Is training abuse?

CONTENT WARNING: I am going to be talking candidly about Applied Behavior Anaylsis therapy. Especially in regards to whether or not you should put your autistic child through Behavior therapy of any kind. This is my opinion. This is not black and white, but all the gray. OK? If you can’t handle it, I strongly suggest you move on, with no judgement.

Speaking of black and white, I have a fear of killer whales- because their markings look like eye contact run amock, and because they have the potential to be vicious oceanic killers. So yeah, you don’t judge me and I won’t judge you. Mutual assured destruction right here. You can send me a picture of an orca and I’ll go to pieces.


Is ABA abuse?

If you are unfamiliar with Applied Behavior Anyalsis you may be wondering what I have against Swedish singers, but that is ABBA. Whom I love. Pay attention.

I’ve written two posts about ABA, one more postive, and the other explaining the darker side of ABA in more detail. Why do I have so many opinions on ABA? Because my son goes to an ABA clinic monday through friday, practically banker’s hours. More than that, I use the principles of ABA for myself, literally all the time.

So, with that ringing endorsement you would think I am on the pro-ABA side of this argument… I am not.

When people ask or claim that ABA is abuse, I always answer, Yes! And then immidiately, also- no.

I think much of this debate could be answered by changing one word. ABA is not therapy. ABA is training.

Is training abuse? That depends on two factors: the child, and the trainor. I say child instead of trainee because much of ABA is done without the consent of the ” minor patient,” and that right there would most likely bring a lot of people to the abuse conclusion. It does for me sometimes. But then it doesn’t.

Let me explain in a different context. Remember that this is an imperfect analogy. So try to not google search “terrifying orca pictures” until you get to the end.

My older sister is a ballerina. She has studied, performed, choreographed or taught, for nearly my entire life, so, ballet for over thirty years. She is very good. I am intensely proud of her. My heart went in my throat everytime she was lifted by her partner in a performance. My eyes watered everytime she she showed such emotional presense on the stage.

She is a truly gifted performer, with some obvious natural talent. But like I said, she’s been in training for the majority of her life. Did she choose this path? Or was it chosen for her? And was it abuse? (Sorry Mom.)

Is ballet abuse? It certainly can be. Have you seen a ballet dancers feet? (Have you seen Black Swan? That shit was unreal at times, but also very familiar.) Do you know how much my sister sacrificed? Large swathes of her childhood were given up just for dance. Does she enjoy it? I think so. But did she choose it?

Well, ABA isn’t ballet, you might say.

No, but it is a form of physical and mental training based on performance. That is what ABA is- it is performance training. It is training to deal with non-autistic people and situations. It can be extremely uncomfortable. It can mess with you physically and emotionally. But in the end, you have the presense and skill to deal with an unforgiving society.

Oh, so it’s not abuse. It’s just an artform?

Uh, no. It can absolutely still be abuse. Like I said, it comes down to the trainor and the child. Many of these therapists (aka trainors) don’t see it as performance but rather as “recovery” or worst of all, “a cure.” These people should not be allowed to interact with your children. The skills learned in ABA are not the skills of a “normal human being.” They are camoflouge to fit in and understand a world that makes virtually no sense. They are manners.

Manners are not bad, but they are not “normal behavior.”

Manners are performance. They always have been. The difference with an autistic person, is the lack of those nuerotypical manners can cause them lasting trauma. Mostly because the world will punish them for any breach of that performance. Sometimes, with their life. Honestly, if they’re lucky, it will just be their emotional health, and not their physical body. Not like the little boy recently shot eleven times by police during a meltdown. And that’s just within the last few weeks.

I’m not saying this is ok. I would like the world to be so much better. We might get there. We’re in a bit of a culture war at the moment, and the backlash to an inclusive society without ableism is very intense. I just don’t see them changing fast enough to keep my son safe without a little performance on his part.

Here is the key. I have said it before and I will say it again. It is your job, as either a parent, or a therapist, to let the child know that this is a performance. There is nothing wrong with being autistic. There is nothing wrong with our sensitivity. Accomodation should be a welcome and innocuous thing.

If you do not do this, ABA results in a permanent kind of camoflouge. Which ultimately ends up in burnout and pychoisis. Sometimes suicide. And if you are the parent that let them go down that road, treating them as a “recovered autistic.” Well then, that is totally on you. You were unknowing in your abuse, but that kid was traumatized nonetheless.

And if you’re a therapist that thinks they are “curing” autistics. Get out. Just go find another job. Or better yet, rethink your ideas from the perspective of the children you are “treating.”

And some kids just do not have success with ABA. It’s not in their natural temperment. They have demand avoidance and don’t find that the inducement or “reinforcer” to comply with demands is strong enough to balance out the emotional toll. And therefore, that consistent forced compliance is damaging. It will result in trauma no matter how many m&m’s you give the kid.

I have a demand avoidance form of autism and so this would probably not work great on me without constant neuroaffirming support. So I watch my son CONSTANTLY for signs of trauma. I drive his therapists a little crazy, I’ll admit. And I’m constantly working on a back up if I feel that his ABA therapy has crossed the line into that traumatic territory.

But look, trauma is not death. You can come back from it. Start talking about manners and camoflouge and mirroring. Say Autistic with pride. Let them know that no one is “normal”. That we are all acting to a certain degree. Reinforce this with love and acceptance of things like stimming behavior at home. Give them a chance and a place to be themselves. Let them dance.

Yes, let them dance– or to bring my analogy back in a semi-clumsy way–

When you fall in dance, it hurts. And the large mirror they practice in front of? It sometimes shows you something you would rather not see. But it’s there for you to change. To make the small changes that turns something awakward into something with grace.

And if you haven’t noticed yet. I am not talking about the child. I’m taking about us– the movers, the shakers, the deciders, the parents and the trainers.

Is training abuse? You tell me.

Are you pursuing perfection or grace?

2 thoughts on “Is training abuse?

  1. “Manners are performance. They always have been. The difference with an autistic person, is the lack of those neurotypical manners can cause them lasting trauma.” Oh so true. This was a good reminder. My daughter has a hard time keeping friends. But this training in manners of typical behavior may be helpful. Do you recommend any home curriculum?


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s