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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389 Responses

  1. I agree with some of what you say and disagree with other points. As a mom it is my job to teach both my NT and ASD children how to behave, the proper way to play, work, communicate etc. in this world live in. So I set the same goals for both my kids. Each needed help with this and needed to to taught in their own way. But we did care (as did our therapists) about what they were feeling and what was over stimulating them. For both our kids we gave them more appropriate ways of coping with stress and a code word when they have had enough. My NT kid could pick up things by watching peers and copying them. My ASD son needed to be shown step by step multiple times. We and his therapists knew and understood that his brain just processes differently and we needed to work with that and the real world and using ABA we were able to teach him all he needed. We set the goals the same for both just took different paths to get there. Today my NT kid is a speech therapist and my ASD son is studying to be an OT. I read this article to him and his response? “It didn’t bother me. It helped me. I took comfort in the schedules, routines, and it gave me time to learn new things doing it over and over until I got it right. I can still stim but now I don’t look so different doing it. Maybe they didn’t have as good of a therapist that I had.” I hope parents and therapists can find a compromise.

  2. Invading their personal space and yanking things out of their hands over and over would never be tolerated by NTs. I know the third vid was important for informative purposes but it’s apparent that the client is aware of being filmed and objects. Has the client since agreed to the use of this video?

  3. I’ll be honest, I’m a bit at a loss as to what we *should* do. There are so many articles about what parents of kids on the spectrum shouldn’t do…but then how do we address some of these behaviors? I don’t mean stimming, my son can stim all day long if he pleases. But what do I do when he’s so anxious over everything that it’s impossible to leave to house with him? We’ve had to start homeschool because his meltdowns were that bad. Nevermind the constant stress from people telling us we aren’t socializing him but forcing him to socialize seems problematic according to this. What do we do when he won’t let me brush his teeth (they must be brushed, I’m sorry). What do we do when he will only eat 5 foods and his health is paying the price? What do I do when he wants to eat the insides of his diaper? What do I do when he has no awareness of safety? What do I do when he’s hurting and can’t tell me how or where? It’s never been about making him “normal” but about making him safer. School wasn’t a right fit, we’re on a waitlist for ABA and I’m hearing terrible things, speech would probably be deemed bad according to this author because my son hates it although learning to use his AAC is helping. I’m just. I’m at a loss. As much as I wished I lived in a world where my nonverbal son could just stay at home and eat 3 foods, it’s not possible. I won’t live forever. His health won’t tolerate some of his behaviors forever? Do I allow him to do damage to himself or do I inflict the damage with ABA?

    …not a NT mom, but not on the spectrum either.

      1. I can’t believe you’re actually posting a link to this utter shite. The author of this article is disingenuous at best. I’m pretty sure there’s actually an article here analyzing that precise post.

  4. How many of you on the spectrum complaining about ABA would be non-verbal, incontinent and not able to complain about ABA if you hadn’t gone through an ABA program? Not all ABA therapies are abusive – like anything else it depends upon who is doing it and how they are doing it. Would you rather be indignant and injured by ABA and be complaining about it or in a diaper and unable to talk right now? Life isn’t perfect and people do the best they can in difficult situations. If YOU had a child diagnosed with autism and was non-verbal and low-functioning would you just let them sit there undisturbed or try to help them? The worst form of abuse is neglect and warehousing. Autism spectrum disorders cause lots of problems and people with even mild symptoms of autism have a tough time of it but it isn’t all the fault of parents trying to help their children. My son, who went through ABA is now going to graduate school and is a professional musician – life isn’t perfect for him but he wouldn’t be living independently if it wasn’t for therapies we did that included a form of ABA when he was small.

    1. Dear Sue,

      You are making a sharp distinction in which you seem to think that anyone who says ABA is abusive is saying to never do anything with your child and simply allow them to decay. Which no one has EVER said. There are multiple alternatives to ABA that are not abusive dog training. Presuming competence also matters. I was nonverbal until I was nine and I was never put through therapy that was so dismissive to my feelings and perceptions – but here I am, with a law degree.

      In short, fuck your ableism in the face. How’s that Stockholm Syndrome treating you, Schrodinger’s autist?

      Bite me,
      an autist with the wild idea that we’re people

    2. I do NOT think non-verbal and incontinent is ‘Autism’. There are other causes of these behaviours. Some might be physical some might be mental.

