One of the most common retorts against anyone who claims ABA therapy is abusive is, “But my child loves ABA and his RBTs/BCBAs.”
Applied behavior analysis (ABA) is a form of therapy mostly used on autistic children and delivered primarily by registered behavior technicians (RBTs) under the supervision of behavior analysts (BCBAs). The adult Autistic community, almost unilaterally, hates ABA and considers it abuse.
I consider it abuse.
When non-autistic people react with horror at the allegation that ABA is abusive, they often point out that their child (or a child they know) loves ABA. Autistic people often explain this phenomenon as Stockholm Syndrome, or when hostages or people in confinement bond with and even become co-conspirators with their captors or abusers.
I’d like to offer a different explanation though that may be easier for people to digest and absorb.
Lions, Tigers, and Early Intervention, Oh My!
The push to identify and diagnose autism earlier and earlier– even within the womb– is justified with the urgent press for the importance of “intensive early intervention.”
The recommended hours for this intervention can be between 20-40 hours per week for children as young as 18 months of age. Speech and occupational therapy tend to be restricted to 1-2 hours per week, but applied behavior analysis is usually much more regimented and frequent.
At 40 hours per week, it’s a full-time job.
For a baby.
I am not going to claim that the reason that your child loves their behavior therapist or therapy is Stockholm Syndrome. I’m not going to say that the people administering ABA are bad people. In fact, I believe that a large percentage of them love the children with whom they work and have only the best intentions.
But, I’m still going to call it abuse.
Author’s note: This article contains critical analysis of fundamentalist religion in an Evangelical Christian setting. This is not a criticism on faith or spirituality and is not intended to be a criticism on religion but on the unhealthy practice of intensive behaviorism in my region. Further, this article contains mentions of sexual abuse, child abuse, patriarchal abuse, suicide attempts, and religious abuse. Reader discretion is advised.
A Disrupted Childhood
I was raised in a fundamentalist, evangelical Christian home, community, and school. Some of the people in my life who loved me and cared for me the most were my Sunday School teachers.
I used to ride my bike as a young child to Della’s house and sit on her porch. We sat and talked about school and gardening and “olden days” of the Great Depression.
Della was a Sunday School teacher. She was an older lady, a large, sweet, round-faced saint of a woman– the archetypal grandmotherly type. She was gentle and kind, and she was one of the only people whose hugs I could tolerate.
I do not have a single bad memory associated with Della. In fact, I can’t even conjure up a memory of her face that didn’t have a beaming smile.
And sweet, loving Della was a child abuser.
I went to a Christian school wherein I had Bible class every day. Even the classes that weren’t Bible class were Bible classes. I went to church at least twice a week– usually willingly, and I competed in Bible trivia matches where my robust Autistic memory was a major advantage. I could memorize entire books of the Bible, so I was pretty unbeatable.
Then, as a young adult, I became a youth leader. I was saving my virginity for marriage, and I had dated one partner for over a decade.
Somewhere along the way, things began to unravel for me. In college, being exposed to an education that wasn’t steeped in racism, patriarchal abuse, revisionist history, and “science” that didn’t claim the age of the earth was 6,000 years– my logic went to war with my religion.
There were a lot of things outside of scripture that were tearing at my faith, my sanity, and my whole core identity, a self that had been built around my religion. I was living in dorms the day the planes hit the Twin Towers and the Pentagon on September 11, 2001, and what happened around me could not be reconciled with my beliefs.
I started to recognize the toxicity of white supremacy, xenophobia, racism, and American nationalism come to a head as people started to become violent and aggressive towards Muslims– or anyone with Brown skin who had a foreign-sounding name– in the days and weeks after September 11. Christians I had known my whole life were equating war and blood lust with salvation.
Somehow, whole congregations fell in line with that messaging.
I also couldn’t understand how a just G-d would deny queer people access to heaven or expect them to deny themselves love for their entire lives. I had so many issues with gender and how I was supposed to behave, as a (perceived) girl, that didn’t sit right with me. I never felt like a girl or had any attachment to or understanding of what that meant.
But these gender norms were so entrenched in my upbringing that it would take me over a decade to lose my religion and even reach the half-way point of unpacking so much indoctrination.
Saving Myself for What?
