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

young child lining up playdough in the colors of the rainbow from red to violet.

If you want to upset a self-described Autism Mom, all you have to do is tell her that ABA is abusive.

This argument breaks out on social media so many times every single day.

Autism is an unusual condition because the community is so sharply divided.

On one side you have the neurotypical parents and families of autistic children, and on the other you have the online community of adult autistic people, many of whom are parents to autistic children.

The two sides disagree on virtually everything, but arguably the most contentious subject is Applied Behaviour Analysis Therapy.

ABA Therapists and many families of autistic people hail it as the most effective, most scientifically proven way to help autistic children develop life skills such as speech, potty training, and going to the grocery store without going into full meltdown mode.

Autistic adults– many of whom have been through ABA as children– say that it is abuse.

You can imagine how that statement sounds to loving parents whose children adore their ABA therapist and who would never knowingly abuse their beloved child.

You can imagine how it feels to be told that the gold-standard treatment which is bleeding your finances dry so that you can help your child is actually abuse.

The difficulty is that when people hear the word “abuse,” they think of pain and violence.

ABA has a big history of those things, too. Its founder, O. Ivar Lovaas, used electric shocks to stop children from engaging in their obsessive, repetitive behaviours. He systematically trained them with equal combinations of love and pain to behave more like non-autistic children.

He thought he was saving them, turning a raw bundle of nerve endings into something resembling a human being.

One way to look at the job of helping autistic kids is you have to construct a person. You have the raw materials but you have to build the person.

-Lovaas

Whenever ABA comes up, so does Lovaas.  Autists point out that he used these same techniques to pioneer gay conversion therapy, which, like ABA, has also been proven to be deeply harmful to the human psyche. They also point out that while fewer ABA therapists use things like electric shock, it is still used and considered important by several institutions.

“But ABA has changed,” people argue. “My ABA therapist never uses punishment. It’s all positive and reward-based.”

That is very true for many people. Most ABA therapists don’t set out to hurt children. And yet, despite making ABA therapy fun and positive, the underlying goals of ABA have not changed.

And it is these goals that, like gay conversion therapy, do long-term damage to the human psyche.

The reason parents and ABA therapists can’t see it as abusive is because they can’t see it from an autistic point of view.

Let’s take a moment to look at some ABA in progress.

So? Did you see any child abuse?

Probably not.

How about here?

Or here?

Sure, the child was unhappy in the first video but the teacher was patient and she recovered, right?

And in the second video, they’re trying to teach children not to be disruptive, but they aren’t punishing the child or anything.

In all of these videos the children are never yelled at, scolded, shamed, or injured. They are praised and rewarded when they get things right, and often the kids seem to be enjoying the games.

No electric shocks, no aversive, nothing to make the experience traumatic, right?

Wrong.

Allistic people can’t see it, because they don’t understand how it feels to be autistic.

Let’s go back to that first video.

While they do not address it in the voice-over, if you watched it again you would notice how often the therapists take the children’s hands and fold them into the children’s lap.

You would also notice how often the child’s feelings are ignored.

In the first video, several of the children begin rubbing their eyes and looking tired, but they do not address this.

In the video with the girl in the supermarket, an autistic person can spot that she was getting overstimulated, exhausted, and was increasingly desperate to escape this environment.

In the video with the crying child, an autistic person wonders why she is so unhappy. Is she exhausted? Overtired? Overwhelmed? And when she stops fussing and goes back to doing the work, we can see the resignation on her face.

She isn’t happier. She’s just accepted that her feelings don’t matter and the fastest way to escape the situation is by complying.

In the last, you can see that ABA therapists deliberately ignore attempts to communicate or produce behaviours that have not been demanded by the therapist.

The child wants his mother’s attention. Would I ignore my child while trying to listen to what his doctor was telling me? Probably. But I would “shhh” or pat his arm to let him know that he was heard, and I would be with him in a minute.