    3. Personally I am in a family that is rife with Asperger’s, Autism and mental health problems .
      We’ve all done well without intervention except for ONE of my Nephews who I believed was totally ruined by the treatment he got from his Psychiatrist and his ‘special schooling’.
      Maybe school teachers need better education to cope with the odd-bods. Some children might benefit from special small classes.
      Non-verbal and low functioning needs proper diagnosis and the correct treatment for their problems. Maybe they need their environment altered for them!

    4. You appear to be confusing autonomic motor functions, voluntary motor functions and cognition. Anyone who tells you that the same therapy is useful for all of those is trying to sell you something and relying on the fact that you know nothing about neuroscience.

  5. I don’t know — but the ABA interventions shown here would have totally freaked me out as a child.
    I never could stand Adults treating me rudely like this. Keep your hands to yourself and TELL me what you want.
    I’ve never considered that I needed ‘changing’.
    But I have as an adult and on antidepressants learned to cope with rude and intrusive behaviour from others. Still don’t like it.

  6. OK. Stop knocking “NT” people. There is a very very wide range of “Normal”. Though maybe we should say “Within the Normal Range”. And the normal range is not a flat graph but a 3 dimensional ‘mound’.
    At what percentile in any direction do you decide that something is NOT normal?
    Surely one ‘treats” what is a problem, for the individual (and being totally reliant on others to care for you IS a problem for adults).

    1. Or “Do not do unto others what is hateful to them.” Do NOT touch us! Do not make us do things that we find unpleasant or highly stressful. If what we are doing bothers you then you can leave the room — or let us leave the room and do NOT call us back and tell us how horrible we are.

  7. Please don’t lump all ‘autism moms’ together. We all come in different flavors just like our kids. Ever heard the saying ‘you met one autism mom then you’ve met one autism mom’? No, because it doesn’t exist but it’s still true. I would never send my kid to ABA.

  8. What am I thinking? I’m no longer sure, I feel so apart from myself, it’s become painful to be just myself, the parts that are truly me have been suppressed, and ripped away with the words “this is the way you do it not this way”, “this is the right way, that way is wrong”. I’m a woman in my mid 50’s, trying desperately to learn how to take control of my life! When we are not taught to make choices because it may take to long or because it may be politically incorrect for our physical demonstrations of self expression, the what is it w.d. become? With each year that I became older I also became more compliant, a robotic transformation of everyone else. After everything we learned it wasn’t that I couldn’t communicate, it was you who couldn’t communicate at my level, I felt too much, and couldn’t cope with all of it at once! This pressure way of teaching was not my choice and by brainwashing me with the way yo believe I should be taught you took away my ability to protect myself, you taught me to comply, you did not teach what shouldn’t be done to me, you didn’t teach me to keep myself safe, all you did was teach me to be a pet because I was never right! My future became that of someone who learned to pretend everything and I am good at it, but who am I now, you also left me open to others to molest me, physically abuse me, psychologically abuse me, and when that doesn’t cover what you gave me, you taught me to be an outcast!
    I am not all people that are autistic, but I believe I am not so alone in feeling this, and I am slowly learning to reach my own emotions and not that of others, my gift of autism to me is my overwhelming emotional intelligence, to question everything and everyone no matter how many times people want to assume the worst!
    It took longer for most “normal” people to develop their emotions, but to use psychological abuse to suppress ours is an assumption that’s been made for too long!

    1. I am so sorry for you — having been told as I child what was WRONG with me, and how I could change IF I wanted to.
      However one thing I have found out is that we must learn to like ourselves.
      It came about when I was teaching, and some kids were being horrible to another — when I spoke to them they said to me “But, Miss, she loves herself!”
      My response was immediate and from the heart. I said “I should hope so. If you cannot love yourself, how do you expect others to love you?”
      It took even me aback a bit. But since then I’ve also learned that ‘be kind’ to yourself is important.
      You are NOT horrible because you are cranky — you are tired and stressed.
      You are NOT horrible if you don’t enjoy noise and jollity.
      There is NO REASON to make yourself do things you’d rather not do (going to the dentist/doctor, renewing your drivers licence, etc, excepted 🙂
      You don’t even need to make excuses. “No, Thankyou,” is sufficient

  9. I am a little confused by the comment made, Maybe you can clarify what you think I meant! Thank you very kindly!

  10. F*** ABA therapy!!! These aba people are crazy! In addition to the horrifying explicit abuse of ABA, let’s also center in on the disgusting principle of conditional attention. Doesn’t that sound like an abuser?? Someone who pretends to love you when you do what they want. F****** *** they are innocent children!!! Bringing candy is so wrong too. And awful for development not to mention!!! And the autism diagnosis has CHANGED! LOVAAS ABA WAS PROVEN EVIDENCE BASED FOR THE 1990 DEFINITION OF AUTISM, NOT THE NEW COMPLETELY DIFFERENT GROUP OF THE AUTISM SPECTRUM!!!!!