At the age of 23, fresh out of college and having just left the man I’d spent my entire adolescence with, I moved to a new state (where I knew no one) to take a teaching position. I’d been talking to someone for a few months, and I finally agreed to a first date. He seemed a lot more into me than I felt about him, but I was willing to give it a try.
Five minutes after arriving at my townhouse, he raped me. He would do it several more times over the next few days. It wasn’t like the assaults I’d seen on Lifetime television or in movies, where the woman fights and claws and screams. It was more like I was paralyzed. I was mute. I couldn’t speak or move at all.
So, I didn’t even know to call it rape, even after I found that he’d left his email logged in on my computer and was bragging about stealing my money and getting me to pay for things by telling me he was financially struggling. He said, “These Christian college girl types are the easiest.” He was saying these things to his actual girlfriend. Together, they targeted me. I was easy money.
And, I tried to stay with him anyway. I’d been “used.” A woman’s “use” was for a man, and my “purity” was gone. I was going to have to stay with him according to my religious upbringing.
Later, I confided in a man who was running a forum site with me. He was British, and I knew he wouldn’t tell anyone who knew me because he was an ocean away. He told me that I was still a virgin, and I was so relieved that I began to see him as my rescuer.
Only a man could declare me pure.
A few months later, he flew to the US to visit me. I didn’t want him to leave, so I married him at the court house one Friday afternoon– not because of the path to legal residence, but because I couldn’t be a Christian and have a man staying at my house while I was unwed. It was a sin.
And, that was a seven-year penance in the form of an abusive nightmare. But, divorce was a sin, right?
It took me over a decade, hundreds of self-harm scars, going without sleep so long that I would have seizures, and even some earnest suicide attempts to unpack and unlearn my religion.
And none of that caused me to miss work. I was well conditioned to behave like suffering was not affecting me. Complaints weren’t lady-like or becoming of a young woman.
Faith, Religion, and ABA– What’s the Connection?
So, what does religion have to do with ABA?
There’s a difference between teaching someone values like toxic purity culture, and teaching them how to read a clock or how to tie a shoe, right?
No, not really.
I can explain.
I am Autistic, and I had the same behavior training for learning to tie my shoes, to stop having urinary accidents, to read a clock, to tell left from right, to socially interact in “appropriate” ways, to play games and with toys in “appropriate” ways, etc. It wasn’t ABA by name, but it very much relied on positive and negative reinforcement and aversives.
The most damaging was the positive reinforcement– the praise for doing things that I really can’t do consistently or in a sustainable way, or for what was uncomfortable or inauthentic to me.
I was paraded around when I wore those frilly dresses with the tulle that felt like sandpaper, and with cloyingly sweet voices told how pretty I was. I had no interest in being pretty or even receiving compliments, but it created a negative peace that was easier to survive than the alternative.
I had the choiceless choice of which kind of suffering to accept.
Autistic was Evil
There were behaviors that were distinctly Autistic that were at-odds with the religious culture into which I was indoctrinated. I don’t feel gender at all, and I definitely resented everything that was associated with being a (perceived) girl.
I hated the “appropriate” clothes, the submissive behavior, the worship, the deference to authority, the discouraging of questioning things that didn’t make sense– those were social issues.
There were all these things that I was supposed to do that were cultural more than religious. Everyone in my area was from the same background. Their level of faith really didn’t matter– it was cultural, and that culture didn’t match my core self.
Now, I’m 40, I’m anti-religion, I am still gender vague, and I never came to respect authority for the sake of hierarchy. That’s how I’m wired, and that was a major problem for my non-autistic parents. It was a major problem for my teachers. It was a problem for the pastor who kicked me out of my family’s multi-generational church.
The thing is, I have a master’s degree, but I still can’t tie my shoes or read an analog clock. I still can’t tell my left from right. All those hundreds of hours spent trying to get me to do these things just made me feel embarrassed and ashamed. I still can’t do them, and that doesn’t have a profound impact on me.
I eventually learned to read– years later than my peers– and then I read “too much.” I was always too much or not enough.
But what has ruined me, absolutely, was the constant messaging to question my thoughts and put value judgements on everything. Whether it wasn’t “lady-like,” or it wasn’t “Christ-like,” or it was just “not normal,” the unpacking was equally as painful.
