The Realities Of ABA

Content Warning: medical abuse, infantilising of an autistic adult

When I was 17 my mother forced me into Applied Behavioural Analysis, the very same therapy being recommended to parents of autistic children.

Equipment

This was frankly barbaric. The chairs I had to sit in all had straps on them; one for each wrist, one for each ankle, and one like a seatbelt to keep you in place.

Wrist straps were used when I couldn’t stop flapping my hands or using them in any way deemed wrong, ankle straps when I wouldn’t sit with my knees in perfect right angles and my feet flat on the floor, when I couldn’t stop tapping my feet or bouncing my leg. The seatbelt-esque one was used whenever I bounced or wriggled in my seat too much.

Restraining

This remained a constant. Every time I started to go into meltdown, I was restrained. Every time I stimmed with my hands, they were restrained. I am not a child. I’m 5’6” and like….68kg. It takes a fair bit of force to restrain me when I’m trying to get away.

As in session 1, it was the practice to have 4 therapists in the room with me at once; a woman who led the session and 3 men who basically seemed to be there to move shit for her, including me. Restraint varied from holding my hands to my sides for a count of 3 when I stimmed, to holding me down, on the floor, when I had meltdowns.

Tasks

There were various tasks designed to do different things. A lot of them werecompletely arbitrary. A common one was to sit completely still in perfect Position (capitalised because it was a specific thing and a proper noun that they used, “sit in Position, or we’ll have to restrain you!”) and repeat an entirely pointless task: putting the tennis ball in the box, then out, then in, then out, then in, then out….. This was on command. So, it looked like:

“In.”

*puts ball in box, using only dominant hand and not moving the rest of my body*

3 seconds

“Out.”

*puts ball on table*

3 seconds

“In.”

The only movement allowed would be moving my left hand to the ball, moving the ball, putting it down, moving my left hand back into Position.

Another example would be where there was a number of coloured bits of card on the table, and I would have to touch the one I was told to. Another would be the simplestand up, sit down, stand up, sit down, stand up, sit down. 

Always a 3 second gap in between them, always only a singular and very specific movement allowed. Any deviation elicited punishment.

Other tasks were for behaviors I was meant to be learning, such as to hold eye contact, shake hands, hug. Eye contact was simple: on the command word “eyes” I had to look up and hold eye contact until they said I could stop. Sometimes this was done in bouts of 10 second intervals, sometimes for several minutes at a time. If I managed it, without stimming or moving at all, I was rewarded.

Hand shakes and hugs were simple too, on the command word, I had to give a handshake or a hug. Both were 3 seconds of contact, then a 3 second break, then 3 seconds of contact, then break, contact, break.

Over the course of the sessions, the number of repetitions of each task/the amount of time I had to do each one to get a reward increased. At first, 3 hand shakes in a row earned me 5 minutes of reading time. By the last session, 30 hand shakes earned 5 minutes.

Any deviation, any stimming, any slight movement away from the task, any hesitation, any refusal, meant a punishment and the task started over.

Reinforcers

They took from me all my poetry books and all my Harry Potter books, and used them as reinforcers. This was awful for me to deal with, because my books are my sense of self.

when X, Jesse is allowed Y minutes with book Z”

X would include: 4 hand shakes in a row, performing a task with no deviation for 15 minutes, 10 perfect hugs, etc.Y varied depending on how much I’d earnt.Z depended on how good I’d been. 

They had a lot of my books. Auden was only given to me if I’d completed an hour without any punishment. This happened only three times over the entire 6 weeks. Plath, Larkin, Ginsberg, were given to me if I’d completed half an hour without any punishment. Of course, that’s only if I’d earned a reward anyway. There was no reward simply for not earning punishment.

I love my books. They are everything to me. As a result, every time they took them from me after giving me a small amount of time with one, I stimmed. Cue “quiet hands” etc. They also tried using food as a reinforcer, but that never really worked well, because I would always rather not do the behaviour than have whatever they were offering. Food and I have a weird relationship.

They also had some really specific ones to me. Sometimes I’d be allowed to curl up in a ball in the corner as a “reward” after a task that was mentally trying.

It was really weird. If I asked for a specific reward it was often given to me, provided I’d earnt it. Sometimes I’d ask to be allowed to sit under the desk, or to take my shoes off, or to wear a coat, or them to turn the air con up, or to put my watch on. Etc. Conversely, every time I asked for one of these, they then used it as a punishment if they could.

Punishments

This is the Biggy. Apart from restraint, various punishments of varying degrees of cruelty were used. These included screaming “NO!” at me (which is terrifying, not only from a sensory perspective but also from an abuse survivor’s perspective),spraying water in my face, putting me in “time out” which involved standing essentially nose to a wall for a length of time unknown to me or put in a small side room which was entirely bare and essentially a closet with no window on the door which would be locked behind me, using sensory aversives like forcing me to put wool gloves on, put shoes on, touching me with velcro, and the dreaded taste aversions.

Taste aversions are funny ones, because the immediate thought is “well why let them put it in your damn mouth” and the answer is “well do you seriously think i had a choice?” They used wasabi for me cos I am SO sensitive to spice it is actually unreal. They’d make me eat a wasabi pea. It was awful.

Targeted Behaviors

My targeted behaviors, as in, the ones to be eradicated, were mostly stims and things like not responding to adults, but those aren’t targeted behaviors so much as “outcome behaviors.” They picked up on and actively worked against: hand flapping, hand tapping, finger wiggling, waving hands in front of eyes, hand rubbing, leg bouncing, foot tapping, irregular/rapid blinking, and jaw “chunking”. These are the most constant brackets of stim for me, and the ones mum had asked them to get rid of.

They largely did this by punishing me every time I did any of these behaviors.Their technique was to get me to do tasks that “taught” me the behaviors they wanted (for example, hugging, eye contact, responding to commands) and then forcing me to stop whenever i stimmed. Which was a lot. When not forced not to, I literally stim constantly. I never stop stimming. It’s painful for me to stop.

For example, when asked to do hand shakes, I often would wiggle the fingers of my other hand. This was Not Allowed. This elicited a punishment.

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