  11. Thank you. While I wasn’t treated with ABA (didn’t get diagnosed till I was 37) I was actually abused into normal and the physical was so much easier to deal with then the mental and emotional. And that was the SAME. Exactly. My needs ignored, my trying to communicate, my meltdowns were all treated as things to be trained out of. And it hurts, still. 40 years on. Thank you.

  12. I have “high functioning” autism and I am also a teacher of autistic kids. Most of my student would be classed as “severe and profound” as many of my students often have other disabilities. Very severe behaviors, such as self-injurious behaviors or injurious to others (trust me, I have scars I can show you.) I have been trained in “ABA” practices and I rarely use them. I do believe that all behavior is communication… and if the behavior is “negative” (such as self-injury or injurious to others, etc) I determine what causes the behavior. Then I design approaches that can help the child reduce behaviors. Maybe they are stressed about schedule change, maybe they don’t like a noise, maybe they are bothered by the brightness of something, maybe there’s a smell, maybe they don’t understand a concept… etc. When I teach in my room, if my student doesn’t understand or “get” something, I assume that it was a failure on my part and not the student’s. I try to engage in a high rate of natural environment and play based teaching. I try so hard to have blocks of the day where it is student driven… get down on the floor and play with kids and follow their lead. I don’t like reward systems (feeding kids treats for doing a great job like in DTT) … I don’t know… I’m constantly trying to improve myself and make sure I’m the best I can be for my students. My goal is not to “make them normal” or less autistic and I’m always upfront with parents. My goal is to reduce severe harmful behavior and increase communication needs. I just worry… I want to do the best I can.

    I just hope I’m doing the right thing when I use some concepts of ABA.

  13. So here’s my question. As a parent of an autistic toddler, we want what’s best for the child. We live in a judgmental society regardless of if you are autistic or not. They judge you based of race, religion, sex, age, etc. We all go to school and have guidelines to follow as a society. Raise your hand to and wait to be called, be quiet in an auditorium when a speaker is talking, etc. We have rules in society and you are judged, talked about, frowned on, etc if you do a non-social act. If you are saying ABA is not the right tool because it is a form of abuse, then explain what the right way is. There is a reason why statistically we have a higher suicide rate for autistic people due to the non acceptance of their behavior in society. We all conform to life around us and to say well people should just accept us is great. But reality is that is not the case with this world where everyone is judged. So tell me exactly what is the best way to direct an autistic child in a way that they are accepted in our world as they are without feeling judged everywhere they go. What guidance center exist that is geared towards developing autistic kids that not only strengthens their individuality but prepares them for social acceptance? All I see is ABA centers, but there is nothing else. There’s where the problem lies. There is simply nothing else available that is state funded or even privately created that we can go with. Please provide solutions instead of saying one way is not it. Because at the end of the day, I am not qualified or certified to know which development center to go with.

    1. “All I see is ABA centers, but there is nothing else. There’s where the problem lies. There is simply nothing else available that is state funded or even privately created that we can go with.”

      That’s because ABA is a total racket. It exists to perpetuate itself. It’s “evidence based” or “data driven” according to them, but guess who controls that data and what it says? That’s right, the very practitioners of it. For all the hours ABA acolytes spend “working” with children, they spend just as much time, if not more, doing all the paperwork behind the scenes to justify ABA, to make it look like the program is working, even if they have to keep lowering the bar and changing the data points to do so.

      So it is marketed to politicians who make the laws dictating what the state, public schools, and/or insurance companies can cover, and because the ABA racket went to them with their “documented proof….EVIDENCE that it works,” it becomes the go-to for ASD families, because the politicians and insurance companies can say they put money towards what is proven to be effective. “Just look at the evidence!”

      1. Oh and the ABA acolytes also have premanufactured excuses as to why that type of programming doesn’t actually yield promised results across the board:
        1) It’s the parents’ fault
        2) The highly trained professional ABA practitioner was doing it wrong
        3) That’s as good as the child was ever going to get

        ABA acolytes are sick individuals.

    2. Have his problems properly diagnosed. Autistic is nothing more than a description of a behaviour. Until you KNOW why he is autistic then whatever you do is likely to be of little help.

