One Cannot Prevent Meltdowns By Using Restraint

A Theoretical Aside

This post comes from my experiences the last few weeks. I have been working with a number of students that have been a danger to themselves and others. As such, I have had to use physical restraint to ensure maintained safety of students and others around them.

Fewer people were injured because I used restraint methods, but I still feel terrible for having to use MANDT restraints after my preventative strategies proved ineffective. I have found that school teams often have difficulty in understanding why I feel like an abject failure whenever I have to restrain students. To the untrained eye, the intervention worked-and it is hard to understand why I am so disappointed.

This post is my explanation.

The Escalation / Crisis Cycle

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I start with two diagrams to show that escalation is not an all or none phenomenon. We all go through several steps.

  1. Calm or Baseline Phase
  2. Triggered or Stimulation Phase
  3. Agitated/Acceleration or Escalation Phase
  4. Peak or Crisis
  5. De-Escalation Phase
  6. Recovery or Stabilization/Post Crisis Phase

The important components of this post are as follows:

The Calm or Baseline phase is not the same for everyone. In fact, in my experience, there are a surprisingly large number of children that do not have the luxury of having a true baseline level. If they have a hard home life, trauma in their past, or some conflict with and adult or other students, they may actually start the day at the Triggered phase.

The Triggered phase of the crisis cycle is deceptively named. For most people who start at a Calm baseline, the Triggered phase does not involve outward signs of agitation or stress. When a child is triggered, this sets the stage for responses to stimuli that are of a much greater amplitude than they would be had the student not been triggered.

The Agitated phase is when the child moves beyond simply being Triggered and begins to show outward signs of stress and annoyance. The child will become intolerant to stimuli they would otherwise tolerate. This is actually the phase most children are in when we erroneously say they have been Triggered.

The Acceleration phase is when the Agitated phase starts to self-perpetuate.

The Peak or Crisis stage is, in my opinion, by far the most  misunderstood stage. At this stage the child is disconsolate. Meaning there is NO WAY anyone can intervene to “bring them down” – and yet this is the stage most adults start to intervene.

The De-Escalation phase is deceptively tricky. Most adults do not  realize that a student fresh off a Crisis are very easy to re-escalate back into Crisis.  The De-Escalation Phase is oftentimes even closer to Crisis than the Acceleration phase.

Recovery is a refractory period between Crisis and Calm. It is only at this phase that it is appropriate for an adult to intervene and discuss the Crisis with the child.

How Should We Handle a Student in Crisis?

Optimally, we don’t let things escalate this far. We back off earlier in the escalation or crisis cycle, either by anticipating the Trigger or recognizing the Agitation phase for what it is.  The easiest way to do this is to back off. Give the child space. Most of the time your help is not actually  helpful at this point.

That said, backing off is not an option if a student uses violence or aggression during their Agitation, Acceleration, or De-Escalation phases. In these cases, intervention is unavoidable. Below I will explain how we can intervene. But first, I will cover how our interventions are often the coup de grace or straw that breaks the camel’s back that sends the child into full-blown crisis.

What Do We All Do Wrong

The diagram below describes the cycle that adults and children get into when there is a conflict. As adults, we often fail at taking the perceptions and feelings of others into account when we work with them.

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When a student is Agitated or in the Accelerating phase of the crisis cycle, they perceive intervention from an adult as a threat rather than as help. Because the child perceives a threat, the child either goes into a fight or flight mode or else they get angry. This means the student will react to the adult as an enemy rather than a friend-regardless their relationship 5 minutes or even 5 seconds earlier.

Well, because as the adult we fail to account for this side of the cycle, we react to the student’s reaction by getting escalated ourselves, and we go through the same behavioral cycle as the child. This turns into a vicious feedback cycle that results in both the adult and the child saying and doing things they will later regret and would not normally do.

How Do We Do It Right?

I distinguish the above cycle of conflict of serial reactions to stimuli from an adult taking a step back and responding appropriately. My operational definitions for these words are reaction = acting upon stimulus without prior thoughts. Response = acting upon stimulus with prior consideration of multiple options and antecedents.

