It was behavior therapy all along, and I had absolutely no clue– until now

I can go on forever about how rough my childhood was, but I can never forget my days with the GMS. The GMS was a center in Manassas, Virginia, that was intended to look like we were there for athletics and gymnastics, but in hindsight, I realize it was clearly a “therapy” center.

I struggled a lot with certain activities in that “gymnastics” class. I’m still wondering how one crawls like an alligator…

Every time I tried to do it, I was criticized to the bone. Like literally, every move I made with my body had to be 100% on point, but I couldn’t coordinate my movements to their standards. It was like an exercise in being constantly corrected about how I was doing it wrong.

Let me tell you more about instructors’ attitudes toward me:

One instructor apparently did not believe that respect was a two way street. Whenever I did as little as burp, she would run up to my face and call me disrespectful and despicable. And yes, I said excuse me before she did that. But I had been told, better out than in. As if she never burped before.

And that was just one of many examples. She would also get on my case for asking her to be more clear on instructions. The instruction was to make a pattern with something while blindfolded.

I don’t remember exactly what it was I was working with to do those pattern things, but the instructor then says, and quite sternly, “If you were doing patterns, that would only mean you were peeking. You are not supposed to peek!”

In hindsight, autistic people are pattern thinkers. It was as if she wanted to stop me from thinking the way I’m wired to think by sending me the message that how I think and my reality is wrong.

How could it get worse than that?

Apparently, injuries were not tolerated at the GMS. Whenever I got as little as a bruise or a sore knee, which according to my parents is supposed to happen a lot when growing up, another instructor, whom I’ll call ‘Anthony,’ would lead me to the darkest room in the building and say, “Come with me. I got a saw, and we’ll give you a brand new leg.”

I don’t know how serious he was about that, but even if he wasn’t serious, his goal would’ve been to convince me to ignore injuries and the emotions I felt.

I was led to believe from that day forward that it doesn’t matter how I feel about things, and that I can’t be myself– or else I’ll go through worlds of pain.

So what does it have to do with Applied Behavioral Analysis?

I don’t know for sure. However, I did connect the dots when I saw this article from CL Lynch:

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

That article contains a video in which a young girl’s hands were constantly grabbed by an ABA therapist, and the narrator then stated that her defeated face was her believing that it didn’t matter how she felt.

That was was the same way I felt at the GMS, as well as many other places, but that’s another story.

One thing is for certain: if I were to share that video with any of my political & advocacy friends, the first two words that would come to their minds are sexual grooming. A grown man was putting his hands on a young child without her consent. What more is there to understand?

The moral message(s)?

Respect is a two way street. If you get mean and angry with autistic folks, they’re not going to know how to show compassion no matter how much you demand it from them. Even worse, though, is to manipulate them into being compliant by grooming them to accept authority against their instincts.

When I started this article, as an adult, I had needed many years to process how wrong things I experienced were. In the fact-checking process of editing, I found out some disturbing things.

This person who worked with me was arrested for inappropriate sexual exploitation with a teen client:

This was another person who worked with me at GMS. She gave us the “pet treatment.”

This was the owner, who also worked with me:

These incidents leading to arrests happened over a span of time from the 80s to the 2019. I attended GMS from 2002-2005.

Whether or not it was ABA, officially, is not relevant. It was behaviorism. What is relevant is that people who claim to have the answers about how to “fix” autistic behavior and make them more “appropriate” by changing their behaviors are starting from a place of abuse.

What I saw in videos of ABA looks like what I experienced. I am still processing what happened to me, and it is hard to realize a few of the people who caused me so much trauma were arrested for abusing other children.

I’m sorry for all the Autistic and otherwise disabled kids who have to experience this kind of abuse regularly.

How many children have been hurt there? How many more have been hurt at the thousands and thousands of behavior-centered “therapy” places for Autistic and disabled kids around the world?