Notice that ABA doesn’t tell you to go back to the child after and find out what they needed or wanted.

And that is the problem with ABA.

Not the rewards, not the silly imitation games. The problem with ABA is that it addresses the child’s behaviours, not the child’s needs.

Think of those happy little children in that first video.

Now understand that sessions like this are not a couple of hours a week. ABA therapists recommend that small children between 2 and 5 go through 40 hours a week of this type of learning.

40 hours a week.

No WONDER those kids are rubbing their eyes.

My allistic eight year old doesn’t do 40 hours a week of school. He goes to school from nine to three and gets a half hour recess and a half hour lunch. That’s 5 hours a day five days a week. 25 hours of active learning. And much of his class time is actually quiet reading, playing with learning materials, gym, or talking in a circle with his peers. So make it less than 20 hours a week of being actively taught.

Imagine asking double that for a preschooler.

Now consider that ABA is designed to ignore any protests the child might make.

ABA is not designed to consider the child’s feelings or emotional needs. 

I’m not making a jump when I say that. You can go to any ABA website and read what they say and you’ll see that there will be no discussion of the child’s emotional welfare or happiness, only behaviours.

To ABA, behaviour is the only thing that matters. ABA considers autistic children as unbalanced kids who need to be balanced out, and if you balance their behaviour, they are fixed.

“…what you need to do is reduce those excesses like the self stimulatory behavior, repetitive behaviors, and increase the skills. And then what will happen is after the child really learns a set of foundational skills; then they will start relating more to other people.”
— Deborah Fein PhD

As you can see from the above video, “self-stimulation”, one of the “excesses” of autism behaviours, is considered a kind of boredom fidget– something useless that replaces real learning and interaction.

When they are erased and replaced with “life skills,” then this is celebrated as a success.

Any autistic person will tell you is that this is NOT what stimming is.

Stimming isn’t just like doodling when you’re bored, or throwing a basketball.

Stimming is a comforting self-soothing behaviour which helps us reduce stress, feel more comfortable in uncomfortable environments, and regulate our emotions.

Many of us feel that our stims are a form of communication – just as a smile or a frown communicates something about our internal states, so do our stims, if you would just pay attention.  Moreso, in fact, since many autistic people smile when they are anxious or frown when they are perfectly content. Studies show that non-autistic people are terrible at interpreting our facial expressions. 

If my husband sees me stimming more than usual in the middle of the day, he frowns and asks if my day is going okay.  But many times he mistakes my emotions based on my facial expressions. My stims are better at translating my emotions than my face is, unless I’m actively animating my face in an allistic way for the benefit of my allistic audience.

Which is exhausting, by the way.

40 hours a week is too much for me so I can’t imagine how a small child manages it.

Grabbing my hands when I stim the way ABA recommends would NOT help my day go better.

It would be an excellent way to piss me off and make me feel frustrated and anxious, though.

It’s one thing to stop a child from hurting themselves by banging their head. It’s another to stop a harmless stim like hand flapping. You’re causing the child emotional discomfort just because the behaviour strikes you as weird.

Go back and watch some of those videos again, noting how often the autistic children are interrupted from hand-waving, making noise, crying, or otherwise trying to express and relieve their emotions.

Notice how often they get the child to make eye contact. Many autistic people find eye contact extremely uncomfortable.  The way the children’s bodies are touched and manipulated so frequently, in corrective redirection, is upsetting the children.  Their faces reflect confusion and sometimes distress.

But learning to tolerate discomfort is what ABA is all about. 

Watch that child enter the grocery store. See how she looks all around? The noise and the lights are stressful and distracting. She wants to please her family and get the cookie pieces so she goes along with the act of putting food in the cart, but after a while she is worn out and can’t stand it anymore.

The mother comments that if they relented at this point and took the child out of the store, her daughter would be rewarded for behaving this way.

