Therapist white woman pointing to an object on a table and a white boy pointing to another object on the table.

The best advi­sors for your Autistic child are autistic adults.

One thing that may con­fuse you, how­ever, is their intense dis­like of ABA therapy, which stands for applied behavior analysis– some­thing which may have been heavily rec­om­mended to you for your child.

Chances are that after a diag­nosis, your child will be rec­om­mended for some kind of therapy. With all the con­fu­sion, which ones are safe and will help, and which ones are harmful? Who should you listen to?

Issues sur­rounding ABA therapy are com­plex. It’s not always as simple as just saying, “ABA is bad and speech therapy and occu­pa­tional therapy are good.” Here are the rea­sons:

  1. Some ther­a­pists who don’t bill as ABA use ABA
  2. Some ABA ther­a­pists are simply called “ABA” for insur­ance pur­poses

In order to decide if a therapy is helpful or harmful for your child, please watch the fol­lowing videos and com­plete the check­list with your child’s provider

Spotting Harmful Therapies

Please watch this video with tran­script.

Please print the tran­script and make sure you don’t wit­ness these therapy approaches being used on your child and that they aren’t included in your child’s therapy plan. Printable tran­script and check­list is avail­able for down­load or printing by clicking here.

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How do you know if your autistic child’s therapy is harmful?

Bad therapy can be abu­sive and has far reaching con­se­quences like increased anx­iety, depres­sion, and PTSD in later life.

What does the ther­a­pist hope your child will achieve with them? What are they aiming to do?

Cure them?
Heal them?
Reduce their autism symp­toms or make them less autistic?

If so then please keep your child away from them.

If their goals are to help your child thrive as their autistic selves, to help them learn to suc­cess­fully nav­i­gate a world they’re not built for, without betraying their nature-– they’re worth keeping.

What are the warning signs of a harmful ther­a­pist? What can you see in your child’s plan that might signal danger?

___ How about forcing or encour­aging increased eye con­tact?

Eye con­tact can be painful for autistic kids, can make it more dif­fi­cult to listen and divert their atten­tion.

___ Do they use the phrase “quiet hands” — stop­ping your child from stim­ming, which is vital for the reg­u­la­tion of their thoughts and feel­ings?

___ Is the term “extinc­tion burst” used to describe your child’s emo­tional reac­tion to being forced to do some­thing that feels wrong for them?

___ Do they listen to your child’s pleas to stop when it gets too much for them?

___ Do they treat melt­downs as if they were just tantrums?

___ Do they think sen­sory needs should be com­bated or over­come, rather than respected?

___ Is pushing your child to achieve results more impor­tant to them than pre­venting sen­sory over­load?

___ Do they under­stand the need for sen­sory breaks?

___ Has your child’s behav­iour ever been described as “attention-seeking”?

___ Do they use “planned ignoring” as a teaching tool despite the dis­tress being ignored can cause anyone, espe­cially a child?

___ Is the way your child chooses to play a problem to them? Are words like “inap­pro­priate” used about the way they play – as if playing wasn’t just playing?

___ Do they push your child repet­i­tively to play “their way” without inves­ti­gating their cog­ni­tive level or abil­i­ties?

___Do you see words like “dys­func­tional” or “non-functional” in their reports or sales pitch?

___ Do they insist on speech as being the ONLY accept­able way to com­mu­ni­cate?

___ Do they use sweets, treats, or priv­i­leges as tools to bribe your child into com­pli­ance?

___Is your child’s autonomy and right to self-determination respected the way you would?

Ask your­self these ques­tions, and if you don’t like the answers, this ther­a­pist will not help your child to grow. In fact they may lock them into a cycle of stress and self-loathing that never ends.

Beware of ther­a­pists that describe them­selves as using “the gold stan­dard” of ser­vice and tech­niques. Steer clear of those who address lack of progress by pushing extra hours of therapy.

Always be ready to act if you see any of these signs. Your child’s future is your respon­si­bility and yours alone. Don’t let false promises and slick sales tech­niques con­vince you that YOU aren’t in charge.