ABA works by “programming” children to behave a certain way. That’s not my personal language use of some dystopic, Orwellian analogy. That’s literally the word that behavior analysts use when writing plans for autistic children: programming. It’s their entire job. Behavior analysts unabashedly label what they do as “programming” every day.
The reason that so many hours are prescribed is that “programming” a person to behave and think and feel certain ways is more effective the more entrenched the indoctrination is. All people develop naturally in ways that advantage them according to their neurology– unless something environmental interferes with that development.
I am wired to be a critical thinker and to question what I hear or read to determine if it is logical, practical, and contributes to the Greater Good. I’m wired to be a skeptic. I was conditioned socially to live against my wiring, and so my whole life has been an internal war between who I am and what I was brainwashed to believe.
I did try to fight back. I am wired for that, too. I oscillated between rebellion and fawning. I trauma bonded to the nice people like Della. But I would have enough and fight back, eventually. That never panned out well. I’m also wired to ask the hard questions. I asked why violence, jealousy, and child abuse were normalized.
Every time, I got these long and detailed responses about how translating words in different languages meant different things, and what that verse really meant was x, y, and z. I was kicked out of my family church when I interrupted a meeting with men yelling at a crying woman and asked them how it was justifiable to behave the way they were.
I was not supposed to ask questions because G-d was sovereign, and so were men, and adults. I was always going to be low on the chain of command.
Behavior therapy is no different from my radical evangelical upbringing. Being taught to challenge my thoughts, behaviors, and beliefs– day in and day out– was disruptive to my development. It broke me in ways that years of therapy and constantly evaluating my every thought can not repair.
In ABA, Science and Evidence Based Practices cannot be questioned. I get treated like the same menace for asking the hard questions from ABA practitioners. They put that same clinical distance between me and them, as authorities, and I’m still rejected for my ridiculous emotions.
Church was behavior therapy, and it was more about programming my social behaviors than programming my soul. The same people who told me about being “lady-like” were also regularly making sure that I wasn’t “rude,” that my posture was straight, that I was polite. There were times that my autistic behaviors were treated as if they were sinful or even satanic.
The supernatural justifications for why this religious fundamentalism was in my best interest are identical to the justifications of ABA for autistic children with the exception that “eternity” is replaced with “behaviors of social consequences,” and “an independent life,” and “having friends.” The Bible is replaced with “EBP,” or “evidence based practice.”
The evidence isn’t proof that the “programming” against someone’s innate neurology is actually going to benefit them. The “evidence” is proof that breaking someone does, in fact, change their behaviors.
“God” is replaced by the BACB, or the Behavior Analysts Certification Board, or just the practice in general. “Science” is the word they use, as if it is a sovereign and unimpeachable truth that can’t be questioned or challenged.
And just like with church, they have a rhetoric crafted and honed over years of debate to dismiss anyone’s challenges. ABA functions like a cult in that way, and their talking points make sense to them but sound like absurdism to people on the other side of their foundational beliefs.
It’s a science based on how people are, and I am not a person by the same definition. So they try to fix it instead of accept it.
I spent the majority of my life in mortal terror of committing sins, which could have been as simple as eating too much at dinner on a special occasion (gluttony), feeling attracted to someone (lust), being angry at someone (hate), and other benign or justifiable responses to everyday stimuli.
I took those things too far on my own, because I do not do things apathetically. Autistic people invest hard when they are invested. I was far more affected than my friends who were not autistic but were exposed to my same lifestyle. They didn’t memorize things or overthink them into a panic. They didn’t take them as seriously, and they were very much wired for enjoying and falling into the status quo of the culture.
Most of them are still there, still raising their children the way that we were raised. They do not see or feel the harm in it. But my autistic self most certainly has suffered from it.
But I wasn’t ever going to break enough to fit into the status quo, and neither were the outcasts who would inevitably become my close friends wherever I had a social grounding– the clumsy ones on the sports teams more interested in butterflies than baseballs, the ballerinas who loved rock and soul music, and the weird kids in the back of Bible class drawing pictures of friendly demons. We were always the ones the teachers just couldn’t love, the noncompliant ones (by choice or by virtue of not understanding the rules).