When we find a student that has been Triggered, we need to take a step back and ask ourselves some questions.

  • Did I just do something that triggered the student?
  • Did something happen to the student at school today that might have triggered them?
  • Did something happen in the student’s home life that might have triggered them?

If we do not know the answer, there are two things we can do. We can – I know this is revolutionary – ASK THE STUDENT how they are feeling. If they are unable or unwilling to answer, that is why we have phones. Reach out and communicate with the child’s family or other teachers/paraprofessionals that may have some information.


If this proves fruitless, we move onto the next step. If the student is triggered or agitated, we can still engage them in a dialogue. Importantly, the adult must take care to not take a dictatorial tone. The adult is on a fact finding mission, not on a quest to solve any problems. In fact, if an adult tries to impose a solution on the child at this point, it will likely be interpreted as either unfair, controlling, or demanding…and the child will escalate toward the Accelerating phase.

If, however, we let the student talk (and this does often involve a fair amount of cursing and swearing), they often can de-escalate themselves or else discover their own trigger. Since they are in control, they can be receptive to an adult guiding them to a Calm state. Letting the child express themselves in a free and safe environment will often naturally guide them into a Calm state, but if you, as the adult, impose yourself and try to correct their language or minimize the child’s emotions, you are not recognizing how the child feels and they will likely escalate.


Let us assume we cannot help at the Agitation phase. If a student is at the Accelerating phase (or the De-Escalation phase as they are handled the same way), BACK OFF. Literally. BACK OFF. Give the child as much space as possible and do not bother them. You can only make things worse at this point. Even proximity will result in further acceleration toward a crisis.

Sometimes body blocking is necessary, so we do it. But it is obligatory we KEEP OUR MOUTHS SHUT. If we have to take something away from the student, we do so SILENTLY or just say with a flat affect, “Not an option”. Nothing more. Even this runs a major risk of driving a student toward crisis. We cannot give any emotional fuel to the hell fire in potentia.

If the student has an option of a safe space, dark spot, or quiet corner, this is a good time to remind a student (REMIND, never demand), that they have the option of separating themselves into their special space. Again, if we demand the student do this or tell them to go over there to cool off, we probably just ticked them off. The Accelerating phase is typified by a defiant attitude and self-preservation – not taking advice.


Now to the hard part. Crisis. What do we do when there is crisis. I wish I could say, “Run away”, but that is not always an option.

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So, if running away and giving oodles of space fails, we are left with one of the hardest things we can do. KEEPING A CHILD IN CRISIS SAFE. Most of the time this takes the form of clearing the classroom or else getting the student to a safe space where they cannot hurt anyone.

Amazingly, that is the easy part.


If the above fails, we have another responsibility-and this is the hardest bit-we have to make sure the student does not hurt themselves or others. This is where restraint methods come in. And the probability of both the adult and the child getting seriously hurt goes off the scale.

Restraint is not to be taken lightly and is the absolute last resort in any crisis situation. Touching a student in crisis is often not a great idea and is almost always dangerous, both to the adults and to the child. This is why every other option needs to be employed prior to even considering restraint. In fact, even grabbing a student’s hand or using an arm to prevent an elopement can cause problems.

I say backing off and letting the kid blow off steam is the easy part because it does not involve a physical interaction, Whenever a child is escalated, even if they are in the Accelerating or De-Escalating phase, touch will often send them from 0-100 in a microsecond.


This video below shows one of my behaviorist heroes, Cesar Milan, making a mistake of touching an animal in crisis. Everyone was safe until he touched the dog. Cesar carefully took the dog through the escalation cycle from Calm, to Triggered, to Agitated, to Acceleration, to Crisis, and to De-escalating phases. However, even though it was during the De-escalating phase, as soon as Cesar touched the dog, everything became complicated. I particularly like this video because it explains the dog behavior along the Escalation/Crisis cycle.