That is probably true. If you are in pain, and you scream “Ouch!” and someone comes running and relieves your pain, you’ll probably yell “Ouch” again the next time something hurts you.

Is that… bad?

The parents say the ABA really helped their daughter.

Did it really help the child, though? Or the parents?

The grocery store isn’t any less noisy or bright or overwhelming. And the child obviously still finds it difficult to go in. Instead, she has learned to keep her feelings to herself, to try and focus on pleasing her family, and bottle up her stress inside until she can’t take it any more.

That’s a healthy thing to teach a child, right?

With time she may become excellent at this. She may be able to go to the store, put items in the cart, and go home without a meltdown.

But the meltdown WILL come.

It will come over something minor, some silly thing that seems like nothing and pushes her over the edge where she was already teetering. And they will wonder where it came from.  They’ll talk about how unpredictable her meltdowns can be.

It isn’t unpredictable to us.

We can see it coming. We can see that her autism hasn’t been treated to improve her life so much as to improve her family’s life. And while that is important too, wouldn’t it be better to find a solution that works for everyone?

Did they try ear defenders, and dark glasses?

Did they try encouraging her to stim if stressed?

Did they teach her a polite way to let them know when she has had enough and needs to leave the situation?

I don’t know. I don’t know them. I don’t know their child.

But I do know what autism feels like.

I know that ear defenders are not part of standard ABA protocols.  Instead of teaching them to understand their sensory needs and self-advocate for having their needs met, they are taught to ignore them.

I know that ABA demands the child’s attention but refuses to give attention back when the child demands it.

I know that ABA aims to be positive and rewarding for the child, but doesn’t allow the child to tap out whenever they need to.

I know that ABA considers vital emotional regulation tools to be problems that must be extinguished.

I know that neurotypical pre-schoolers are not usually expected to learn for 40 hours a week.

I know that neurotypical children are encouraged to express their emotions, not smother them.

I know that ABA believes in removing a child’s language tool like the iPad when they are naughty.  I notice that the ABA therapist working with the 8-year-old boy only handed him his communication tool in between “discrete trials.”

I know from activists like Cal Montgomery that even adult autistic people have their communication tools routinely taken away from them if they don’t “comply” to the demands of their therapists and caregivers.

I know that if I ask someone if they think it is abusive to remove a child’s only way of contacting their parents, or to ignore a child in distress, or to force a child into a situation that they find uncomfortable/painful, or refuse to help a child when they are suffering and overwhelmed, they will say yes.

As long as I don’t mention that the child is autistic, anyway.

Autistic kids are different, apparently.

Whenever autistic people protest ABA, we are told that we don’t understand, that we don’t know how hard autistic children are to live with. They talk about improving the child’s independence and argue that it isn’t cruel to teach a child to write or play with toys.

They don’t see how weird it is to try to systematically shape a child’s behaviour to teach them to play with a toy the “right” way.

They don’t see that 40 hours a week of brainwashing a child to put up with stress and discomfort without expressing their feelings might be a bad idea in the long run.

They don’t see how wrong it is to teach a child that their way of feeling comfortable and soothed is wrong and that ignoring your feelings and physical needs is good and gets you approval from your teachers and parents.

They don’t see that it is abusive to ignore a child’s attempts to communicate because they aren’t “complying” with a demand that makes them uncomfortable.

They don’t see how dangerous it is to teach a child to do whatever they are ordered to do, no questions asked, and to never object or say “no.”

They don’t think about the fact that 70% of people with ASD have experienced sexual abuse by the time they are college age.

They don’t think about how this person will learn to stand up for themselves or advocate for their needs when they were systematically trained in preschool never to disagree, speak up, or disobey.

Do what I say. 

Put your hands in your lap.

Don’t cry. Don’t complain.

Listen to me.

I won’t listen to you.

This is not abuse.

…But, you know, the kid gets bubbles and tickles so it’s obviously safe and totally okay.

What do we know?

Our feelings don’t matter anyway.

