I wrote this piece for the 3rd International Day of Protest Against ABA (Applied Behavioral Analysis) – August 31, 2020
MAJOR CONTENT/TRIGGER WARNING for explicit descriptions of ABA type techniques!
I was first identified as Autistic when I was 3 years old. Once I was identified, my parents were encouraged to enroll me into my local school district’s IEP program as per typical protocol. However, many of the “programs” offered by school districts across the country (USA) are deeply rooted in behaviorist practices, which are the foundation of ABA. This was true back in 1996 when I first started receiving services, and it is still unfortunately true today. Although modern neuroscience has for the most part blown behaviorist practices out of the water (https://idioms.thefreedictionary.com/blow+out+of+the+water – definition for literal thinkers), they are still being offered in school districts nationwide.
I went to elementary school between the years of 1998-2004. I was going through some of my paperwork from that time looking for traces of ABA. However, I guess the term ABA wasn’t around back then because I never once ran across the word ABA (as of yet) in my paperwork. Instead, I found similar practices cleverly disguised as terms such as “discrete trial training (DTT)”, “behavior modification”, or “Positive Behavior Support (PBS)”. While I was looking through my paperwork, I came across something alarming that was written on February 4, 2000. I was 6 years old and in 1st grade at the time. It was a draft “Positive Behavior Support (PBS)” plan. I glanced at it and got triggering flashbacks of vague interactions with adults during my elementary school years, particularly with my one-on-one aides and those deemed as “behaviorists*.”
* For the record, when I discuss what the adults in my life did to me, it is absolutely NOT an attack on any particular people or persons. What I’m discussing is a deeply broken system that is tarnished with outdated and potentially harmful information. Much of the reasons behind this have to do with dirty politics. Luckily, the majority of the adults in my life were genuinely good people who truly cared about me and only wanted the best for me. Many other people who have gone through similar situations aren’t always so lucky. I can only quote the great Maya Angelou when I say “when you know better, you do better.”
In honor of being the third annual International Day of Protest Against ABA (Applied Behavioral Analysis) today (August 31), I have decided to write up a “Red Pen Expośe” of that PBS draft plan from 2000. This is something I have been planning for a while but I haven’t had the time or spoons to do so. I also have executive dysfunction issues which complicates everything.
My plan is to eventually mark through and annotate all of my past paperwork to expose the insidiousness of ABA and ABA type practices first-handedly. I believe that my perspective is unique because I will not only be deciphering my paperwork from a personal level, I will also be deciphering them from a professional level as well.
My credentials include an A.S.-T in Child Development, a CAP-8 Certificate of Completion in Child Development, a B.A. in Early Childhood Studies, a minor in Psychology, and I’m currently in the process of acquiring my Masters in Child Development. My working thesis/project is a workshop for preschool teachers highlighting the importance of Emotion Coaching and co-regulation in teaching preschool children (ages 3-6) self-regulation skills.
Parenting and Child Development have been special interests of mine since I was about 9 years old. I first started working with children when I was 10, and I first entered the field of Child Development professionally at 16 when I took a Child Care class at my high school.
With all of that being said, there should be no doubt that I know my stuff when it comes to Child Development.
Now comes the fun part! I have made 30 annotations in this document in which I will expand on underneath each photo of the document. I will also cite sources to all relevant information included.
I know some people may be thinking “what does PBS have to do with ABA.” Please read this article to find out more about the link between PBS and ABA:
Reservations about Positive Behavior Support, or PBS: https://neuroclastic.com/2020/03/02/reservations-about-positive-behavior-support-or-pbs/
Please grab some hot tea ☕️ and enjoy!
*Disclaimer: All identifying information other than my first name have been blocked out for privacy and protection. I’m a consenting Autistic adult.
1) “WTF! This is incredibly suggestive. What exactly is meant by “behaving appropriately?” By whose standards?”
This document starts out by saying “the goal of this behavior plan is to get Brooke ‘behaving appropriately’…
Excuse me, but what exactly does it mean by “behaving appropriately.” One of the first things I was taught in school about observing children is to always remain objective. To imply that I’m not “behaving appropriately” is subjective. “Behaving appropriately” under whose standards? Neurotypical (NT) standards!