I Feel Terrible When I Lose Control Of The Situation

Whenever I restrain a student, I lose. They lose. We all lose. The student ends up a sweaty mess of emotions and snot, and I often end up bruised and bitten. I have to use restraint, I feel like Cesar in the above video explaining to the people around him how he screwed up and missed something. Then Cesar had to walk away and lick his wounds. Additionally, the dog learned nothing from the experience other than he was able to bite Cesar (which will increase the probability of it happening again).

I feel terrible for all the reasons displayed in this video. Cesar missed something because he was distracted and it resulted in injury to himself and complete loss of control of a situation. I always ask myself, “What did I miss? What could I have done to prevent this? Where did I screw up?” immediately followed by an, “is the student okay? Are they hurt? Are they still freaking out? DO they understand what just happened?”. Then I ruminate and perseverate on the experience for a few hours.

EVERY. SINGLE. TIME. I have to use restraint methods I am able to find something that I missed during the escalation/crisis cycle that would have prevented further escalation. There is always something I did not notice. Some tone of voice I missed. Some frustration I accidentally projected.  Some accidental sarcasm on my part. An eye roll. A smirk. A mistake. An oversight. A lack of control over my surroundings that resulted in an additional trigger.

How Do I Do Better?

I have spent a lot of time mulling over in my mind what I can do better to help de-escalate kids when they are not in control of themselves. By applying my background as a behaviorist to the situation, I have a few notes for myself – and I hope they will be helpful to others. When one has to restrain or seclude students for their own or other’s physical safety:

  • Never invalidate a student’s emotions. They are feeling what they are feeling, there is no point telling them they are wrong or shouldn’t feel a certain way.
  • Never hover over a student. If a student is on the floor or in a chair, do not use your mass to intimidate them. It is intimidating.
  • Never repeatedly bring up a student’s mistake. Move on. You are only going to make them self-conscious and reduce their self-esteem.
  • If a student asks for space, GIVE IT TO THEM so long as it is safe.
  • Do not chase/run after a student if they elope. Follow SLOWLY and at a distance. Catching the student does not earn any prizes.
  • Watch your tone of voice. The student is paying attention. They know if your tone is aggressive they are unsafe.
  • Never use sarcasm. If words do not match the tone of voice, you are confusing the student.
  • Never dictate terms. The student will balk at orders when escalated and become defiant on principle.
  • Never lie to the student. They will call you on it. They will remember. They will hate you for it.
  • Never talk about the student in a negative way in front of them to another teacher. In fact, this is NOT the time to give an update on behavior unless you are handing off responsibility for the student to a specialist.
  • Never give ultimatum. These never work, less so when a child is escalated.
  • Never give an emotional response to swearing or physical aggression. The student is not entirely in control of themselves and trying to get the adult to move away from them, by whatever means necessary.
  • Never argue with the student. They will contradict and defy you. Don’t take the bait.
  • In fact, Never try to start a conversation. This will not end well. There is nothing you can say that will fix the situation.
  • Never touch the student to calm them down (pat on back, etc.). This will be misinterpreted.
  • Never distract yourself with a phone, etc. You will miss important signs.
  • Never show frustration, anger, etc. Your emotions are not helpful. They do not contribute anything other than fuel to the already highly combustible situation.
  • Never, Ever, under any circumstances retaliate against any of the violence committed by a student being restrained. I wish this went without saying. It doesn’t. I am saying it. We are the adult. We MUST act like it.

Some of these may seem counterintuitive, but they are all important. The best advice I can have for anyone is to avoid restraint or seclusion as consequences for behavior.

The solution is for us to focus on prevention instead. Help the student meet their needs before we turn the escalation cycle into an escalation spiral.

This was the last straw…ABA support of electroshock is unconscionable

A Personal Aside

I read an article online recently that brought a rush of emotions. Ever since I stopped being a “research scientist” (but have I really?) I have been told by a number of people that I really need to pursue licensure as a BCBA to more fully reach my potential when working with autistic students in the classroom. This thought has always made me very uncomfortable, because it always seemed like just another arbitrary hoop to jump through. This post intends to elaborate on why I do not feel ABA is an appropriate therapy and why, with the latest news, I refuse to take part.

