasively,so the struggle is to be for others irre­gard­less of one’s quirks. Thank you for lis­tening to what I am trying to com­mu­ni­cate as a misfit believer.

  2. Terra:

    Wonderful writing. Shakes me to the core to read your per­sonal essay herein.

    Sad sub­ject to inter­pret such dif­fer­ences between accepted ABA Therapy and what You are much more com­fort­able with pro­viding as an alter­na­tive. I have learned what chil­dren might appre­ciate in favor of animal training methods which they log­i­cally would reject.

    I con­tinue to learn more and more about Autism which also effects little Greta. She is what got me here to your blog site to become far more edu­cated. Thank you.

    Carbon Bridge

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