|[image: A visual icon with black|
text at the top reading, "no flapping
hands" above an illustration of
a person flapping their hands,
crossed by a black diagonal line.]
What most parents don't know, and what I only know now after encountering both autistic experiences with ABA and following contemporary ABA research, is that autistic children need supports and accommodations, not interventions based on non-autistic child development and conversion therapy. "Early interventions," and especially ABA, are the exact opposite of what young autistic children need to thrive. As autistic parent Carol Greenburg notes, "I’ve heard many parents say their autistic kids are 'rule-followers' and bitten my tongue wanting to ask if they thought it’s because we’re naturally rigid, or because we’ve been undergoing compliance training for as long as we can remember."
Unfortunately, I wasn't confronted with the case against ABA until my son until was a teenager. More worryingly, my ignorance is far from rare. Most research and writing criticizing ABA is either academic, or disability rights-oriented, and thus not on your average parent's radar. Dominant autism organizations like Autism Speaks, to which parents new to autism are often referred, describe ABA as a "'best' practice treatment." Criticism of ABA rarely surfaces in mainstream media—and if it does, concerns are part of a "both sides" discussion, at best.
Most parents, therefore, have no idea that autistic researcher Michelle Dawson decries ABA's premise as, "if autistic children must be treated ethically then they will be doomed." They don't know current research on ABA techniques endorses "motivating" children by withholding food or drink until they are desperate enough to comply. They don't realize that ABA "manifests systematic violations of the fundamental tenets of bioethics," nor are they aware that Association for Behavior Analysis International openly endorses techniques both the United Nations and the FDA consider to be torture.
How can parents support autistic children without subjecting them to ABA? First, we need to learn about autistic traits: the interplay of autistic processing, motor, and sensory factors, and compassionate ways to accommodate them. We need to comprehend that the way autistic brains work can make standard intelligence and adaptive scores irrelevant to a child's quality of life or “outcome.” These are all reasons why ABA is inappropriate for autistic learning.
Next, parents need to find autism professionals who not only understand these factors about being autistic, but who understand that autistic people find prolonged interactions with non-autistic humans exhausting—instead of making nearly every mainstream autism intervention about adults invading the space of autistic children for stretches of time their peers would never be expected to tolerate. Parents also need to learn to be selective about the therapies they do choose: Our kids can indeed benefit from tailored therapies like speech therapy or occupational therapy, as long as those approaches are also respectful of, rather than antagonistic to, being autistic.
It can be really hard for parents who see their kids progress while in ABA to hear criticisms of an approach that they may consider "the only thing that works." Parents may not believe their kids could learn such skills without being put through drills. Personally, I saw my son learn to pull up his pants and use a visual schedule, and declared ABA a success. But now, years later, I am worried about some of my son's less adaptive tendencies, worry that they may be acquired from his years of ABA, and fret that this is my fault for not knowing any better from the get-go.
I want parents to consider that, when things are hard, doubling-down with more ABA techniques may make things worse. I want parents to ponder that an autistic child in a meltdown, however provoked, is experiencing just as much stress as parents are, if not more so. But if parents have never been given a framework to recognize their child's communication or experience (ABA supplies neither), if the child hasn't been given the tools to convey to their parents just how how distressed they are, and if as a result the child has probably lost trust in the adults in their life, then any "acting out" is often that child advocating for themselves in the only way they can.
If we are all going to do right by autistic children, we need to listen to autistic people with first-hand insights about the damage wrought by being mistreated and misunderstood by ABA and other early interventions. These are not always easy conversations to have. Consider what autistic disabled advocate Cal Montgomery told me, “We don't actually know what autism looks like in almost any autistics. We know what autism plus trauma looks like. And with respect to the general idea of what autism is, that mostly comes from white, traumatized, boys and men." So not only are we mentally scarring autistic children, but we're not even considering the needs of those who don't fit a stereotypical autistic profile.
We need to talk to autistic people about the effects early intervention had on them. Since my son doesn’t have those kinds of conversations, I spoke with Grace Trumpower, an autistic pre-med college student. When Grace was a young child, their parents were persuaded to put them in an intervention called sensory exposure therapy, which conditions a person to gradually tolerate distressing stimuli. Grace said it was initially fun, but then got distressing. And the therapists not only intentionally ignored that distress, but hid it from Grace’s parents. Grace said that, ironically, the therapy room was full of therapeutic items like noise-canceling headphones and weighted blankets that actually would have helped them cope—but the therapists’ goal was normalizing their clients, not accommodating them.
If we want autistic children to have the kinds of lives they deserve, then professionals need to stop promoting stress-triggering ABA and early intervention therapies that encourage parents to see their child as broken and incapable of learning any other way, and instead help parents learn best practices for supporting and accommodating autistic children. Until this happens, generations of our community's kids will grow up believing that how they react to the world is wrong, rather than different. As autistic writer Finn Gardiner tells it, "I had a bunch of stims trained out of me and my speech therapist was always giving me rewards for eye contact and ‘quiet hands.’ It took me until I was an adult to be comfortable with visible stims again."