  14. If I’m being honest there valid points to this article. I agree, in the videos it was not shown that the children’s feelings were being taken into account. However, it was also not explicitly shown what transpired beforehand with the children that caused their reactions or the reactions of the therapists.
    Using the videos for analysis is a great move and isn’t being dissuaded, but the statements of what the Child might be feeling is also an opinion since no one can say what a person is feeling from one moment to the next with 100% certainty.
    Is ABA always great? No.
    Is it always harmful? No.
    There are highlighted points and deficits to ABA.

    I want to give a quick hypothesis: Let’s say the child from the video with their hands held in their lap repeatedly is a child who rips their hair out of their heads, causing contusions, tissue damage, blood loss, and ruptured skin prone to infection. Is this behavior stimming or an precursor to feeling overwhelmed or satisfying a need? Debatable, but unknown. However, the immediate problem in this scenario is the injury caused to the child. What would you do in this situation?

    Let’s unfold what has been attempted:

    The child continuously injures themselves, asking them to stop hair ripping and explaining the concept of hair pulling dangers has failed. Inquiring why they do the hair ripping has be inconclusive and the ripping continues. Offering distractions and facilitating options to empower the person to make an alternative non-dangerous decision has failed. Finally, blocking their hands for physically completing the motion to pull hair out has failed and has agitated the child and may have increased the hair ripping behavior.

    This hypothetical situation is a common issue addressed in current ABA 2020. Though the year of the video is irrelevant for this hypothetical scenario, the 2020 ABA response would be to redirect the child’s hands continuously to their lap protect them from hurting themselves. Maybe in this scenario the child doesn’t mind or even enjoys the sensation of the hair ripping. The reason this scenario has the child’s hands in their lap and continuously held there by the therapist is to stop injury. This scenario given could be similar to how a medically licensed physician would block a child with PICA from ingesting non-food, harmful objects.

    My point isn’t to change your mind about ABA, but to point out that there is good and bad sides. To ignore the child’s feeling in ABA is wrong and a negative connotation. To control them is even worst, but for a second let’s consider this:

    Same scenario, but instead the child pulls someone else’s hair.

    Unfortunately, the reverse scenario is a commonality in ABA. In that moment, the child is pulling someone’s hair. You’ve tried the aforementioned approaches, but unfortunately the hair ripping continues, so the child’s hands are put into their lap whenever hair maybe close enough to pull. Unfortunately now, the kid is being controlled in order to not hurt others who’s feelings aren’t or cannot be considered by the child.

    Now, on this reverse scenario the kid has grown up into a 30-45 year old adult. Who has just ripped someone’s hair out. Yes, this child aged into an adult is considered neurodivergent, but in this moment have injured another person. In that moment, yes there may have been things affecting this person seen and unseen. However, now someone else is also hurting. What happens now that assault has happened?

    Best Case Scenario: The person who was assaulted knew enough intricate information about that the adult who ripped their hair out. That they were neurodivergent, overwhelmed and or fulfilling an internal need, and perhaps very apologetic afterwards. Crisis averted.

    Worst Case Scenario: The person is a stranger; completely unaware of all of these details and is now in immense pain, knee jerk reactionary, and retaliates by causing grievous bodily harm to the adult who ripped their hair out for virtually no perceptible reason from their perspective.

    If the worst case scenario is actualized, then you have two hurt people in a alarmingly escalating situation.

    Since you have tried to teach through other methods to stop the hair ripping, and it persists…wouldn’t the logical thing be to attempt muscle memory teaching that child turned adult not to rip hair by physically reminding them that when hair is present, put your hands in your lap?

    I respect the practice of putting the client’s feelings first is health professional’s duty. I agree with the notion that having your feelings diminished is toxic and harmful. However, its sometimes situational in my opinion. Feelings and rights are to be protected and respected regarding the person being empowered/living a life of their choice, but not at the endangerment of the self or others.

    The ABA in 2020 has shown to focus more on teaching:
    -Basic survival skills of clothing, bathing, and feeding one self
    -How to navigate the unbalanced, unequal tribulations of life (emotional regulation in the face of adversity)
    -How to communicate (whether by sign or method comfortable yet understandable) needs, wants, desires, and goals to the external world
    -Basic cognitive development skills (like critical thinking and puzzle solving skills)

    Than control.