It is now known that Autistics have their own culture with their own social rules. To expect an Autistic or other neurodivergent (ND) child to adhere to neurotypical standards of “appropriate behavior” without asking neurotypical children to respect the standards of neurodivergent “appropriate behavior” is incredibly hypocritical. This phenomenon can be explained further by “The Double Empathy Problem” identified by Autistic researcher Dr. Damian Milton.
Read more here:
The Double Empathy Problem: https://network.autism.org.uk/knowledge/insight-opinion/double-empathy-problem?fbclid=IwAR1cgEce6nQvg-t6Mj-TAjQQav7XpdiJ39x7mO9Nw9XMx_p1wD6CT82OlxA
2) “This is known as false praise (Shumaker, 2012).”
In one of my favorite books ever, It’s Ok Not to Share by Heather Shumaker, she describes why these types of phrases shouldn’t be said.
“Teachers and parents often use false praise manipulatively by saying things like ‘I like the way my friend Maria is picking up toys.’ Maria is being used as a tool, not actually being praised […] chances are, several children are shooting Maria dirty looks and the praise certainly doesn’t improve her social standing. […] ‘I like how Maria is picking up means [to a child] I don’t like the way anyone else is doing it. Just be direct’”Shumaker, 2012, p.292-293
So basically, saying phrases like these can be interpreted as manipulative and insincere by a child. There are other ways to do this and get the same result. It’s just about being creative.
3) “I agree with the theory of alternative tasks, but I want to point out that wandering within itself is not inherently bad.”
Giving a child an alternative task is actually a pretty good strategy to help children who get distracted easily. Preferably these tasks should be chosen by both the child and the caregiver collaboratively.
Regardless, I want to point out that “wandering” around the classroom isn’t exactly something that should be pathologized. Wandering is typical for ND students. Many ND students do better in the classroom when they are allowed to move around the classroom as they work. I don’t have any explicit memories of “wandering” around the classroom although I do remember doing it sometimes, especially in my younger days (preschool). I think that sometimes it was because I was just curious of all the things inside the classroom. If a child’s wandering isn’t disturbing other students, it shouldn’t be too much of an issue.
However, wandering can also be a symptom of something bothering the child in the environment. In this case, it is a caregivers job to be a detective and work with the child to figure out what is causing them distress. Then work from there. Always fix the environment first, not the child.
4) “This can lead to “praise junkies.” (Kohn, 2001)”
One of the very first articles I received when I started taking Child Development courses at the college level was “Five Reasons to Stop Saying Good Job” by the renowned Alfie Kohn. This article was one of the cornerstones to my revelation that everything I was taught to know about how children learn was pretty much a complete lie. This is something I will expand on further in another post someday.
In the article, Alfie Kohn writes that if praise is handed out too much and too often and not sincerely enough that children can grow up to be “praise junkies.”
“Rather than bolstering a child’s self-esteem, praise may increase kids’ dependence on us. The more we say, “I like the way you….” or “Good ______ing,” the more kids come to rely on our evaluations, our decisions about what’s good and bad, rather than learning to form their own judgments. It leads them to measure their worth in terms of what will lead us to smile and dole out some more approval.”Kohn, 2001
Too much praise can also lead children to seek external validation (validation based on others perceptions) instead of internal validation (validation based on how one feels inside).
Read more here:
Five Reasons to Stop Saying Good Job: https://www.alfiekohn.org/article/five-reasons-stop-saying-good-job/
5) “Behavior is communication, smart-(donkey)”
I despise the word “behaviors” because it implies that a child is doing something for no other reason than to inconvenience the adults in their lives.
Repeat after me: Behavior 👏🏻 is 👏🏻 communication!
I tried many times to explain this concept to adults in my life but to no avail. Of course as a child, I had a really hard time articulating this concept to adults.
In fact, I want people to eliminate the word “behavior” from their vocabulary and replace it with “response,” because a behavior is ALWAYS a response to a stimulus (wether it be internal or external).
6) “Duh! As with every other child that has ever existed.”
It’s normal for ALL children to act out when they’re bored in school. This is what pushing academics too young can do to children.