Two Immutable Questions
Two questions underscore every thought that I have, and I believe that this is what really separates autistic people from non-autistics at the level of perception. I needed to know, for all things:
- Why do we do this?
- Is this fair?
In church, there were always reasons of spiritual consequence or of social consequence. In ABA, there were always reasons of social consequence. Really, the behaviors of spiritual consequence were just reinforced behaviors of social consequence.
They were all markers of how well that someone could adhere to the status quo. When that status quo is toxic, though, those who don’t fit it are the salvation of society. They will suffer for it, be bullied and “behaviored” into compliance or invisibility, until they group up and challenge the structures no longer wielding power over them.
That’s where I am right now. I’m making the challenge that I should have been free to make when I was a child.
Why is it wrong?
Why do I need to stop stimming?
It’s disruptive to others. They can’t focus.
Why do I need to wear this hot and uncomfortable outfit?
It’s disruptive to others. They can’t focus if you bare too much skin.
Why can’t we just ask them to stop looking at us? Or to not think of our skin and bodies as relative to their focus? Why can’t we stop men from raping women and justifying it because their clothes sent the message that they were asking for it? Why can’t we ask classmates to accept stimming and accommodations as normal and part of how we learn?
Those are the kinds of why questions that got me in trouble.
Because difference is a threat to the status quo, and the status quo is reinforced when we all behave the same way. My childhood religion was a reflection of white supremacy, and of white nationalism. Somehow, G-d and patriotism and whiteness were all intertwined and mixed with being straight and cisgender, and with maintaining gender power differentials that sexualized the behaviors and thoughts and bodies of girls.
Behaviorism is a mere extension of “Spare the rod, spoil the child.”
My family answer to “why” for everything was that if we didn’t do things the way we were taught, and if we didn’t cleave to our belief in G-d to let it guide our behaviors, then we wouldn’t make it into heaven. We would burn in hell for all eternity.
The opposite was that if we did behave the way we were supposed to, then we would all be able to go to heaven, and we would be there with other believers who behaved the same way, worshipping for eternity while luxuriating on streets of gold.
I could retype the same thing and replace “G-d” with “status quo,” and we have behaviorism.
If we don’t do the things the way we are taught, and cleave to our adherence to the status quo to let that guide our behaviors, then we won’t have friends, have romantic relationships, have a job, drive a car, have a home, etc. We would burn in dependent isolation for all eternity.
The opposite was that if we did behave the way we were taught, then we will all have more independence, friends, be allowed to participate, have a job, and relish in our self-made futures.
The thing is, the status quo doesn’t embrace us, even if we try to embrace it. We are society’s heathens, and they know it no matter how we behave. We are only loved when we are a project to be fixed and saved or when we are on the same “team.”
Autistic Why Questions
The autistic “why” is one of the main frustrations of the non-autistic parents, therapists, and teachers of autistic kids. When I was middle school-aged, I was frequently in trouble for my attitude, and that “attitude” was just wanting to know why.
Thousands of times, I had to write the following verse:
Obey them that have the rule over you, and submit yourselves: for they watch for your souls, as they that must give account, that they may do it with joy, and not with grief: for that is unprofitable for you.Hebrews 13:17, King James Version
In other words, do what authority figures tell you to do without complaining or pushback, because they won’t be happy if you don’t. If they’re not happy, you’re going to pay for it.
If you can understand why that’s not an appropriate approach to parenting or teaching an autistic child, then you probably also understand the problem with the notion that “sparing the rod spoils the child.”
One time, from the pulpit, a young pastor was delivering a guest sermon. He talked about how he has displayed feminine behaviors before and spoke with a slight lisp. He said, to a group of children and teens, (paraphrased), “I told my friends, ‘If I slip into those behaviors again, and something seems weak and girlish, just punch me hard in the arm.’” He laughed and said he walked around with black and blue arms for a while, but he eventually was broken of those feminine behaviors.
Broken is right.
One of the preeminent pioneers of ABA therapy on autistic kids was Ivar Lovaas, who also is one of the primary pioneers of gay conversion therapy. He publish research entitled, Behavioral treatment of deviant sex-role behaviors of a male child (Lovaas & Rekers, 1974), wherein,
“The mother was taught to reinforce masculine behaviors and to extinguish feminine behaviors, by using social reinforcement in the clinic and a token reinforcement procedure in the home.”
