Autistic ABA Survivors Grow into Soul-Crushed Teenagers: Tracing the Roots of the Damage

All humans are born with the capacity and drive to seek out a distinct individual sense of self. This agency is robbed of autistic people who are conditioned under behavioral therapy with ABA (applied behavior therapy) to have a misconstrued sense of influence and control.

ABA is discrimination because the behaviors to be modified are targeted on the basis of disability. ABA is also extreme oppression because it is silencing a minority when their behavior (stimming) is not a threat to the majority and it allows them to function in a healthy way. The specific focus of the intervention is not primarily on helping a child to learn functional life skills such as brushing their teeth. Rather,  ABA practitioners are systematically forcing children to perform tasks without stimming, which autistic people must employ to move comfortably and efficiently through the environment.

Amy is an autistic teenaged piano student with perfect pitch. After every measure of four notes played, I ask her if she played it correctly since I know she can hear it and identify her mistakes by ear. For more than a year, she has always responds with, “I don’t know. Was it?” Recently, I asked Amy, “How do you know you are a good person?”

She answered, “Because people say, Good job, Amy.”

I probed a bit more: “So if you watch TV and don’t do math homework, how do you know you’re a good person?”

“Well, then I’m not a good person. I suck!”

Amy has grown to define her identity by the verbal affirmations of the tasks she has performed, whether good or bad. The consequence of the plummeting dignity and pulse of her human spirit is that educators feel compelled to keep lowering the bar to reflect her outwardly dull shell. Amy is now being rewarded for showing up to 3rd grade math class even if she fails the tests. She now presents like a robot that inhales and exhales daily, while completely disconnected from her ability to self-check her own performance for anything. Amy just lives her life waiting for a particular kind of feedback from the world around her to know how to operate next.  

B.F. Skinner was a 20th century American behaviorist who believed that thoughts, emotions, and actions are exclusively products of the environment. With that premise, he centered his discipline theories on rewards rather than punishment. The ABA practices rely heavily on operant conditioning so the student can modify their behavior to earn a reward. Practitioners will condition the environment so students will modify their behavior not because they fear the punishment, but because they fear losing the reward. That to me is still relying on fear as a deterrent, which is a very concerning psychological stressor.

An extreme behavior modification that is intentionally conditioned to be a response to an external stimulus can be a direct contributor to a permanent psychological trauma. Carl Jung agreed with Sigmund Freud’s experiments on word associations: a disturbance occurs each time a stimulus word has touched upon a psychic lesion or conflict (Jung, 1989, p. 147). An intervention that undermines a fundamental right of human functioning is a civic transgression, and a legitimate moral worry that must be publicly deliberated. One hundred years ago, Skinner tried to demystify the human condition. Today, autistic culture has a long way to go before it can be accepted for its unique contribution to the future of mankind.  

For all those who argue that ABA helped their child develop speech, know that speech is only a mark of achievement when a child is not like Amy: She is verbal, but her spirit is dead. How can we fix this? Read UNDOING OPERANT CONDITIONING TRAUMA WITH AUTISTIC PIANO STUDENTS.

Sources:

Jung, C. G. (1989). Memories, Dreams and Reflections. New York: Vintage Books.


IMPORTANT! Please take the ABA Early Childhood Intervention Survey for my Research Study click here for the link (Survey for Autistic adults 18+, or parents of autistic children)

One thought on “Autistic ABA Survivors Grow into Soul-Crushed Teenagers: Tracing the Roots of the Damage

  1. Very interesting. I actually want to study the effects of ABA on emotions/self worth/mental illness prevalence in older children and adults who went through ABA.

    We need more empirical data to show the harm. People ignore anecdotes and even case studies, at least in my experience. But thanks for sharing this data point, and my heart goes out to Amy.

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