Now up front, I will state that I do not actually have any particular issue with ABA as a concept. A number of the methods they employ are things that I support wholeheartedly and even use in my classroom, specifically discrete trial training (DTT), elements of Pivotal Response Treatment, and Differential Reinforcement. However, I do take issue with the focus on punishers (positive punishment as well as the use of aversives). I take particular issue with how ABA gets implemented.

I will put my TL;DR here. I conscientiously object to being part of any organization that condones the active abuse of autistic (or non autistic) children: be it electroshock, fear conditioning, food deprivation, excessive restraint, or verbal/emotional bullying. I will never knowingly engage in that type of behavior, and I will work tirelessly to stop such abuses when I encounter them. What I will do is treat autistic children with respect and help them grow as people and citizens. I will nurture them and help them achieve their fullest potential. And I will do it in a way that leaves my conscience clear.

Trigger Warning: This post is going to cover a range of unpleasant topics regarding unethical treatment of autistic persons. The links and videos posted in this post are disturbing.


So what did I read…

I read this account of a self-proclaimed “escapee” from the Judge Rotenberg Center (JRC) on the RewardandConsent blog. This bothered me because I found out from this article from the same source and confirmed myself that ABA International (ABAI) approved of the JRC’s methods by allowing it as a sponsor for their annual conference by stating the treatment was aligned with the mission of ABAI. Note, to date the Behavioral Analyst Certification Board (BACB), the certification body for Board Certified Behavioral Analysts (BCBA) has turned a blind eye to the mistreatment, and explicitly have provisions in their ethics policies that allow these draconian punishments so long as properly consented by parents.

For anyone who has not seen it, here is an example of treatment given autistic persons being “educated” at the JRC. This example is a young man being shocked 31 times for not removing his coat promptly when asked. Warning, video is graphic.

A lot of you will see this and wonder what exactly is happening and why. Simply stated, a boy is being punished for disobedience. He did not do what he was asked when he was asked. He did not comply. To ensure his future compliance, he was shocked 31 times.


My interpretation comes from my research. Early in my career I was working with rats and needed to study the part of the brain associated with fear responses (the amygdala). To study this, I placed rats into a box with a metal grid floor. I played a tone and then gave them a very small (1/4 milliAmpere) electric shock. The rats screamed and jumped and attacked the cage. They were terrified. They attacked me the second I took them out of the cage. I felt like a class A jerk. I felt like I was abusing them, because I was. We call this type of conditioning fear conditioning.

Fear conditioning is a powerful tool, but it has several critical flaws. 1) Learning by fear can be fast, but it doesn’t last. Conditioned fear extinguishes FAST unless the aversive stimulus is re-introduced. If I pair a tone and a shock 20-30 times, the tone itself will only elicit the desired fear behavior for a few minutes. I can reduce the amount I shock them to get the same fear response, but even this will fade in time. 2) Over time, to get the same bang for my buck, I have to crank up the amperage on the shock device. The rat’s natural analgesia and toughness compensate to their new reality (shock is part of their life now), so I have to be more brutal in my methods. And 3) I have to shock an animal. It is bullying, it is torture, it is just not right. It is mean. I moved beyond these questions as fast as I possibly could and have not returned to aversive conditioning since.

When we apply this to humans, we call is aversion therapy (Wikipedia link). The same limitations apply. We have to up the ante every single time to get the same effect. This means that not only is the electroshock unethical (according to me), it doesn’t work (according to science). It makes those using it feel as if they are in control, but the behavior will not change. The change will extinguish unless the shock is reapplied on a regular basis. And yes, this means you have to look for excuses to shock the person to keep the fear response fresh. Oh and it should be noted that once the autistic person is no longer in the situation or environment where the punishment occurs, their behavior will return to “normal”, because aversion therapy (like fear condition in animals) does not lead to generalized learning or true lasting behavioral modification.