 

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409 Responses

  1. Now I realise ABA is all about abuse.. then also please guide us what to do that helps Autistic Childs need and grow so he can be productive and independent Adult?

    1. Nothing… ABA created a market where none was needed. Child development shows averages, thereby showing there will always be those who do not develop in an “average” or “typical” manner.
      What helps Autistics grow? Time. Our own time. Everything will occur in its own time, in its own way. Comparing Autistic development to typical development and getting worried that they’re not the same makes no more sense than worrying about why those who are AFAB express heart attacks differently (hint: medical research was done on white men of specific ages). Would training those AFAB to express they’re having a heart attack “properly” help? No. Learning about what heart attacks LOOK LIKE in those who are AFAB would though.
      Autistics need our sensory needs accommodated to minimise stress and anxiety, and we need a way to communicate those needs. At most we need a specialist who can help us find a communication method that works the best for us if physical speech does not develop or is delayed (both of which is perfectly ok as we tend not to believe physical speech is superior to any other form of communication).

    2. Look into relationship approaches like Relationship Development Intervention and the SonRise program at the Autism Institute of America.

      1. OR instead of going to a place that branched off of Autism Speaks (bad org. Bad practices. Ableist history. One of the founders just branched off to make their own thing to do the same shit different name). You could INSTEAD go look on ASAN’s (Autism Self Advocacy Network) site for resources. As the org is run by Autistic people with the goal to help us.

  2. This was the most helpful article I have read so far to help me understand an autistic person’s perspective on this topic. The examples were very clear and the narrative was so carefully laid out. Thank you so much.

  3. All the grabbing and holding/pushing/touching in the first video made cringe touch is so hard, painful even.

  4. I agree ABA is abuse. I do not have autism. I have some neurodiversity and developmental complex trauma. I was a teacher and tutor. I’ve seen ABA done in person. All of that brought me to the same conclusion as this author. I cheered for a young girl who saw through the bs and refused to comply. Her parents didn’t understand her or my take on why she was acting that way. I think ABA epitomizes the essence of the rot in modern schooling. I hope ABA falls out of favor and is publicly condemned with a sound argument and evidence. My heart goes out to everyone crushed and violated by this. And I hope parents start getting a clue and some humiiity. Thanks

  5. I just learned at 41 that I am autistic. I’ve worked with special ed and early childhood for my entire adult life and in my adolescence. Watching these videos made me so uncomfortable and I’m not sure that I would’ve felt confident to know why before. It is truly sad to watch people being trained to treat children this way.

  6. I will preface this with an acknowledgement that I am a credentialed BCBA-D and have been working in the field for 20 years. I agree that the things you have written in this article constitute actions that are trauma-inducing and not in consideration of an individual’s needs and are actions that ABA therapists have engaged in with the intention of supporting and helping clients. In the years that I have been in the field, I have seen a shift though and many of the things you mention are only engaged in by poorly trained behavioral therapists. I personally would never remove a child’s communication device or ignore their clear attempts at accessing their mother. I may, as you suggest, tell them that mommy will be able to talk to you in a minute once this is complete as I would to my own neurotypically developing children. As a practitioner, a child’s feelings, anxieties, desires, and needs all matter and play a role in the behavior that we are seeing. Yes, behavior is the primary focus because that is what we observe and that is what we, as a society, react to. That does not mean that the other factors are ignored is irrelevant or meaningless. If a child is anxious, then it is important to identify and understand why they are anxious and help to alleviate that anxiety. Doing so not only helps the child be relaxed and happy, but helps to improve the learning situation providing for more opportunities to teach the skills that the client and/or parent have identified as needed. You make many good points and identify practices that are problematic in the field that I have dedicated my professional life to. Those are practices that I work to eliminate or prevent in young behavior analysts. Instead, when I work with any individual, I strive to make sure they are, as Greg Hanley puts it, happy, relaxed, and engaged by choice, not by coercion or forced compliance. If a child is trying to get away from me or escape a situation, it is my job to identify why that is the case and make a change to the situation rather than child. Yes, there are practitioners who still do some of the things that you have written about, but that is not what ABA is as a field. The goal of all practitioners is to help their clients and provide them with the skills and resources they need to live a happy and successful life of independence and opportunity. Historically, ABA has included some practices that we should not be proud of, but the field is evolving and the science behind ABA allows us to support the clients we work with in a way that is trauma-informed, loving, understanding, and respectful of differences.

