(Image description: A partial screenshot of a blog post. The title reads “How I reduced screaming and verbal stimming in my child with autism”, and below that is a colour photograph of a hand holding a rectangular plastic “clicker” device.)
I think I may have mentioned this blog post, and the sadness and confusion I felt when I came across it, in one of my videos. This screenshot is from the blog of an “autism parent”. Yes, that is a clicker. Yes, she is encouraging the use of animal training methods on Autistic children. Yes, she considers any kind of vocal stimming, not just screaming, to be a “bad behaviour”. To top it all off, her blog banner reads, “Discovering SOLUTIONS to the Everyday Problems of Living with AUTISM”. Here is an excerpt from her tutorial on how to train your disabled child like a dog to have a “Quiet Mouth”:
Third, I sat back and watched my child. Since he was making bad noises, I decided to reinforce Quiet Mouth (i.e., lips together, no sound). Whenever he had a split second of Quiet Mouth, I immediately tagged (made a click-sound with the device) and handed over a treat. Every time his mouth was Quiet, I tagged (clicked) and treated. Soon there was much more Quiet Mouth behavior. When doing this it is important to ignore and pay no attention to vocal stims or screaming. Do not look at the child, do not speak to him/her or explain. Just say nothing, and immediately tag and treat as soon as there is even a split second of Quiet Mouth. You can also tag and treat a child for any appropriate vocalizations. If he/she says a nice word, or makes an appropriate comment, then tag and reinforce that. Your goal is to increase Quiet Mouth and appropriate vocalizations.
And sadly, as bad as this attitude and treatment of Autistic children is, this is a relatively tame example when compared to the other unethical treatments, therapies, and methods of discipline that Autistic children are being subjected to every day (all in the name of making them appear less obviously Autistic). This is why we need Autism Acceptance Month and not the fear-mongering, negative, misinformed “awareness” that Autism Speaks and its allies are pumping out this April.
We need acceptance because Autistic children should be loved and accepted wholly and completely for who they are, not hurt and mistreated in their parent’s frantic search for a “cure”. Because Autistic people deserve to be treated with respect and listened to, not silenced and forced or coerced to conform to an ableist, non-disabled ideal. Because Autistic children need accommodation and understanding to live healthy, happy lives, not sketchy “treatments” and intensive, soul-crushing “therapies” to try to make them appear more neurotypical and less Autistic.
For more information on ASAN’s Autism Acceptance Month, see the about page on the website here: http://www.autismacceptancemonth.com/about/
Oh my fucking god. Are you kidding me?! To your own KID? TO ANY KID? A FUCKING CHILD?!This is absolutely disgusting, is this really how people see autistic people? As, like, not people?!
As an autistic person, I’m not surprised by this AT ALL. When I was a kid, my professors dealt with my stimming by tying, then gluing my hands down so they couldn’t move and not allowing me to use my hands for eating (even fruit or boiled eggs!)
We need to do something about these so-called “autism parents” and guarantee the safety and security of autistic children instead of throwing useless amount of money at an unnecessary “cure”
I can’t. I look at my son and I see the difficulties we have raising him, and never, in a thousand years, would I ever look at this child and think to myself, “We’ll try this thing that works on dogs.” Clicker training a child? Really? This is child abuse. This is just fucking torture. Don’t look at the kid or communicate? I’m shaking, I’m so angry and sad and horrified. These people need their children taken away from them. These kids need to be protected.
hoooooooooooooooooo boy where do I even begin with this
/cracks knuckles and puts on the expert hat
For those who don’t know I’m a person on the autism spectrum who is currently working towards her Master’s degree in Special Education. I’m also doing specialized courses and training in applied behavior analysis, which is widely used to teach people with autism.