That gets me to my next point with the JRC and their interpretation of an ABA concept called Behavioral Rehearsal Lessons (BRL). The reports from individuals that resided at the JRC reported they were scared to induce screaming, defense response, etc. Some of the methods used to induce screaming included restraining autistic persons and threatening them with knives and physical harm/death until they screamed-at which point they were punished for their target behavior (e.g., screaming, raising an arm in defense, etc.). Obviously, this would be traumatizing to anyone. But it is considered a legitimate therapeutic approach at the JRC to help these autistic people be “better”. As I will quote further down, sometimes cruelty is justified by practitioners because the victim is autistic, so we call it therapy.


My last point in this section is a major point, but it will pale in comparison with what I stated above. There have been some “leaked” data sheets from he JRC that further suggest they use other highly punitive systems. But before I get to that, I have to define a token economy. A token economy is a system whereby one earns tokens or points toward a preselected reward for their positive behavior. When implemented correctly (and done the way ABA defines it), these tokens can be earned, but never lost. It is a purely positive system. The only punishment in a token economy is the lack of receiving a token. So the primary motivating force is the quest for a reward (or accumulation of tokens towards a desirable goal).

The token system used at the JRC appears to be a point system, but they bastardized it and implement it incorrectly. They reserve the right to fine (take some arbitrary number of points) and to employ a full loss of privilege (LOP) system (take away ALL your points). This suggests to me they only have the points so they have something to take away later. This is bullying behavior, because it taunting and manipulative. Think of this scenario: you work at a job that pays you for every good thing that you do. However, your boss and his coworkers reserve the right to notify you that you broke a rule and they are going to fine you. If this was a large infraction (or in some cases not so large), they reserve the right to take away all the money you have been saving and they will make you work for free until you earn back the right to earn money again. Does this sound fair? This is exactly what the JRC is doing.


Attached below are images of documents from the JRC. You will notice the punitive system in place. Also note the “Lose all Points”. A number of these have GED-4 written after it. That is the shock. So not only can these people with autism lose all points for the behavior that the JRC deems “bad”, they also get shocked. Yes, e-l-e-c-t-r-o-c-u-t-e-d! There are also restraint conditions written after the GED-4 codes. I can tell you as a teacher, most of these “shockable” offenses are totally outrageous. It is nonsense that stimming (wave hands in front of face), tic-like movements, touching telephone, refusal to acknowledge staff within 5 seconds are not only a lose-all-token offense BUT a shocked offense as well!

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Here is an example food restriction schedule for a former patient of the JRC. This food restriction was deemed necessary to increase their compliance to edible reward.

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These methods are abuse and there are wrong. Furthermore, this is not ABA. The ABAI and BACB should not condone these behavior, but they do. I want to note here that if parents treated their children like this, I’m under obligation to report it to Child Protective Services.

Original images Here.

Extension to the larger ABA community

So I am in no way insinuating all of ABA engages in direct physical abuse of children, but it is also not a rarity either. It is not a stretch to see the minor abuses that make up standard ABA therapy and how these minor abuses can easily escalate:


This video was posted by a mother to show the world just how good her ABA therapist is working with her difficult, profoundly autistic daughter.

What makes the above video heartbreaking is the fact that the therapist, in trying to use Discrete Trial Training (DTT) is going out of their way to tease and torment the girl with a reward she is unable to obtain. The girl cannot do it, so she tries to escape, but is drawn back. Later, the therapist tells the little girl, “We can’t let you win”. Are you kidding me? The child is crying, clearly unable to do it, so she is restrained. She melts down. She is told to “Just try” while efforts to communicate are ignored. This is bullying. This is abuse. This is wrong. This is not justified. Ever.

