As I mentioned, I’m not really up to bigass blog posts right now, but I thought I might put out a few shorter ones in which I explain THE RIGHT POSITION on an issue or topic. These arguments are on the house. Feel free to steal them and use them when you encounter someone who is WRONG.
Today: Applied Behavioural Analysis
If you don’t know what this is, you’re probably most people. Hello. I’ll explain. ABA is a controversial form of “therapy” mostly used on autistic children. It’s huge in the US, because for some reason it’s the therapy that is most often supported by insurance. It’s less big everywhere else.
Fans of ABA are mostly ABA therapists themselves and the parents of autistic children who like to enthuse about how ABA has completely changed their kid’s life, and he has learned all sorts of new things. Sounds great, right? There’s a bit of a problem, though: ABA has an unfortunate tendency to give autistic people PTSD. Oops. Almost every autistic adult who’s been through it describes it as a painfully negative experience with prolonged psychological consequences.
So how does it work?
Think about how you’d clicker train a dog. Sit. Click. Treat. Good boy. Sit. Treat. Good boy. Etc. That’s basic Skinner box behaviourism. Cause and effect, reinforced over and over. Dogs quite enjoy this game, but it can quickly get to be a bit much for them, so you do this for five minutes at a time, and then go and do something else.
You can train pretty much any mammal, and many other animals, this way, because they’re capable of understanding cause and effect, over and over. You can get them to do things that they find actively unnatural or unpleasant. You can train a parrot to ride a tricycle.(1)
Now think of doing this kind of training with a human child, all day, every day. Every moment is focused on reinforcing the behaviours you want from them. If they want anything good, even something like a smile and a moment of attention, they have to earn it by performing a behaviour. That behaviour may or may not make sense to them. It may or may not be actively unpleasant to them. It might be “I will refuse to answer you unless you make eye contact,” even though they find eye contact painful. It might be “you have to calm down from this meltdown” when they’re having a meltdown because something sensory is causing them distress. ABA revolves around coercing autistic kids to behave like neurotypical kids – it’s a sort of contortion of the mind. And it *is* coercion.
Kids may learn to do things in the sort of basic, dog training way. They don’t get a good understanding of why they have to do these things, only that there are consequences for compliance and noncompliance. Back in the day, lefthanded kids would be hit with a ruler for using their left hand to do things, in the hope that they would then become righthanded. If you do that enough times, they’ll use their right hand for things. The “undesirable behaviour” has changed. But there’s been no examination of why that change was so important in the first place, or what the kid has really learned from this.
So what have they learned?
They learn that it’s unacceptable to be who they are. They learn that they are fundamentally wrong in some way and they have to hide that in order to receive anything good in this world. They have to behave in ways that are unnatural in order to be accepted. Compliance is everything: more important than their happiness, comfort, belonging or sense of self. Not only does this cause an incredible psychological toll, but it also makes them vulnerable to abuse.
Giving acceptance, love and attention to a child should be unconditional. Whatever happens, this child is autistic now and will be for the rest of their life. You can’t make a child less autistic by training them to playact neurotypical behaviour for rewards. With enough conversion therapy, a gay guy will tie his brain in knots trying to behave like a straight man, but it won’t actually make him less gay. In ten years’ time, when he suddenly can’t take it anymore, and leaves his wife for the man he now loves, all he’s lost is time when he could have accepted himself and been happy.
ABA is conversion therapy. For disabled children. And it goes on for hours, every single day, for years. Sure, the kid may start saying please and thank you, making eye contact, and smiling at people, because of the fear of not doing so. Is it really worth it?
(1) Longleat used to do this – I remember seeing it when I was a kid. These days they don’t. They still have parrot shows, and they still train parrots to follow commands. But they like to make it an educational experience, and they only teach commands to do things that parrots naturally do anyway, like using their beaks to help climb, or searching complicated obstacles to find nuts. It’s much more wholesome. Kinda do miss the parrot on a trike though.