  7. Or as I put it:

    “Have quiet hands. Table ready.”
    “All done. Good boy.” “Make sure to look at me.”
    “Conceal, don’t feel. Don’t let it show.”
    I’m gonna blow!

    (Sung to the tune of Let It Go by Idina Menzel.)

  8. Functional communication is a huge part of ABA. Teaching children, all children, to self-advocate and communicating their needs and wants.
    This is a very biased representation of ABA.

    1. It’s a biased representation to give what has been the experience with ABA? Stop defending an abusive practice. Functional communication specifically FOR autistic kids is not taught in this practice. I’m sure an NT version of it is taught, since the goal of ABA is to make one “indistinguishable from their peers”. It’s not to help the kids get better at communicating their needs. It’s to make it easier on the parents who don’t understand some parts of what their autistic child needs bc they don’t need it so why does their child need it?

      If it was actually to help Autistic people, it wouldn’t have the goal of making us indistinguishable from our peers. Maybe sit down and LISTEN to our community for once. Instead of berating us and telling us that we’re wrong for presenting a “biased” (read: negative) view of ABA based on our own experiences with it and the experiences of multiple other autistic people who as kids went through ABA and are now traumatized Autistic adults from it.

      As the fact you defend a practice that harms Autistic people definitely says a LOT about where your head is at with “helping” us.

  9. Hi, neurodivergent RBT here trying to wrap my brain around how what I do is considered abuse to so many, but is seen as a godsend to the family I work with. I would like to describe my client’s situation to you and hear what you think and get some advice. I have been working in the home with the same family, one (mostly) non-speaking boy for several years, about 3 hours each day. I say mostly because he can speak but is limited. I love my job, I love him, he loves me, his family loves me, he is growing so much and it is a joy to go to work every day, he is always excited to see me. I have my background in teaching, now finishing my masters in psych. It wasn’t until a recent discussion I had with a cohort member that I had heard that ABA is abusive. I understand your article, I see how the things you describe are harmful, wrong, and abusive. I know that maybe my experience is limited and perhaps the company I work for is not the “norm?” I don’t know. But what I hear you saying is that autistics don’t need to be changed, I agree with that 100%.
    What I don’t understand is when you talk about not teaching autistic people certain things because they will eventually learn them. But people do need to be taught things right? And people do need to learn how to do some things that might suck or be hard, which is not abuse. Because if that is the case then we should consider a lot of other things abuse, like being made to take medicine when sick, or getting a shot, or doing chores, or going to school. Forcing someone to ignore their emotions or comply with incessant demands, yes.
    My client’s family is trauma trained, I am trauma trained. We never restrain or seclude. We work on identifying feelings and noticing small signs and triggers. When I see that he is overwhelmed or dysregulated, I ask if he needs a break and I honor it. We never ignore his communication- we do ask him to push a button to communicate his needs if we think he is trying to tell us something. His mom, his BCBA, and I all are aware that when he is crying, or hitting, or throwing things, he is overstimulated or trying to communicate a need. We are trying to provide him with ways to communicate his needs when we don’t know what they are. When he says “no,” we don’t force him to do anything he doesn’t want to do (as long as it’s appropriate/not harmful.) For example, I told him he had 2 more minutes to play before washing hands before dinner. He has a visual schedule, he always washes his hands before dinner, usually not a problem for him. I asked him to wash his hands because dinner was ready. He hit me and threw a toy, so I said, “do you need more time to play?” (Understanding that transitions are hard for him and he probably wasn’t ready to stop playing.) He said, “yes” and he played for some extra time. After some extra time, he washed his hands and went to the table. Eating dinner is a need and so is washing hands. What do you suggest we do instead?
    We always honor his requests if possible, but sometimes we can’t. For a month before going on vacation he would ask to go to the beach (many hours away) and he would hit if anyone told him he couldn’t go, or offered to do something else. We would acknowledge “that’s a great job asking for the beach, I know you want to go to the beach. You might be sad or angry, but we can’t right now.” He would ask for the beach 20-30 times per day. We took him to the pool, and to a lake with a beach, play with a sprinkler, but he would hit because it wasn’t the beach and he had to wait, which is very hard for him. What should we do then? Another example is that he was not potty trained until mid-elementary school. I know ABA is not the only way to teach someone something, but using positive reinforcement is often how parents of neurotypicals potty train their kids, they sit on the potty, they get a sticker or an M&M to reward going potty. What do you suggest about potty training? I just am having a really hard time seeing how what I am doing is abusive, we work on life skills and playing, and following directions, recognizing family members, we never stop him from stimming, don’t ignore his emotions or requests… I don’t know. You might say I can’t see it because of cognitive dissonance. I am not saying that no ABA is abuse. I just refuse to continue doing anything that his mom, or he, would say is harming him in any way. I am curious about your response.

