at the mercy of imbeciles: comments on ABA

This was the first video I found on the YouTube channel “Fathering Autism”:

At first I was just going to make a small post explaining “the squeeze,” at 3:30. Her legs might be crossed to stretch them after sitting, or just because stretching feels good. Stretching feels good.

The son is completely not getting it when he tries to do it himself. His hands are all wrong, and he’s busy looking at the camera. Notice how her elbow is sticking out. The position is relaxing because she’s in a fetal position, but the elbow is like an overhanging cave roof. It’s like you’re looking out from a little self-created nest. She can also press on her cheek/chin, so it’s like her head is squeezed between the back of her hand and the softness of the couch.

This sort of thing trips me out. It’s like…they really don’t understand! I really am autistic!

I’d suggest they don’t understand because they’re so busy making a joke of it that they aren’t paying close attention to their bodies.

The whole channel is very interesting to me, on an anthropological level. I’m inclined to dislike ABA for a priori reasons, but here we have a family trying to present the everyday life of a family affected by nonverbal autism. They have a whole range of videos in which they talk about their daughter like an inanimate object or a lab animal that’s not even present. Have they ever considered that their daugher Abigail might not agree with them or want her abuse documented on the internet forever? No, because a mental block stops them from seeing that Abigail is a person they’re abusing. I’m going to comment on a series of videos: Abigail’s ABA from 2015, her ABA from a few months ago, and a trip to the grocery store used as an ABA exercise.

Of course, I don’t speak for Abigail any more than her family does. I can say that I was once an autistic child, and it feels terrible to imagine myself as the subject of these videos. I want this to serve as an illustration of why “autism parents” are wrong to use “I know my child best” as an I-win button in arguments.

The first video says it takes place at the Jacksonville School for Autism. Note: I’m a crazy person on the internet and I know that she’s getting dropped off at the “car circle” at “8:50-9:05 am.” I’m a man, but I can’t IMAGINE that the experience of starting to menstruate or developing breasts is helped by having your FATHER, who seems uncomfortable with vaginas, give a blow-by-blow on the internet. Next to videos that geo-locate me. I turned off the video at 1:27 as I realized with horror what I was seeing.

That wasn’t even why I sat down to write this. I just noticed that because I looked up the school after seeing it named in the video description of this video of ABA from 2 years ago:

This looks like the world’s least fun game of Simon Says, which is an impulse control-building stop signal reaction time task in disguise. And it’s actually social and fun and what the normal kids are doing.

I wouldn’t want someone loud and in my face like that. The pace is relentless. She doesn’t even have time to savor the “reinforcer” as she’s chewing it. Something about that kind of enthusiasm comes across as false to me. Saying “good job” about every little thing sends the meta-message that she’s constantly under evaluation for goodness or badness. Does she feel patronized?

Starting around 2:00, she’s curled up in a fetal position. At one point it looks like she tries to hide her face behind her arm. “Can you put your legs down?” (I’m currently sitting with my feet on my own chair, and it’s fine). She bangs her fists on the table when she’s forced to change her posture. I don’t want someone making sudden loud noises and rushing in to physically squeeze me. Fist-bang on the table again.

At 3:05, she’s perversely being taught to sign “help.”

I used to hate being tickled like she gets tickled at the end, but people would do it because it made me laugh involuntarily. Involuntarily is a recurring theme, here.

Let’s check out the progress she made in 2 years!

Come to think of it, “Fathering Autism” vs. “Fathering Abigail” is a telling choice.

It looks to me like she’s hiding her face from the camera and rocking.

Around 1:00, he starts explaining the day’s schedule. She seems to freeze, then starts pinching her lip and grunts. Starting to nailbite, then bringing her hand to her ear and looking down, trying to disappear into the pillow she’s holding.

A new form of humiliation is introduced at 3:40. Around 3:55, she does what ABA is supposed to be teaching her: spontaneously communicated her wants and needs. She seems to want the lollipop. The ABA trainer tunes her out. Do you think it’s harder to learn communication when stuff like that happens?

There’s a cut at 4:03, for unknown reasons. Here, you can compare ABA with its actual inspiration:

I used to do similar stuff to rats. Never even visited the primate facility. Had a feeling I wouldn’t like it. Anyway, the “tongue lateralization exercise” reminded me of a chaired primate. Head immobilized except for tongue movements. I notice that they also cut away as soon as she was given the lollipop, so we don’t get to see her emotional state afterwards.