So what makes a GOOD therapist?

Some ABA pro­po­nents claim that autistic adults advo­cate against any therapy, but this is com­pletely untrue. There are many excel­lent ther­a­pists who help Autistic kids every day.

Good ther­a­pists help chil­dren with finding ways to com­mu­ni­cate, fos­tering inde­pen­dence without pushing too hard, under­standing sen­sory issues, self-advocacy, learning to jump or ride a bike, under­standing how to assess people and sit­u­a­tions for danger, pro­cessing emo­tions in a way that is self-validating, and learning many new things the child desires to enhance their life.

These ther­a­pists can be amazing.

So how can we spot these people?

Please watch this video:

Please print out the tran­script and use it to help you assess your child’s ther­a­pist or poten­tial ther­a­pist. There are many providers like this­find one who is like this for your child. You can find a printer-friendly ver­sion of this check­list for printing or down­loading by clicking here.

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How to spot a good therapist for your autistic child

First things first, there is no “autism therapy.” Every autistic person has dif­ferent needs.

__ Good therapy builds on a child’s intrinsic moti­va­tion to learn and con­nect with others.

__ Has no expec­ta­tions or aims for eye con­tact.

__ A good ther­a­pist focuses on your childs own needs, not those of someone who wants them to be dif­ferent

__ The ther­a­pist needs to respect your child and “gets” their expe­ri­ence. Never try to tell your child how they should feel.

__ Happily accepts your child’s harm­less stim­ming

__ Respects your child’s choice of com­mu­ni­ca­tion – sign lan­guage, AAC, other…

__ A good ther­a­pist respects bodily autonomy

__ Good therapy addresses root causes (anx­iety, sen­sory, cog­ni­tive)

__ The ther­a­pist and child should work together to come up with useful strate­gies for dealing with prob­lems

__ The ther­a­pist talks about pro­filing and sup­porting sen­sory needs, as these are so common.

__ Good therapy focuses on the child’s emo­tional well-being.

__ The ther­a­pist should try to help your child achieve their goals in ways that feel authentic to them

__ A good ther­a­pist respects a child’s limits and encour­ages self-advocacy, even when a child com­mu­ni­cates, “No.”

__ A good ther­a­pist will not rely on moti­vating through extrinsic rewards and pun­ish­ments.

__ Connection is made without rewards, treats, or con­di­tional access to spe­cial inter­ests.

__ When the child shows signs of dis­tress, they are val­i­dated and uncon­di­tion­ally allowed to stop/avoid/access safe space – rather than pushing them through it or seeking com­pli­ance.

__ A good ther­a­pist is kind, and trusts that a child is doing their best

__ Unconditionally reduces demands when the child shows any sign of dis­tress, how­ever com­mu­ni­cated.

__ The ther­a­pist is tran­si­tional, empow­ering par­ents and carers to sup­port in the day to day.

__ Your ther­a­pist helps your child under­stand the non autis­tics in their life and helps others better under­stand and accept your child when pos­sible.

__ A good ther­a­pist shows warmth and kind­ness at all times.

__ Your ther­a­pist helps your child reframe their expe­ri­ence in ways that enhance their self esteem.

__ Is keen to learn from Autistic Adults.

A ther­a­pist like this, your child will thrive.

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For more infor­ma­tion on why ABA is harmful please read these links:

Invisible abuse : ABA and the things only autistic people can see

Appearing to enjoy behav­ioral mod­i­fi­ca­tion is not mean­ingful

Is ABA really dog training for chil­dren? A pro­fes­sional dog trainer weighs in

If you have any ques­tions, you can join these Facebook groups to interact with the autistic com­mu­nity:

Autistic Allies

The Aspergian has an article for that

And follow these pages:

ABA con­tro­versy dis­cus­sion page

Better Ways than ABA

Special thanks to Autistamatic for vol­un­teering to make the spec­tac­ular video and for all the par­ents, experts, and autis­tics who con­tributed at each stage of making this post. Please take a moment to follow Autistamatic’s YouTube by clicking here and hit­ting the red “Subscribe” button.