Discrete Trial Training, as it supposed to be implemented, is not a compliance based method. It is not “I show you reward and you do what I tell you to in order to get the reward”. Discrete trial training is based off classical and operant conditioning experiments. In these experiments, animals (or people) are rewarded for successful approximations of the target behavior. If I want a baby to come over to me, I will first reward them when they look at me. Then, on the next opportunity, I will reward them for initiating a movement toward me. Then, I will reward them for making it 1/4 of the way to me. Then 1/2, then 3/4 and so on… This is called shaping. We start with giving lots of support (reward early at smallest hint of what we want) and we fade that support back as the child is able to master the task.

In fact, the therapist is completely failing and doing DTT wrong. The goal in this scenario is to shape the child to speak to receive a reward. However, there is no shaping going on in the video. The child attempts using multiple modalities to signal they want the reward. They also attempt to make appropriate mouth noises to receive the reward. The therapist ignores these efforts in quest for the final goal-that the little girl says “mama” to receive a gummy bear. In the end, there was an utterance that if I want to believe it sounds sort of like a “mama” and the girl gets the reward. But, and I speak from experience on this, the girl will remember the battle to get there and how aversive it was much more profoundly than the single gummy bear. The fight wasn’t worth it and in the end the little girl learned nothing.

So here is how I would approach that situation. It is clear the girl is non-communicative and has at best rudimentary speech abilities. I would start by rewarding at high rates any vocal utterance. Then any “mmmmm” echo of what I utter. Then reward any spontaneous or promoted “mmmm”. Once mastered (80% of the time the girl repeats “mmmm” to a prompt, I would move to “ma”. Then “mama”. This takes a long time (maybe months to years). All shaping takes time, patience, love, and consistency. But that is how we learn, through positive, repeated effort. DTT just formalized the process with regards to their interventions. Importantly, at about 1 min in the video, the little girl tried to end the session by walking away. I would let her. After a very brief break, I would re-introduce a reward and initiate a new trial. But I would be focusing on obtainable tasks. Watching this video, I am still not convinced the little girl was actually able to say “mama” regardless her desire to do so.


Stated another way (quoted from the Unstrange Mind blog), here is another interpretation of the session:

The therapist showed her candy, then withheld it from her while making lots of confusing sounds at her and leaving Isabella to try to figure out what the heck was going on, what was expected of her, and why she could see but not get the candy. If I dangled candy in front of a child but refused to give it to her and made her cry with frustration, you would call me a bully and say I was taunting the child and that I should stop making the little girl cry and just give her the candy, right? But because Isabella is Autistic, some professionals believe it’s not cruel; it’s therapy.

There are so many important things to say about this short video of a therapy session. Something really important, though, is that this is not in line with the ways language acquisition occurs. What is happening in this therapy session is closer to the way animals are trained to perform tricks. When I was a pre-teen, I taught my standard poodle to shake paws. He never understood what a handshake meant to me — all he ever knew was that it made me very happy if I put out my hand and he put his paw in it. And he liked to make me happy, so he learned to shake paws very quickly and would do it every time I offered my hand. And I never used food to teach him, just affection. And I never made him whine with confusion or behave in a distressed manner.

Now, I don’t mean to compare an Autistic child to a dog. That would be demeaning. But look at this speech therapy and tell me that Isabella is not being trained like a dog to mimic a behavior she doesn’t understand any more than my dog understood a handshake. In fact, Isabella is being treated far worse than most dogs are treated, because she is in real distress as she tries to get the candy and has no idea what is going on or why she keeps getting teased with candy. This is exactly the sort of trial-and-error behavior shaping you see when people train monkeys or bears to perform in circuses. It assumes that the subject being trained is incapable of understanding anything and must be bullied, badgered, and tempted until it randomly performs the act (or makes the sound) and then operant conditioning is applied to strengthen the desired response. This is not speech therapy, it is monkey training and, my apologies to Isabella’s parents, but it is painful to watch. This is not a therapy that respects Isabella’s personhood or addresses her needs.

(Source)

ABA as compliance training

My final complaint is a universal issue with ABA as practiced. It is a compliance based therapy. By compliance, I mean that when the therapist tells you to do something, albeit stupid, meaningless, or impossible, you do it. You obey. You comply. You are not given a choice. Compliance training is conditioning children to do whatever an “authority” figure demands no matter how unpleasant it may be.