The next video is about how the ABA approach works out at the grocery store IRL. It’s common knowledge that autistic people don’t like supermarkets a lot of the time:

We simply don’t know how intense her sensory issues are, in the store. Their intensity determines the level of stress she experiences just being in the building.

Things go south at 1:20. After making her daughter sign that she wants a cookie, she announces that “we’re going to use the cookie as a reinforcer.” When I go grocery shopping, I get myself a treat to reward myself. I don’t necessarily expect to get much else done on a day that I go shopping. If I do, I might just put the frozen things in the freezer and get back to my computer, leaving everything else in the bags. I’m trying to work on setting time and energy aside for chores, but writing projects like this are really engrossing and might require me to nap or at least lie down periodically. Chores are only negatively reinforced. Ugh.

Can she just have a cookie in an uncomfortable place without turning it into a submission exercise?

Around 2:00, her mother explains that she puts a backpack on her daughter “as a handle.”

Around 2:40, there’s a confusing sequence where the mother tells her to point at crackers, which she does. “No,” the mother says. “Crackers.” Then she grabs the same package and gets over-the-top praised for it.

3:15, “The more we shop, the less compliant she becomes. She tries to run to escape the activity.”

3:40, they seem to be snatching items out of her hand when she tries to look at them. No time to follow her on curiosity about the objects. The brother starts physically restraining her. Next she tries exactly the same nonviolent, passive resistance strategies employed by a proud tradition of civil rights activists.

4:30, “That was a successful shopping trip. The cookie lasted the whole time.” She didn’t even get the whole cookie!

At 5:00, the dad explains the value of what they’re doing. She’s learning life skills like putting things in a grocery cart! I also had to behave myself in grocery stores. The act of shopping wasn’t turned into some kind of awful, contrived exercise. I just…went shopping with my mom. The bad thing about treatments like this is that they’re unrelenting. ABA takes over the parents’ minds and makes all the parental interactions bizarre and unnatural like this.

I also wonder how much longer the grocery shopping was taking because the parents wanted to turn everything into a “learning opportunity.” I’m sure that Abigail is learning lots of lessons from the dehumanizing way everyone interacts with her.

When Abigail looks back on her childhood, she can just check YouTube to find videos of when she shit herself.

WTF is the deal with these white people talking in ebonics?  Racism:  it lurks everywhere.

Family photo time made me laugh until they chased her to the floor where she was soothing herself.

There seems to be a whole subculture of “autism parents” like Abigail’s.  I hope that this post shows that the phenomena neurodiversity activists complain about are real.  It’s counter-intuitive that, on a large scale, parents and professionals would dehumanize their children with good intentions. It’s to such an all-pervasive extent, and they’re invested so heavily in it, that understanding the point of this post would be life-shattering.  How did they let themselves get talked into a cult inspired by abusive psychologists, to their child’s detriment?

It’s so hard to communicate that these things are what’s wrong with ABA.  By definition, I’m arguing with the people least able to understand.  They aren’t treating their daughter like a human.  If you can see it, they just aren’t.  At times, the dad is literally turning his back on his daughter as she signals her distress.

Do the ABA people even understand that, for lab animals that really don’t have anything to do except discrete trial operant conditioning, regulations require some kind of environmental enrichment on top of that?  Even animal researchers understand that operant conditioning without play isn’t the good life.

How ironic that behaviorism was a reaction to psychoanalysis, but the ideas describing what’s wrong with it come from psychoanalysts and are “evidence-based” (attachment theory, mentalization, etc.).  Calling something Freudian is almost de facto saying it’s silly and out-of-date, but for some reason hardcore behaviorism sticks around for a condition that’s all about having a different inner life than other people.

Behaviorism is a hostile gesture against that inner life.  It’s inherently saying that it doesn’t matter why the child does something or how the child feels.  Their mind is a black box.

I also want to illustrate how wrong it is when people dismiss “high-functioning” autistic people as “not autistic enough to understand my kid like family does.”  It’s true that Abigail and I are on opposite ends of the spectrum with respect to talking out loud.

Has autism warrior dad ever asked Abigail if she wants to be in a video, yes or no?  That’s clearly within her ability to communicate.  It’ll definitely come as a shock if she ever learns to type and it turns out she’s been a real person this whole time.