    As a modern ABA therapist, coming across this article really broke my heart. I wholeheartedly would like people have experienced ABA in the past to share their experiences with those currently in the ABA field so we can improve the shortcomings. Shock therapy was once used as the main “cure” for depression, but it was obviously not flawless. However, electro-convulsion therapy does help lessen seizures. If parts of ABA don’t work, parts that do can be similarly converted into a hybrid interdisciplinary cross-field practice to make better therapy in my opinion.

  15. I was born premature to a single mum (father had visitation couple times a year or so), and I was suspected to have prenatal alcohol syndrome. Combine that with (potential) speech development issues around the time I was 2-3yo, I had already figured out that I wasn’t like other kids, but I was somehow different. Went to shortly after me having a tantrum at a Catholic School, of which I was practically expelled from due to that (along with quote “me having took a stapler and stapling my arm.” When in reality all I did was take a few individual Staples and just poked my arm with it while the principal was talking to me about my said tantrum as I was unhappy about something or something like that, I don’t really remember it that much… but needless to say, mum took me to a doctor and a therapist, and I was diagnosed with ADD, was put on meds that did NOTHING but make whatever my “issue” was/is worse. My mum being disabled/WC bound around the time I turned eight years old didn’t help either, as then I was partially raised by my grandparents/had to help my mom with physical therapy and helping her go to doctors offices and hospitals to take care of what she had to take care of, at least until she passed away in 08 or so from a blood clot that I had coincidentally told one of her visiting home nurses that she had a blood clot, as I had just watched a documentary on Discovery health about blood clots and she was literally exhibiting all of the symptoms of one, to which I was ignored and even mocked. At least she passed away in her sleep…Granted, I know they all had the best intentions for me, but to me it felt like they weren’t addressing ME, there were addressing my behavior issues. And crap like this ABA, all the therapists, my family who wouldn’t address the CAUSE of my behavior, be it from being raised in a broken home with a disabled mum or not having a traditional two-parent household raised by mother and father… I just feel like all of these “professionals” tried to turn me into a “normal person”, but eventually went with the developmental problem diagnosis to the point that I was actually put into an Autistic classroom (per doctor’s orders 😭), where I excelled up and even helped some of the autistic kids in the class with some of their issues, well at least up until 3rd/4th grade…Then IT ALL WENT DOWNHILL! From then on, was told that I had either a learning disability to mild autism or even Asperger’s, mathematics disorder and ADD/ADHD, from multiple therapists/doctors, in different states/organizations like TEACH @UNC (in all honesty I think teach was probably the one that got it right, but I have no idea because I still have no f****** idea what’s wrong with me lol. That was all back in the 90s/00’s. Now that I’m an adult, even though NOTHING helped at all with my continuing problems that I know exist because I’ve never felt right per se…More so in that in the back of my mind I know that there’s something about me that isn’t necessarily normal as society would like me to be but all the resources for adults with autism or whatever are lackluster to say the least and are absolutely no help at all. Hell I don’t even know if I have f****** autism cuz damn doctors and therapists f***ed my mind/brain up (I suspect chemically, but again I don’t know, and at the rate I’m going I will probably never know…) and the didn’t even address as to WHY I was acting out (which I honestly attribute to me feeling unhappy or something like that because I didn’t have mum AND father around in a traditional family style unit… Go figure, huh?). As a result of all of that, I was a bad kid and did some bad things and hurt my mum in more ways than I care to admit, hurt my grandparents in more ways than I care to admit, and I practically ruined my father’s financial stability with medical bills, child support, etc…IDK, just feel unlike a normal person in general…
    I DO KNOW that I wasn’t treated like an individual, I was treated like a statistic, or even a number on a piece of paper. I do not have the financial ability to hire therapist, I quit taking prescription medication when I was 17yo of my own fruition, because they were interfering with my education (was sleeping in class, and it wasn’t due to insomnia). I’ve had the pills (I think I started off with ritalin, that made me have like a slow-motion acid trip or some crazy s*** I don’t remember but it was weird as hell, then tenex and risperdal, then I want to say abilify and…something spelled like bupropion(?)), and the patches (Do they still use those medicine patches? LOL). OH, and I was in what I can only call a clinical trial for ADHD medication where doctors pricked my finger on an almost daily basis me for blood tests, put me on at least I believe three or four different medications at various intervals during my time there, and one time when I acted out or had a tantrum or something like that and I wouldn’t calm down, I was thrown into a white padded room by myself with nothing but a drain on the floor and an overhead light above me. I don’t know how long