Despite increased understanding and acceptance of autism, there are still people (mostly neurotypical) who push for a “cure”. Most people on the spectrum do not want a cure; they are happy being who they are, those who do want a cure often do because of a lifetime of being made to feel inadequate by the neurotypical people in their lives who profess to love them.
What is ABA?
ABA (or Applied Behaviour Analysis) uses positive reinforcement (and sometimes punishment) to reinforce what it sees as “good” behaviours, whilst eliminating “bad” behaviours. Advocates of it tote it as an autism “cure” or “treatment”. They claim its use can bring “meaningful and positive change in behaviour.”
It is a very intensive “therapy” and often requires the “patient” (read “victim”) to undergo a gruelling 40-hours per week of “therapy” in order for it to work. For many people, alarm bells should be ringing loudly right now that any child should be expected to spend 40-hours per week going through intensive behaviour modification but, unfortunately, many parents believe the lies spread by advocates of ABA and certain “autism charities” and truly believe that they’re doing the right thing and that putting their child through ABA is done out of pure love, in the hopes of transforming their poor, lost autistic child into a “real person”.
So, what’s the problem?
The largest problem is that these sessions do not cure autism at all, what they do, in fact, is teach the child to mask their autistic behaviour so that, to a neurotypical outsider, they appear to be magically cured of their “evil” autism. But these children are not “cured” or “doing fine”, they, like the proverbial swan, may appear to be gliding through life but beneath the surface they are paddling furiously, internally chanting horrible mantras such as, “calm hands!” to remind themselves not to stim lest the unseemly sight of hand-flapping upsets the delicate sensibilities of any unfortunate neurotypical people lingering nearby.
Hopefully you can hear the sarcasm dripping off many of the words used in the above text by my use of inverted commas but, if not, please let me clarify: autism is not evil, it is not some beast which snatches children away from their families in the middle of the night and it is certainly not a disease to be cured. Autism, like all neurodiversities, is merely a difference in the way an individual thinks and experiences the world. People with autism are not puzzles to be solved or burdens to their families; they are people who have every right to live as themselves without being forced to act differently just to avoid offending some person who can’t see the world from the perspective of anybody but neurotypical people.
Many autistic adults who were forced to go through ABA or other “behavioural therapies” as children have grown up with conditions such as PTSD as a direct result of ABA and being forced to mask.
I’ve been lucky enough to have very accepting, loving parents, so I was never subjected to the horrors of ABA. I’ve read about it though and have friends who have had their lives destroyed by it. In order to write this article, I have read through many articles, both by parents who think they can “cure” their child and by autistic adults who were put through ABA as children. Below I would like to address some of the issues raised in the things I have read.
But, autism is “bad”!
Seriously, I’ve seen this postulation posted in one way or another on many different forums and groups when I’ve tried to explain that autism just is what it is and, just like being neurotypical, it is neither good nor bad. The trouble is that people often confuse autism with the comorbid conditions that can go hand-in-hand with it (anxiety, depression, OCD and a plethora of sleep conditions, to name a few). The issue here is that many of these problems are a direct result of desperately trying to fit into a neurotypical world which is not friendly towards neurodiversity. Other comorbid conditions (sensory issues, gender dysphoria and so-called “learning difficulties”) wouldn’t seem so prominent if the world were more autism-friendly. Just as a deaf person need not feel disabled if only everybody could use sign-language, an autistic person need not have a hard time if the world was willing to make small compromises for them. To address sensory issues alone and how hard a place the world can be for autistic individuals, I will recount a story of a recent experience in our local bowling alley:
I had decided to take my children bowling, all three were very excited at the prospect of a fun day out.