    1. “What I don’t understand is when you talk about not teaching autistic people certain things because they will eventually learn them.”

      This is a misnomer. We’re not saying don’t teach them at all, we’re saying the way ABA *teaches* is not the way to do it and is harmful. Because ABA teaches based on the principle of indistinguishable from peers, which means pushing a child faster than they can go in order to have them meet averages that not even NT kids will all meet regularly.

      “And people do need to learn how to do some things that might suck or be hard, which is not abuse. Because if that is the case then we should consider a lot of other things abuse, like being made to take medicine when sick, or getting a shot, or doing chores, or going to school. Forcing someone to ignore their emotions or comply with incessant demands, yes.”

      They do need to learn harder things or things that suck. The issue is as you said IS however that ABA forces someone to ignore their emotions and needs to comply with the wanted behavior. If your company is not doing this. It is not ABA. It’s likely using the label in order to be covered via insurance. Bc that’s the only way medical insurance would pay for it if it’s under that umbrella.

      “I just am having a really hard time seeing how what I am doing is abusive, we work on life skills and playing, and following directions, recognizing family members, we never stop him from stimming, don’t ignore his emotions or requests… I don’t know.”

      I’m going to say this with 100% honesty and bluntness. Just because you don’t see it in your actions, doesn’t mean that the harm isn’t happening. It’s also liable that the kid your doing this on may not have the words to express things if you do cause harm or do something that would be abusive if he is mostly nonverbal.

  10. I have an ASD diagnosis, and while I never was specifically placed in ABA, I do agree that it is abuse, now I’m sure most parents/guardians who place their child(ren) with Autism in ABA don’t intend to harm their child(ren) in any way, shape or form, and I’m sure most ABA therapists don’t set out to harm the children they work with, but any tactics that focus on teaching a child to be docile and compliant is abuse, even if it’s not intentional. ABA also does not address the root cause of the behavior, nor does it help to teach the child why the behavior is or is not appropriate.

    Although I never was specifically placed in ABA, I can recall a couple of years in school (I think 3rd and 4th grade) where I had a special schedule binder, and if I behaved well during a given time of the school day, I would earn a token in my book, but if I did something wrong, I would not receive my token. If I had earned enough tokens by the end of the day, I would earn a small prize. Now, I’m sure that whomever came up with this idea for me did it with the best of intentions. However, the tokens and prizes did not teach me why my behavior was or was not OK, nor did it address the root cause of the behavior.

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