(TRIGGER WARNING: ABA)
Another post I’ve been sitting on for a bit too long; keep getting sidetracked, for better or for worse. (Among the worse, my “day” job jerking me around like a fucking marionette. Among the better, the Northeast branch of the Xtreme Justice League is officially in operation. Real Life Superheroes of New England are more than welcome to reach out!)
So if you’re wondering why this is under a cut with a trigger warning — or even if you’re wondering what the hell ABA is — you’ll get no judgment from me. I didn’t even hear of ABA, let alone know what it stood for or what it was, until I became part of the autistic community on social media. Officially, it stands for “Applied Behavioral Analysis.” In practice, however, it quite simply is Applied Baby Abuse.
Sorry, proponents and practitioners, but that’s what it boils down to.
My understanding of ABA is that it’s meant to teach an autistic child what sort of behavior is appropriate and what isn’t. Punishment lurks among the mother-loving coats hanging in the walk-in closet, waiting for objectionable behavior. (*looks up toward heaven* Hey, Gord, how d’ya like them apples???) If there’s a system in place for the reward of good behavior, I’m not aware of it (and as such, I welcome polite comments of correction). But it hit me recently as I was thinking about “appropriate behavior.”
ABA suffers from a fundamental flaw. How does each person define “appropriate”? Parents and children, even neurotypical children, are always at odds over what is and isn’t appropriate, let alone parents and other parents. In the past month or two, I’ve found out the hard way that what’s normal in one household might be considered a horrific atrocity in another. So who decides what’s normal, and who decides what’s appropriate? And if an agreement is out of reach, then what the hell is the point of teaching normalcy and appropriateness to children who are overwhelmed just trying to process everything that’s happening around them??
I wonder about this because it wasn’t until my 20s that I figured out I was autistic. Very well might have found out before that, but after bringing it up to my parents, they revealed that they knew about it years earlier. They chose not to tell me because (in their words) they didn’t want me to think something was seriously wrong with me; they didn’t think I could handle knowing it.
Well, folks, not for nothing, but I already thought something was seriously wrong with me and that I’d never make it out of my 20s. Self-diagnosing (and say what you will about that, but I’m living proof that it’s legit) made me feel like a gigantic dead weight had just been yanked off my shoulders, and for the first time in my life, I could stand up straight and proud, and tell people I had a reason for being the way I was; and if they made a stink about it, issue them a mandatory directive to fold their cards, shuffle the deck, and deal with it.
But again and again, I came back to the question of why my parents kept it a secret for ten or more years. I remembered how they used to treat me if I did something they didn’t like — and frankly, they didn’t seem to like anything I did; it got to the point where I would just hole up in my bedroom and stare at the ceiling all afternoon, rather than risk being reprimanded for something as insignificant as clearing my throat too loudly. I felt reviled and detested, like I wasn’t worth the hospital bills incurred by my birth. It wasn’t physical abuse, but it left a lasting mark on my psyche. I still feel like I’m nothing but an annoying pain in the ass, and the tiniest error in judgment still causes me to have suicidal thoughts.
And now just in the last few months, it’s gone click.
Were they practicing ABA?
When some teacher or guidance counselor or extended family member or God knows who else first suggested to them that I was autistic, how, I wonder, did they react? Back then, autism was still looked upon as a horrible affliction on the same level as demonic possession. (As devout as my mom is, I wouldn’t put it past her to have thought exactly that.) Remembering how they would react if I had a sensory overload or a meltdown in public, the next thing to cross my mind was: Were they embarrassed to have me in their family? Did they think I needed to be fixed so as to smoothe out their lives, and did they think ABA was the only hope of repairing what was “broken”?
(I’d like to think it’s just that they were practicing the same parenting style they themselves were raised with — the old-fashioned Victorian “children should be seen and not heard” philosophy. But reading about the destructive effects of ABA makes me think two, three, and four more times.)
I have never asked them any of this. It’s behind us now, and I’m enjoying all the time I’m able to spend with them while they’re hale and hearty. But being treated like an uncooperative dog has a deep-cutting effect on a developing brain, and the memory of it stays with you as such. (Last Christmas, I almost spilled it all, but managed to avoid ruining the cheer.)
Parents of autistic children (or “autism parents”, if they prefer to be so called) are constantly told they’ve got a serious problem. Their lives will become unbearably difficult. Their mental health will suffer. Their relationships will go right down the devil’s turnpike at ludicrous speed. Their child will be looked upon as a scourge, a blight, a pimple on humanity’s ass, and the only hope of solving this serious problem is *rumblumbumblumbroooolllllll* ABA.
*ahem* It goes without saying that this is the rhetoric of certain so-called “charities” hoping to bilk desperate parents for every dime they’re worth in the name of “research”. Oh, hey, you’re awake! Smell that fresh coffee I just made? You can’t research without an expert, and find me an allistic whose expertise exceeds that of an autistic person. You won’t find any such allistic (or an autistic person, for that matter) on the staff of Autism Speaks-for-itself, I’ll tell you that right now. The only “research” they’re conducting is into how much money they can spend on advertising themselves.
Another fundamental flaw that keeps being overlooked: ABA is promoted, and for the most part practiced, by neurotypical people — neurotypical people who wouldn’t be pushing the envelope so hard if they actually cared about the effect it has on children. Oh, sure, they can swear up and down that it makes an autistic child “better” or “more functional.” But the whole point of it is to break the child down and build them back up into what the parent wants them to be. And when you break down a kid and rebuild her, how do you know she’s better off? She’s been broken. She was autistic and you tried to make her NT. Did you succeed? Or did you build her back up into a person even more broken than you thought she already was?
And in the process of ABA-ing her, did you just deprive the world of someone who could have really made a difference — maybe someone who could have made a major scientific breakthrough, made a huge stride in space travel, maybe even discovered a cure for cancer — because you were too busy trying to cure her of autism?
Autism is not a disease. Therefore, autism does not need a cure. ALS needs a cure. Parkinson’s needs a cure. AIDS needs a cure. And maybe, just maybe, there’s an autistic person with the focus, the interest, and the attention to detail to find one of those cures if only they can be allowed to develop on their own, without having that unique, special skill ABAed out of them.