When we arrived at the alley, disaster struck. I had forgotten just how awful those places can be for a person who is sensory-avoidant as my eldest child and I are. Bright, flashing lights; nasty-sounding, flickering fluorescent lights; booming music; loud noises; strange smells: the place was awful! My eldest child had one go at bowling and couldn’t take any more. Her younger brother and sister were having a grand time though so leaving wasn’t really fair on them. I bought my daughter a drink from the bar and suggested she sat on the balcony, away from the lights and noise (or so we thought) while the younger children and I finished our game as quickly as we could. As we stepped onto the balcony my poor daughter who usually tries to mask in public (despite me reinforcing that she should always be herself and honest about her feelings) was on the verge of a very large meltdown, we stepped outside expecting relief from the sensory onslaught but, no, outside there were still flashing lights and booming music. I re-entered the alley and asked a member of staff if she would mind turning the music down outside, I explained my daughter’s situation and thought she would be happy to oblige as it was mid-week during term-time, we were the only family using the bowling alley at the time and my daughter was the only person sat outside. Unfortunately, the staff member was not so accommodating as I’d hoped and refused to turn the music off or down. I tried to argue but it was futile so I went to apologise to my other children and to tell them we would have to leave as by this point Emma had started to shutdown in order to avoid a meltdown and I knew that the short-term psychological damage from a shutdown could last a week or more. At this point, the staff member sauntered over and informed me that she would turn the music off, but only for a little while. The way she said it made me feel as though she was deeply put-out by turning off the music and was doing me a huge favour. I wondered if I should get on my hands and knees and kiss her toes(!)
If the alley had simply turned off the music and lights for one session, my daughter need not have felt disabled that day. A shutdown could have been avoided and she would have been able to enjoy bowling with her family. Imagine a facility refusing to be wheelchair accessible, people would be up in arms! But because this is “just” autism, people assume the autistic individual should be able to “get over it” and cannot see how they are not being inclusive by having such a busy environment.
When I got home I wrote to the alley explaining what had occurred that day (I left out the staff member’s attitude as I didn’t want to get her in trouble) and asked them if they would please consider running autism-friendly sessions during their least busy period so that children like my daughter could enjoy their facilities. They failed to respond despite me sending another message a few weeks later. Please feel free to spam their Facebook page with pleas to change their mind.
“No person has been cured of autism and regrets it!”
Hmmm…well, the lady who posted this (I won’t link her blog) is half right I suppose: no person has ever been cured of autism! Those who were forced to go through behaviour modification therapy have been left with myriad mental health issues, but, hey! At least they don’t make their non-autistic counterparts uncomfortable by stimming and at least they can talk without using echolalia, who cares if they’ve attempted suicide multiple times because of what they’ve been put through, they can look you in the eye and talk about the weather(!)
“ABA is hard for me too! I hate seeing my child go through it but am doing it for their own good!”
This one is heartbreaking, these parents clearly love and care for their children very much, the suggestion that ABA is abusive is abhorrent to them, why would doctors suggest something harmful?! The problem is that many of the people who suggest ABA are not autistic and have never been subjected to it. ABA is taught in colleges and universities as a miracle cure and why should a doctor not believe what they are taught by their professor and why should a parent not believe what they are told by their doctor? This creates a vicious cycle of endless autistic people being put through harmful therapies under the name of progress with nobody really understanding what they’re doing wrong. ABA was first developed in the 1970s by Ivar Lovaas and Robert Koegel at UCLA, it was adapted from methods used by Dr Sidney W. Bijou in the 1960’s which he had formed using Skinner’s theories of operant conditioning. The reason I’m giving you this little history lesson is to point out that Skinner himself, who developed operant conditioning, eventually conceded that “punishment, unlike reinforcement, works to the disadvantage of both the punished organism and the punishing agency”.
Long story short, ABA does not work to “cure” anybody but can ultimately lead to the psychological destruction of the autistic individual. If you are a parent or carer, considering ABA for your loved one, I implore you to explore other options. Speak to autistic adults: both those who were put through ABA and those who were not; strive to understand your child more so you can see where behaviours you’re struggling with come from; look at other ways to help your child, including helping them to overcome any comorbid conditions (such as anxiety and depression) that may be affecting their behaviour and, above all, love them and empower them to be themselves and to be happy being themselves, don’t suppress their personality or coping mechanisms just to make other people comfortable.
We don’t need behaviour modification; we’re awesome!