Column: Accept us for who we are

Column: Accept us for who we are

Applied Behavioral Analysis (ABA) therapy is one of the most common forms of treatment used with Autism Spectrum Disorders. But many who undergo the experience claim to have their needs invalidated as they learn to suppress their Autism-related feelings. Some are even left traumatized.

ABA therapy is a method used to determine the nature of and suppress behaviors deemed socially undesirable while reinforcing those that are seen as normal.

According to Alex S’ InBloom Autism article on the history of ABA, behavior as a study had yet to catch the interest of researchers in the 1920s, as only the thoughts within the mind served as the dominant topic for those who studied psychology.

That is, until this approach to the study of human behavior was challenged by American psychologist John B. Watson in 1924. He developed the school of thought known as behaviorism.

This new approach advocated that scientific understanding of the mind should be shifted more towards the observable, visible behaviors from without. Watson suggested that this be done because he believed that the best way to learn was through interacting with things and stimulating the human consciousness, which he believed to be synonymous with the soul.

The theory that interaction brings about education was further proven by Ivan Pavlov via his well-known dog-themed experiment, in which he rung a bell when it was feeding time for the dog in question. As time went on, Pavlov’s dog came to associate the ringing of the bell with food, and started salivating at the bell’s sound.

However, the version of ABA therapy that is used on autistic children today is not quite the same as the treatment used on Pavlov’s Dog. To liken that dog’s treatment to that of ABA patients, Pavlov would’ve had to do his experiment a little differently.

As described by articles written on news sites VeryWell Health and Child Mind Institute, ABA therapy, or at least earlier versions of it, were equal parts reliant on punishment and reward. Imagine, for a moment, that the purpose of Pavlov’s experiment was based less on association of the bell with the food, and more so disciplining the dog to not take the food until the bell rang.

Imagine, that when the poor dog goes for the food before the bell rings, he gets a painful electric shock. According to both articles, electric shocks were a common form of discipline used on children, but were temporarily outlawed by the FDA in 2020. According to the former source, the ban was reversed via federal court appeal one year later.

As if the dog going for the food prompts an electric shock, imagine again, that the dog goes at the forbidden fruits of his meal again and again, not because he is unruly, but because he is hungry. Imagine once more, that the dog crying and going for the food is labeled by trainers as autistic behavior that needs to be eradicated.

Now imagine that this dog is an autistic child who cannot speak.

These instances that ABA patients end up in are not always food related, though. But few of many examples of the therapy invalidating children’s needs have been documented in the NeuroClastic article “ABA horror stories are far too common.”

One specific example involves a teacher at one of the “good” therapy centers that didn’t resort to unnecessary punishment. The teacher in question saw that one of their favorite students had mastered all the new behaviors that he had been taught, but was unable to stop training because the staff present were unable to get him to “produce” those behaviors on demand.

Because of this, his helpers started to resort to punishment, calling his frustration at his inability to cooperate “manipulation,” rather than trying to understand and help him.

That is the main problem with ABA therapy. It fails to work with autism, but instead tries to eliminate it so that the autistic person that “suffers” from the condition can become normal and integrate into society. The only thing that can come from working against a child who understands his life so little is life-long trauma and/or confusion.