Children shouldn’t be expected to produce academic work until around age 8 (3rd grade-ish). Their brains just aren’t ready for it yet. This is the model used in many other countries around the world. In Japan, children aren’t allowed to take “tests” until they are 10 years old (4th grade-ish). The younger grades are used to teach children social/emotional skills.
And this document was written before the infamous “curriculum pushdown” brought upon by “No Child Left Behind,” which was officially enacted during the 2002-2003 school year (THAT was a disastrous year for me [4th grade] – I have A LOT of content on that in which I will continue to work on for future posts).
7) “Again, duh!”
ALL children benefit from “clear” and “concise” directions. Directions that are too vague or abstract can confuse young children who haven’t developed the ability to pick up on the small nuances in directions.
8) “Yes, this is good, but keep reading…”
It’s good that whoever wrote this acknowledges that transitions can be extra hard for ND students. I agree with giving as much information about potential changes as possible to students.
I don’t understand what is meant by “make allowances for her anxiety.” Am I not allowed to be anxious during other times? WTF?
All emotions are ok, all behaviors are not!
Keep reading to see how adults can unintentionally add anxiety to children by the methods they choose to use.
9) “Or how about finding out WHY I’m saying “No” in the first place! SMGDH!”
This is probably the one thing in this document that angers me the most (besides the “planned ignoring” part coming up).
When a child says “no,” there is ALWAYS a reason behind this “no”. It is IMPERATIVE that caregivers investigate WHY a child is saying no in the first place.
ABA and ABA-type practices are notorious for not allowing a chance for children to say “no.” This a violation toward a child’s personal autonomy and free will. For more information, please read below:
ABA and the refusal to teach children about consent: https://stopabasupportautistics.home.blog/2019/07/23/aba-and-the-refusal-to-teach-children-about-consent/
Sometimes there are situations in which a child’s “no” may not be granted (i.e. a child saying no to taking medication, or a child saying “no” to coming inside from the playground when the child is not allowed to be outside alone without an adult [a common school safety rule – also has to do with child/teacher ratios]).
Regardless, a child’s “no” must ALWAYS be respected and validated, even if the child’s “no” cannot be granted.
The Importance of “No”: http://respectfullyconnected.com/2016/03/the-importance-of-no/
Example of a what to do in a possible exchange:
Teacher: “It’s time to come inside”
T: “I hear that you are saying ‘no.’ I wish I could stay outside too. It’s not safe to be outside by yourself. Please join your class or I will help your body.”A random example that I made up
Give the child time to respond to your words. If child does not respond in time, follow through and help the child towards the line. Check in with the child once the class has gathered inside (unless the teacher ratio allows for one adult to connect with child outside privately while the other teacher focuses on the rest of the group).
This might not be the best example, but it’s definitely more respectful than what I read in this document!
Basically respecting a child’s right to say “no” shows them that you respect their autonomy, regardless of the outcome.
10) “Of course. This is called “maturity”, or “getting older. Autistics grow up too!”
“Brooke has really improved her ability to monitor her own behavior.”
For some reason, whoever wrote this seems pretty shocked by this.
Well duh! These things tend to happen when a child matures. Autistic children aren’t exempt from this.
11) “This phrase is incredibly patronizing and condescending.”
Also read this:
Language Matters: Fighting Childism With How We Talk to Children: https://happinessishereblog.com/language-matters-fighting-childism-with-how-we-talk-to-children/
12) “Or sometimes I just want to be by myself, IDK!”
I don’t have any explicit memories of this. This sounds like an anxiety response from my point of view. In that case, a caregiver should work with the child to work through the anxiety about doing an unfamiliar task (if the child is willing to accept help).
Sometime this could also just mean that I just wanted to be by myself – duh!
Neurotypical children aren’t always expected to drop everything and join a peer when they ask to play, so why should a neurodivergent student be expected to do this? Again – double empathy problem.
13) “Appropriate manner? Again, this is incredibly suggestive!”
“Communicate ‘no’ in an appropriate manner”
I only half agree with this statement. A “no” shouldn’t always have to be screamed at the top of one’s lungs to convey a message. Sometimes a simple “no thank you” will suffice and achieve the same goal.
