16 August, 2011

How Indistinguishability Got Its Groove Back, part 1

My first writing about disability was about an ABA school that I interned at when I was 20, which was a very ableist and passing-obsessed environment. Being in that environment I was forced to confront things I'd tried not to think about.

I remember when I first started writing about this kind of thing I was very careful to say that I wasn't anti-ABA and thought ABA could be really helpful and useful. I've kind of dropped that whole thing, not because I'm against behaviorism--I arguably am a behaviorist--but because I guess I am against any school or therapist who identifies as "ABA." ABA is technically a way of teaching, not what is taught, but it has historically been associated with physical punishment and it still is very much associated with passing. So I tend to make certain assumptions about anyone who identifies with the label ABA without trying to apologize for or justify it.

Recently my dad was trying to convince me to work at a very old, famous ABA program, because of the benefits. When I pointed out that the person the program is named after used to give electric shocks to children to stop them from flapping their hands, my dad told me that he had researched this on the Internet and "they don't do that anymore." But this isn't enough for me.

It's not enough for professionals to refrain from the most obviously abusive practices, especially if they identify themselves with the doctor who introduced those practices. If you're going to work in an area that has that kind of history, you have to address that history. It's not enough to just stop hitting kids because you shouldn't hit kids--you have to think about why people like you were hitting kids in the first place, and how they got to a point where they decided it was okay, and how you might end up getting to a similar point.


  1. I'm always kind of surprised at who ends up defending the early behaviorists who used electric shocks and beatings in their programs with autistic kids. People who I formerly considered kind and reasonable, even people who have some knowledge of disability, often fall over themselves to explain how "They didn't know any better then," and "That was the only way they could think of to keep people out of institutions," and yes, the perennial favorite "They don't do that anymore." (Which, there is at least one place in the US where they do)

    I'm so excited to read what you have to say about indisginguishability. I think this is really important stuff obviously.

  2. Thank you for this! I was one of those kids who went through the ABA in a residential program that included being strapped to beds, subjected to electric shocks, humiliation and other types of abuse, all in the name of the "pretend to be normal" goal that is so forefront. (Back in 1978)

    I can tell you from personal experience that it did not work. I spent most of my 20's deprogramming all of that so I could lead a normal life instead of one filled with nightmares of being "zapped, strapped and beaten". My method worked, but it was a long road that almost killed me. You see, my "behaviours" were caused by the extreme pain I had to suffer with headaches and GERD (gastroesophageal reflux). They didn't even stop to think that I might have been screaming because I was *in pain* and feeling *sick* 24 hours a day. Glasses took care of the headaches when I was about 5 and my dad figured it out. It took my esophagus almost rupturing in my 20's before I got the help I really needed: a gastroenterologist and anti-reflux meds.

    I don't support behaviourism at all... the "nice" or the "bad" kind. It's all the same to me: force a child who is not normal for some reason to pretend to be normal, usually at the expense of his own health and peace of mind. Since I took care of my own health problems, no one would ever guess I have ASD. I even manage people and have been told by many that my social skills are second to none. ABA didn't do that. Feeling better did.