WHEN APPLIED CORRECTLY AND ETHICALLY, ABA techniques can and are used to help autistic people learn to talk, use alternative communication when speech isn’t possible, academic skills, self-help skills, job skills, positive social skills (as in the “how to recognize when you’re being a jerk and stop” type stuff that we can admittedly have a problem with, social routines, etc), and more; it can also be used to reduce or eliminate legitimately harmful behaviors self as self-injurous behavior (not to be confused with self-harm, though autistic people with depression and related disorders can self-harm as well), physical and verbal aggression towards others, extreme tantrums, and extreme forms of stimming that actually cause problems (such as the aforementioned SIB, destruction of property, or stimming to the exclusion of enriching activity). ABA techniques can be effective and invaluable for giving autistic people the abilities and coping mechanisms to survive and live independent lives.
THIS IS NOT A CORRECT OR ETHICAL APPLICATION OF ABA TECHNIQUES.
- Behaviors to be eliminated or reduced must be chosen with care and according to a heirarchy; dangerous behavior is highest priority, while milder behavior problems (such as, say, talking out in class or interrupting people) are lowest. Reduction in the behavior MUST ultimately benefit the individual and not solely the people around them. Even actual ABA practitioners have problems adhering to this (one reason why I chose to go into the field), but curbing mild verbal stimming just because others think it’s “weird” or “annoying” is NOT the point of ABA.
- Clickers and other animalistic training tools (see also: sprays from water bottles, ammonia smells, etc) are HIGHLY criticized by disability rights advocates and many ABA practitioners. Their use is increasingly considered degrading and seems to be used less and less nowadays - making this a step backwards, not forwards.
- One of the techniques used in this example is supposed to be extinction, where a reinforcer that currently maintains the behavior is withheld. SOMETIMES, this can be for attention, in which case one should withhold said attention from the individual when they display the behavior - for short periods of time (10 to 30 seconds typically), NEVER completely. However, the function of stimming behavior is almost ALWAYS self-stimulatory; that’s what defines it as “stimming”. Because the reinforcement is the sensation it creates and not attention, WITHHOLDING ATTENTION IS NOT AN APPROPRIATE PROCEDURE TO USE. Attempting this kind of extinction procedure without regard to the true function of behavior is ineffective, unnecessary, and in some cases classifies as punishment by stimulus removal, a punitive technique that practitioners should consider only AFTER other techniques prove ineffective.
- The replacement behavior they are trying to teach their child (“quiet mouth”) is likely going to be inadequate. Assuming again that the verbal stimming is for self-stimulation, all you’ll likely accomplish by reinforcing silence is frustration on the part of the child and teaching him to stim only when you’re not around (to avoid being ignored). When ANY behavior is reduced, an appropriate, equivalent replacement behavior MUST be taught in its place whenever possible. When harmful stimming needs to be reduced, an alternative means of obtaining that stimulation (such as, say, a rubber chew ring or gum instead of gnawing on one’s own hand, or a toy with bright lights to replace staring into harmful lights or poking one’s own eyes) MUST be considered.
- If I were the behavior specialist working with this family, I’d toss their so called “intervention” into the garbage and start from scratch. For one, screaming is probably the only actual problem that needs to be addressed (as people with sound sensitivities like me know, it can be very distressing for others, or it could scare people into thinking something’s wrong), and minor verbal tics (“bad noises”? really?????) are likely not going to be targeted unless they reach extreme levels. Second, the techniques should be totally changed to address the screaming - try offering sensory alternatives like headphones playing music or teaching them to hum songs instead, and use reinforcement for low to zero levels of screaming without ignoring them (a procedure called DRL that I won’t explain here).
ttl;dr, this is why ABA, despite its utility, gets such a bad rap sometimes - because unprofessional neurotypicals think it’s a good way to get their autistic kids to “shut up and be normal”, so to speak. If your autistic kid has behavior that needs to be addressed, TALK TO AN ACTUAL SPECIALIST ABOUT IT. NEVER IMPLEMENT A BEHAVIOR INTERVENTION WITHOUT CONSULTATION AND PLENTY OF RESEARCH. Also read up on what actual autistic people say about this sort of thing - because let me tell you, I want all kids growing up with my disorder to be afforded the same opportunities to be happy, healthy, and respectable human beings WITHOUT being treated like a household pet!