For example, if a child walks up to another child and asks to play and the child screams “NO” at the top of their lungs every-time this happens, children will eventually stop asking the other child to play. No one likes being screamed at. This is where perspective taking comes into play. There are respectful ways to teach children how to deny requests in a way that benefits everyone without resorting to behaviorist practices.
On the other hand, if a child had to say “no” in an aggressive way, this should not be discouraged. There are probably reasons a child is saying “no” aggressively (e.g. sensory issues). Doing so is a violation of a child’s own autonomy. Through this lens, the phrase “communicate ‘no’ in an appropriate manner” could be interpreted as tone-policing towards NT standards of behavior. This is what we want to avoid.
14) “How about starting with how adults treat the kids. Ever think about that? See below for what NOT to do…”
TBH, I don’t have many explicit memories of me doing this – but I 100% believe that it happened. I have very vague memories of it, but not much that I can extrapolate from. See next annotation for more info.
15) “Also, of course I’m not going to know how to set appropriate boundaries if adults don’t respect MY boundaries!”
Self-explanatory. Keep reading to understand the reasoning behind my statement…
16) “Again, this phrase is INCREDIBLY condescending!”
I have a few vague memories of being triggered by this phrase. It implies that “I don’t care about the reason you’re doing something else right now, you need to do what I want you to do right this second.”
It’s incredibly manipulative and I was able to pick up on that.
This phrase is a common trigger for ND students. There are more respectful ways to convey the same message.
17) “The only time you should ever physically redirect a child without consent is if they are in danger of hurting themselves, others, or property*!”
*I forgot to add – “or if their in an unsafe situation”
Read this post by A Teaching Unicorn to understand the dangers of over-using physical prompts:
We Don’t Need to Get Physical: https://teachingunicorn.com/2019/07/16/we-dont-need-to-get-physical/
18) “Of course! I’m f***ing angry! Why else would I ‘talk back.’”
This topic always ruffles my feathers (https://idioms.thefreedictionary.com/RUFFLE+MY+FEATHERS – definition for literal thinkers)!
I HATE the term “talking back*.”
(*Also known as sass, sass-back, being fresh, back-talk, giving mouth/lip, back-chat, etc…)
As a child, I never understood the term and I ALWAYS called out any adult who dared to say it to me. Pretty much EVERY adult in my life has said this phrase to me, from my parents to my teachers and pretty much every adult in between.
Stop referring to children standing up for themselves as “talking back.”
It is incredibly vague. I never knew which things I said counted as “talking back.” I would always counter with “I’m not talking back!” or “How am I talking back?” I pretty much never got a straight answer, but I never stopped trying!
These many interactions between me and adults around “talking back” has led me to be incredibly wary of authority figures.
The following quote by Rebecca Eanes help to summarize the insidiousness of referring to children standing up for themselves as “talking back”:
“So often, children are punished for being human. They are not allowed to have grumpy moods, bad days, disrespectful tones, or bad attitudes. Yet, we adults have them all the time. None of us are perfect. We must stop holding our children to a higher standard of perfection than we can attain ourselves.”Eanes, 2015
Read this article for an expanded explanation of this quote:
Punishing Children for Being Human: https://www.rebeccaeanes.com/punishing-children-for-being-human-2/
19) “ABSOLUTELY WRONG!!! This is the one thing you DON’T do!”
Modern neuroscience has pretty much proven that this is the WORST thing to do when a child is in distress.
Ignoring a child should be an ABSOLUTE LAST RESORT – not the first f***ing step 😡!
20) “This is just INSIDIOUSLY cruel! I have SOO much to say about this! This is SICK! If I’m correct, the reasoning behind this theory is based on the “Still Face Experiment”, which makes this even crueler! This is called “planned ignoring” and it can be incredibly traumatizing! I would be lying if I said I wasn’t still affected by this to this very day. When talking to someone, I will not stop talking until I get a response. This is due to treatment like this from adults whom I was supposed to trust. I’m lucky that I don’t have too many “specific” memories of this!”