How many Autistic people will take years or decades before they ever overcome the shame placed on them and muster the courage to speak out about how they were traumatized– even if the offenses don’t rise to the level of being a crime? How many will never grow beyond learning that they have to comply with authority, that they are born always being wrong, and will never speak out?

One promise I want to make to everyone reading is that I will not stop fighting for the Virgina commonwealth for lovers and the broader disability community worldwide. I will not stop fighting for autistic acceptance. I will not stop sharing the message that it’s ok to be different as long as you be yourself.

Editor’s note: We were not able to find evidence of current therapeutic glasses for GMS, but we were able to find over 200 archived snapshots of the website for in Manassas, Virginia, dating back to 2001. We were able to verify that each person from this article, those named and those not named, were employed during the time Alex Sprague attended. We could also verify that GMS provided a therapeutic class for “special needs children […] where children learn social skills, self esteem, as well as gymnastics. We allow children to work within their own abilities and help them achieve and strive for their personal best.” (Archive of, February 18, 2003).

It appears they continued this program until at least 2018, but it is unclear when the program started. We were unable to reach GMS for further comment.

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9 Responses

  1. I Googled “alligator crawl” and found this:

    That’s an adult-level exercise for most people. How the hell is a little kid, let alone a potentially DYSPRAXIC little kid, with low muscle tone, supposed to do this? How?

    Those people were assholes. Holding young children to grown-up standards. Seriously, usually it takes quite a bit of strength conditioning before someone gets even NEAR the ability to do this. ESPECIALLY if that someone is a child.

    I bet any actual gymnasts on here would second that.

    And you know what? This is yet another example of ABAers holding children to inappropriately adult standards. Figures they’d do that in athletics, too. But then again, the abusive ABAers at my special ed school (ABAers in all but name) did that in swimming lessons – real swimming teachers, who taught neurotypical children, never hassled me nearly as hard although they, too, were concerned with proper form to some extent as any instructor should be. They, unlike the ABA swim instructors, understood that I might not get absolute proper form right away and that was okay because the goal was supposed to be improvement, not “instant perfection, do not pass Go, do not collect $200”. And I’ve read the biographies of Olympic athletes – their instructors don’t get as exacting as the ABA athletics instructors until they reach the ELITE level. And that’s saying something. And that’s in gymnastics, where people are graded subjectively on their performance. Whereas ABAers will do that with damn near everything.

  2. This is extra sad to me because gymnastics was such a respite for me growing up. It was where I got all of sensory needs met. But my coaches were kind and encouraging, not child abusers. And it wasn’t anything specifically for autistic kids.

  3. Psychology is not a hard science and as a field it has many faults; it has since the start and it continues on the same path. You are not a medical doctor. Don’t compare yourself to one.

    1. ….where did ANYBODY mention a medical degree why would one be relevant here? Psychology and medicine are two completely different areas????

  4. I’d also wager that in 15-20 years, the kids that are going through ABA *now* will have begun to process what they went through and will open up about the abuses. It’s not that ABA was so different/worse back then, it’s that those kids are adults now.

    Regardless of methods, the goal of ABA remains to make the child more “normal” and “acceptable,” and often just to be easier for the family to “deal with,” not to help the child find ways to actually cope better with the world. That is the problem.

  5. Alex, I am sorry this happened to you! Thank you for writing about it – opening eyes. Your writing about it will help others. And thank you for the advocacy work you are doing to educate legislators and work toward legislative solutions to prevent abusive practices.

  6. Me recomendaron ABA para que llevara a mi niño que es autista pero con todo lo que he leído mejor sigo enseñándole yo en la casa, no voy a llevarlo a un lugar donde ayudarlo termine dañandolo

  7. Dang, what a sad mess. Brings up the thought that I might have been lucky in a way to be an undiagnosed autistic kid in the 1960s and 70s before this kind of stuff was come up with.
    Yes, there were problems with and problems in that life but at the places I was there sure as hell wasn’t this!

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