Think about what this means. When a therapist is working with a child, the child is following orders. Much like the quote from Unstrange Mind above (as well as here). We make demands of children with autism so they fit the archetype we want them to. We demand they make eye contact. We demand they sit 100% still and don’t fidget. We demand 4 legs of the chair on the floor with hands on the desk in class. We demand they fluently use pronouns in conversation, even when it doesn’t make sense to do so. But these are their goals. They do not have a choice. Well, they do have a choice: (1) comply and maybe have a bit of fun (or lack of anxiety for a few minutes during a break) or (2) fight back and be punished. If the child indicates they have a good reason for engaging in a harmless but odd or quirky behavior, they are taught that they are wrong. In fact, they are taught that any individuality is wrong. And it is to be shunned.

I fear the repercussions of this compliance. An over-reliance on compliance training as a primary therapy in autism will likely result in a epidemic of autistic adults being taken advantage of by sexual predators, predatory lenders, car salesman, property managers, etc. They may know that the system is wrong, but a lifetime of conditioning has taught them they can only be happy and at peace when they do what others say.


Trigger Warning: The section below entails refers to sexual abuse of autistic and other disabled individuals. If this is disturbing to you please feel free to stop reading here.

Earlier this year I was reading statistics and found some that dropped my jaw to the floor. I will quote a section of one of the documents I read (I also dug into the actual references they cited, and they checked out. Full Document). Emphasis mine.

More than 90 percent of people with developmental disabilities will experience sexual abuse at some point in their lives. Forty-nine percent will experience 10 or more abusive incidents (Valenti-Hein & Schwartz, 1995). Other studies suggest that 39 to 68 percent of girls and 16 to 30 percent of boys will be sexually abused before their eighteenth birthday. The likelihood of rape is staggering: 15,000 to 19,000 of people with developmental disabilities are raped each year in the United States (Sobsey, 1994).

People with developmental disabilities may not realize that sexual abuse is abusive, unusual or illegal. Consequently, they may never tell anyone about sexually abusive situations. People with and without disabilities are often fearful to openly talk about such painful experiences due to the risk of not being believed or taken seriously. They typically learn not to question caregivers or others in authority. Sadly, these authority figures are often the ones committing the abuse. Many special education programs have encouraged students to be compliant in a wide range of life activities, ultimately increasing the child’s vulnerability to abuse (Turnbull, et.al., 1994).

One narrative of exactly these life experiences can be found at Unstrange Mind. It is a sobering and courageous narrative of abuse. I highly recommend the read, but it is very disturbing.

A post by a parent who was considering the ill effects of compliance training put her autistic daughter’s rights very articulately so I will let her words make this point:

…I will never allow anyone to force my child to be compliant. I don’t care what her cognitive abilities are, unless she is in danger or endangering someone else, she gets to say, “no”. And like anyone else, there are consequences to saying no. Sometimes the consequences are negative–like not getting the immense satisfaction of popping bubble wrap. And sometimes they are good–not subjecting yourself to abuse.

If not ABA then what?

I do not have a clear solution to how we fill any gap left if and when ABA goes away. To be honest, my experience with my twin brother and other autistic people has taught me that there is no magic bullet. Each child has a unique collection of challenges. As Linda Brandenburg put it, “If you’ve met one child with autism, well, you’ve met one child with autism”. So lets stop acting like autism is an easy diagnostic “box” we can fit kids in.

My opinion is that we need to think the same way with our solutions. There is no reason to favor any single approach over any others. Caring therapists and parents can work together to develop individualized plans to help give their kids the head start they need. Options are already available that can be combined as needed to help autistic kids that need the boost. These include the Early Start Denver Model, Rapid Prompting Methods, TEACCH, PBIS, and so on.

There are options out there. It just falls upon us to each find that which works best for us and ensure our child’s growth and happiness!


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