His treatment of autistic children was even more direct and abusive, as is described in this article about Lovaas’s UCLA research lab:
Enraged bellows at the boy, then a sharp slap in the face. This deliberate, calculated harshness is part of an extraordinary new treatment for mentally crippled children. It is based on the old-fashioned idea that the way to bring up children is to reward them when they’re good, punish them when they’re bad. At the University of California in Los Angeles, a team of researchers is applying this precept to extreme cases. They have taken on three boys and a girl with a special form of schizophrenia called autism — utterly withdrawn children whose minds are sealed against all human contact and whose uncontrolled madness had turned their homes into hells.Life Magazine, 1965, retreived from http://neurodiversity.com/library_screams_1965.pdf
One of Lovaas’s students, Billy, was described with the following phrases: (emphasis added)
Before long, however, Pat realized that Billy was diabolically clever and hell-bent on destroying her.
“It was like living with the devil,” Pat remembers.
As time went on, even his father realized that they had a monster on their hands.
As a child, I was called Legion after a Biblical story about a man who was possessed by a thousand demons. I was anointed with oil and prayed over because I was “demonically oppressed.” Once, a principal locked me in the supply closet at school and asked me if I were on drugs or possessed by demons.
I’m grateful for the retrograde amnesia that prevents me from recalling many of those years.
It’s a disservice and insult to autistic people not to acknowledge the use of the language, “turned their homes into hells,” “diabolic,” “living with the devil,” and “hell-bent” as the nod to religiosity and fear of abnormality that it is. The article goes on to state,
Lovaas feels that by I) holding any mentally crippled child accountable for his behavior and 2) forcing him to act normal, he can push the child toward normality.
Lovaas built his behavioral therapy for autistic kids around punishment and rewards, lavishing children with food and affection for compliance and terrorizing them with screams, electric shocks, spankings, and slaps to the face for noncompliance.
Today, that therapy has been resurrected from the dustbin of history as the “gold standard” for autistic kids. While the wooden paddles and the electric shocks are mostly a thing of the past, the harm of training for the status quo remains.
The Why Question
When I ask most fundamentalist Christian people why it is so important that other people are Christian, their answer is the same as my mother’s would be for all of those why questions I had as a child, “Because without it, people would steal, rape, cheat on their spouses, and murder with no consequences.”
When a behavior analyst practicing ABA on autistic children defends their compliance therapy, they say, “If we don’t, they will never be independent, will hit and harm others, and will never have healthy relationships.”
It is as if they believe that “spare the rod, spoil the child” is valid, whether the “rod” is physical or metaphorical.
Programming people to be afraid of consequences to avoid terroristic behavior and rewarding them with contingent praise for compliance is not healthy for development.
I know from experience, and it is a marvel that I survived. Some of my friends didn’t.
Della didn’t ever beat me, yell at me, or consciously try to make me act differently. She genuinely loved me and all the children. What she did was contribute to a culture of harm, going along with it as if it were the truth.
She taught me to trust that what was breaking me was for my own good.
She taught me the lessons steeped in fearing the penalties of messing up and sending the unspoken message that I was inferior as a girl who needed to show deference to men and authority.
She did these things with my full consent because I was a child who loved her.
The part that hurts the most is that I don’t think she would have stopped or would have admitted to her role in the life sentence my childhood brought me of being the other and broken and wrong.
I was never broken until they broke me.
She and all the rest of them would have considered the mess of my life my own doing, because they were behaviorists at heart. They weren’t looking at the long term implications of my mental health. They were looking at my behaviors and my compliance.
I was different, and that needed to be fixed according to the sensibilities of people who want us to behave. I was singled out as a problem for it. My behaviors were punished and reinforced.
My non-autistic peers didn’t suffer the way I did because they naturally fell in line and didn’t become anyone’s project to fix. Maybe behaviorism makes sense to people wired to prefer the status quo, just like chickens are wired to peck the most different of the flock to death.
ABA is a cult of the status quo, just like the religion in which I was immersed growing up. Whether it’s Della’s “good ABA” or Lovaas’s spare-the-rod-spoil-the-child ABA, it’s all abuse.