As I mentioned above, the use of “planned ignoring” techniques on me by adults who I was supposed to trust has caused me to have trauma responses to this very day. I wish I was exaggerating. I have this thing that when I’m speaking to someone that if I don’t get some type of response from them quickly enough (I’m talking seconds), I will repeat myself until I get a response (preferably a verbal response). It literally doesn’t matter who I’m talking to. It’s much worse around people I know and trust. It is incredibly annoying to both myself and the recipient. It’s incredibly hard to explain this concept to people, so I usually sit there feeling like an a**hole for simply wanting to be acknowledged [I still inherently respect myself for wanting to be acknowledged – I’m talking about the repeating myself makes me feel demanding when I don’t want to make the other person feel rushed].
This is internalized ableism. This is what “planned ignoring” and other ABA techniques can do the those on the receiving end of them.
“Planned ignoring” is emotional abuse, plain and simple.
21) “This is textbook “planned ignoring.” Read “The Hidden Costs of Planned Ignoring” by Mona Delahooke (Ph.D.) for more info on why this practice is incredibly dangerous. I will post a link to her article in the blog post of this expose.”
In “The Hidden Costs of Planned Ignoring” by Mona Delahooke (Ph.D.), she lists several ways in which “planned ignoring” can be harmful to children:
“ 1. Ignoring sends the wrong emotional message to the child. In short, the adult is saying, “I’m not interested in what you’re trying to convey, and I’ll pay attention only when you comply with my demands.”
2. Ignoring presupposes that an autistic child’s observable behaviors accurately reveal his or her intentions. In fact, many children lack the ability to coordinate movement and/or language to convey their inner thoughts.
3. Ignoring oversimplifies the child’s behaviors without trying to discern underlying thoughts and feelings.
[…] When we ignore children, we risk shutting down their attempts to do what we want them to do most: communicate.”Delahooke, 2015
Also, ignoring children when they’re in emotional distress doesn’t teach children what to do in these emotionally charged situations. What caregivers should do instead is coach children through these situations so that they can eventually learn how to calm themselves during emotionally charged situations independently. This technique is called “Emotion Coaching” and it is a strategy that was first identified and conceptualized by John Gottman and Joan Declaire (1997). It is the cornerstone of my current Master’s thesis/project.
Here are the 5 Steps of Emotion Coaching:
1. Be aware of [the] child’s emotion
2. Recognize [the] child’s expression of emotion as a perfect moment for intimacy and teaching
3. Listen with empathy and validate [the] child’s feelings
4. Help [the] child learn to label their emotions with words
5. Set limits when you are helping [the] child to solve problems or deal with upsetting situations appropriatelyGottman & Declaire, 1997
These five steps stand in stark contrast to the four steps given in this document.
Read more about “planned ignoring” here:
The Hidden Costs of Planned Ignoring: https://monadelahooke.com/the-hidden-costs-of-planned-ignoring/
Read more about “Emotion Coaching” here:
An Introduction to Emotion Coaching: https://www.gottman.com/blog/an-introduction-to-emotion-coaching/
22) “Over-praising children is problematic if one isn’t intentional with their praise.”
Please read “Five Reasons to Stop Saying Good Job” by Alfie Kohn for more information.
Five Reasons to Stop Saying Good Job: https://www.alfiekohn.org/article/five-reasons-stop-saying-good-job/
There is also an entire chapter about this concept in It’s Ok Not to Share by Heather Shumaker (Chapter 22 – Stop Saying “Good Job”).
23) “This one is actually reasonable.”
This is probably the only thing in this document that I don’t find many problems with. Rephrasing a direction for the whole class is actually a pretty good technique that reduces shaming or calling out any particular student.
The one thing I would comment on is that caregivers should give students that need individualized reminders to them in private so that it doesn’t draw attention towards other students.
24) “There are kinder ways to achieve this goal. Just sayin’.”
When I saw this, this is the first image that came to mind:
I don’t have many memories of explicitly being told this phrase. But this phrase is linked with much trauma in the Autistic community. Many Autistics are very triggered by the phrase “hands down.” Some Autistics were violently handled while caregivers reinforced this phrase (i.e. harshly grabbed hands, etc… – there are even horror stories of children’s hands being held down in tacky glue to reinforce this – I was one of the lucky ones – the worst I got was advice to “sit on my hands” (that I remember).)