I was in there…It could have been 10 minutes, it could have been 30 minutes to an hour I do not remember…but I do remember pissing down that drain because I begged and pleaded and cried and banged on the door and rolled around on the floor…I practically became an uncontrollable animal all because I had to fuckin piss and I was not allowed to leave the padded room and go to the bathroom. I told em as much and that I was going to piss in there if they didn’t let me out. So I did and they let me out then LOL. Although, I wasn’t necessarily a loner during my school years, but I definitely did not have the social skills or any skills really to fully integrate into society. To this day I have trouble looking people in the eyes. I used to stim when I was a kid by rocking back and forth (mainly in the car, for some reason) but since I got weird looks I eventually stopped it myself, cuz I didn’t want to be that “weird kid/dude”. However, I still will occasionally wake up and find myself to have been rocking back and forth in my sleep…I don’t know why…I cannot go outside without fear of being made fun of because I f***** up saying something stupid to somebody, I’ve been in fights with friends and ex-girlfriend over miscommunications on my part or adverse reactions that aren’t socially acceptable, like laughing when somebody is mad n yelling at you when you messed up or whatever, I can kind of read body language but that doesn’t really help me any because no matter where I go or where I’m at I never feel like a normal person in public…I’m just tired of not being listened to, not being taken seriously by people because of whatever the f*** is wrong with me, I can barely hold down a job for more than a year that doesn’t involve me f****** up the job to the point that my only source of income right now is Doordashing…I’m sick of all the f****** b*******, man. Funnily enough, I’ve lost most of my faith in people at this point and now I’ve been leaning on God as of late… MAYBE IT’S BECAUSE HE’S THE ONLY ONE WHO LISTENS TO ME ABOUT MY PROBLEMS! Everybody else that I try to talk to about it, I’m either told that it’s in the past and it doesn’t matter now and to get over it and move on, or to just shut up and suck it up cuz they don’t want to hear it, or how they have lives to live and can’t deal with me and my problems, or how I’m just someone who uses people because I’m selfish…And yet none of them address my actual needs…Well…Now that I think about it, I don’t even know what I need…I have no f****** idea. Everybody’s always told me that I need to be productive member of society, but how the f*** can I be a productive member of society if nobody will teach me the things that I need to learn to be a productive individual!? Parents didn’t do that, school didn’t do that, people at jobs don’t do that, nobody has f****** done it. And now I’m youtubing everything and trying to learn as much as I can by myself, and I’m bitches at for it cuz I’m always on my phone. I’m always on my phone cuz nobody f****** takes me seriously and at least people online will actually talk to me and I can have conversations without people ignoring me or jumping into a conversation with someone else when they get bored about what I’m talking about or whatever man f****** ridiculous and I’m trying to change myself if I don’t know what’s wrong how the f*** can I better myself?! So f*** it I’m just going to do what I can with what I got try to find a job that pays relatively well so I don’t have to be a burden on anyone else cuz that’s all I felt like for 29 years is a f****** burden, even though I was my own burden for doing stupid bad s*** as a kid/young adult that I shouldn’t have done now that I look back on it but at the time I didn’t think about anything I just did stuff with very limited self-control…Oh crap I’m rambling now…I’m probably going to get s*** on here for posting this on here but you know what f*** it I don’t care, hopefully someone can learn from my mistakes and have a better life because of my…I was going to say story but I guess you can consider it an essay, but whatever, if you read this thank you and God bless you.

    1. So sad 🙁 I do worry about this labelling of children, which then seems to determine how they will be treated, instead of helping the individual.
      We are all individuals and no two of us are every exactly alike. Autism is a DREADFUL diagnosis because it ends up with being “boxed” and expected to behave in certain ways and resong in certain way to a formulated treatment of the ‘diagnosis’.

  16. I had been warned so much about ABA and how insidious it is. I was tricked into working for an ABA program — I didn’t know what it was when I started, and was horrified once I found out. ABA teaches instructors to ignore a child’s feelings in order to focus on the desires of the NTs who put them in the program. Clients were always too loud/quiet/affectionate/distant. No matter the behavior, it appeared we were there to only discourage them. They couldn’t flap their hands, rock back and forth, repeat phrases, stroke the chair, nothing. They were to sit and be quiet like obedient little robots, and in return they got a puzzle, a piece of candy, a video, a toy. It’s absolutely awful. This doesn’t mean the clients didn’t like us — my clients were always delighted to see me. But in the brief time I worked there, I knew that it was harming them, and I cried every single day.

    ABA is so evil and it’s so easy to trick even the most well meaning NT people into thinking it’s helpful. To disguise it as something it’s not.

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