Also, the picture above was made by Ink and Daggers. They make very moving artwork about Autism Advocacy. Check them out here if you’re interested:
Also this – MAJOR CONTENT/TRIGGER WARNING for child abuse:
Quiet Hands: http://neuroqueer.blogspot.com/2014/03/quiet-hands-by-julia-bascom.html
25) “This should just be standard for ALL children. Place extra importance about teaching ‘consent.’”
Consent education is very important and should start in toddlerhood.
26) “That’s just me putting on my extra charm 😜.”
Since I was a small child I’ve always played up the M.O. of “Look at me, I’m cute!” I believe this evolved as a defense mechanism.
My whole “cute little girl” M.O. might be part of the reason why I consider myself one of the luckier ones when it comes to ABA trauma (I know this sounds really sad and victim blamey, but it is a sad and sick reality that needs to be acknowledged 😢. I plan on expanding on this in another post sometime.)
27) “This is also me knowing which adults I could “be myself” around without feeling scrutinized. 😕”
By the time I was in 1st grade, I was acutely aware of which adults I felt comfortable having “meltdowns” around. I referred to this as “letting me be myself” – I was saying that I felt like I could safely express frustration around these adults.
The adults that I felt like I couldn’t be myself around were strangers and adults who were particularly harsh in chastising and policing my angry emotions.
28) “These kinds of “classroom management” systems are just bad for ALL kids. Do better. SMDH!”
Read this for more info: https://beyondthestoplight.com/2013/08/31/a-letter-to-teachers-on-the-use-of-stoplights-in-the-classroom/
Also, I have a heartbreaking story about “visual behavioral management” systems from my professional life when I spent a semester as a Part-Time student teacher in a 3rd grade classroom that I would love to share with you someday (not that I love the heartbreak of the story – I just adore the little boy in the story and it makes me so sad that he was so deeply misunderstood). That particular story happened in 2017 – that should say something about how deeply embedded these behaviorist views are in our public education system.
29) “Reinforcement my ass! The one thing that should be the most important is developing RELATIONSHIPS!”
Thanks to modern neuroscience, we now understand better than ever just how deeply important stable, loving relationships are for children. It’s incredibly sad to see that many school are still far behind when it comes to access to this research.
30) “In conclusion, 85% of this document is garbage. I’m aware this was written in the year 2000, however, these practices are still being used in schools today. Modern neuroscience has basically thrown these behaviorist practices out the window, and also, this all just goes against basic common sense and decency. ALL children deserve basic respect and autonomy not because you say so, but because they are HUMAN BEINGS. THE END!”
Basically I crossed out the original conclusion and wrote my own for extra snarkiness 😜.
WOW! This took me way longer than I expected to work on. I think I’ve spent about 3-4 maybe 5 hours working on this. I never really kept track, lol!
I finally did it! I finally wrote my first “Red Pen Expose.” Originally I was going to mark up the original document with a red pen and post it on this page, however, I didn’t want to exclude those who are colorblind so I decided to annotate the document on my computer. Also, I didn’t think I would be able to fit all the commentary on regular paper – I tend to write very big.
This is a VERY long post, so if you read this much, thank you! It means a lot to me. I look forward to writing up more “Red Pen Exposes” for you in the future. Let’s just hope that I find the execute function to do it sooner than later 😜.
For more information about why ABA is so horrible, here’s a couple of lists that have MANY links to other articles written about ABA. All these articles combined explain most of the concepts mentioned in this post – all in ways I could never describe all by myself. You don’t have to read everything, but I think it would be well worth it to a least take a peek at most of them:
The Great Big ABA Opposition Resource List: https://stopabasupportautistics.home.blog/2019/08/11/the-great-big-aba-opposition-resource-list/?fbclid=IwAR13MX6qwBJOAGfHnNBzhw3AKeaPYb0EH1LF2XnTXmOnk-_-Mfik-1j4WIY
Unbound Books Autism Acceptance Library Anti-ABA resource list:
Below are all of my references used in this post:
(WORK IN PROGRESS)