personal stories from those formerly enrolled in ABA

These stories were all obtained anonymously via google forms survey. Some of these are quoted from parents or loved ones and others are quoted from autistics.

From parents:

“We had a newer practitioner, she did not suppress stim or demand eye contact, however she did very much demand certain flow from conversation. The last straw for me was when my daughter was trying to explain her perspective abd her refusal logically (this is obviously very difficult for a six year old, distressed, autistic to do! I was very proud of the effort!) And in order to make a more genuine connection, my daughter made very intentional eye contact, and the therapist turned her head dramatically away from my child, repeatedly and refused her hearnest eye contact, as a declaration that she would not listen to or consider my daughters feelings. My child was working so hard to communicate and she was crushed.” “ABA was used on my daughters when they were in elementary school prior to diagnosis. We were never told the methods the teachers were using were based in ABA. PTSD, low self esteem, and inability to emotionally regulate are severe now.” “ABA was presented to me as “parent training” and I was several sessions in before I realized it was ABA, we were working specifically on toileting, and the method was so bizarre to me, there was a time table that increased demand to be seated on the toilet more and more frequently until she used it, they tried to tell me She couldn’t have m&ms anymore unless she successfully toilets (m&ms were her favorite thing in the world, so we did not comply with that for long) i. The end it left her terrified of the process of toilet training and put us further behind. Not to mention that it only punished and rewarded, it did not take into account that sensory deficits are to blame for her delayed toileting, not stubborn behavior.” “ABA caused my autistic daughter to burnout and regressed with being able to use the potty or be able to self regulate.”
[note: we don’t advocate for the use of language like “regressed” here.]

“I have unwittingly used some of the techniques which are hallmarks of ABA (repeatedly giving the same command with insufficient time to process) while raising my autistic child. It only made the situation worse for both of us, amplifying her distress and my frustration. ”

“My son was enrolled in the pre-k program. The teacher, also a BCBA, used ABA on him. We saw a huge shift in his overall well being and attitude. He now shows symptoms of anxiety and a need for rewards for any type of demand.”

“My little girl worsened with ABA. I stopped it when she asked me to. It seemed like abuse and certainly not good for a child.”

“My son was in an award winning ABA preschool for approx 6 months before we knew it was detrimental. While verbal understanding and use improved, behavior became more explosive. I believe my son fits the PDA profile so his anxiety and behavior amped up after a few months I think due to the constant demands. I pulled him when he started to physically fight me to avoid school. I don’t know if there will be any lasting effects as of yet.”

“When our child was diagnosed at age 3 (more than a decade ago), we were told that the optimal outcome would be ‘indistinguishable from their peers.’ For 2 years leading up to the start of school, and for a good portion of our child’s elementary/primary school experience, they were subjected to ABA therapy or behavioral management based on ABA principles. Our child is now a young teen with a range of mental health challenges, and they feel very strongly that ABA sent them messages of ‘you are less than.'”

“My son was briefly enrolled at age 3 for potty training issues. I removed him after only two days as he had extreme anxiety about going back.”

From other loved ones:

“My person sometimes doesn’t even know who they are anymore. They told me they feel like a shell of the person they were before, and when situations come up that otherwise could have been managed by stimming they meltdown now. They were perfectly fine before.”

“I wasn’t enrolled in ABA myself due to being diagnosed at 15, but my brother (who is 10 years younger than me) was diagnosed as a toddler and put through ABA by our mother. I noticed that he’s more anxious and tired than ‘normal’ for a child his age (he’s 10) and I strongly suspect that ABA is responsible. (We also have an allistic sister who is the middle child and tries to follow our mum’s lead when it comes to interacting with our brother, which worries and upsets me.)”

“My partner and I are both autistic, and by all accounts were very similar as children. My partner was diagnosed and sent to ABA, whereas I was not. Not only does my partner have more trouble regulating emotions and dealing with the emotions of others, but her mother, who was the one who’d enrolled her, is much more hostile toward harmless autistic behaviors such as stimming than my family is.”

“My aunt doesn’t like to talk about it that much because it’s quite traumatic for her, so all answers [in the survey] about the family member were how I think she feels.”

“I have seen it do harm to a good friend. They became ill from the stress of pretending to be ‘normal’.”

“Autistic friend was damaged by ABA, suffered a great deal and was left in an institution.”

From former providers and other professionals who witnessed ABA in a professional setting:

“I worked briefly in a school which used it. It was nothing short of horrific, and put adults in a place of extreme power over children, controlling their every move and handling them constantly. The adult was always right, the child was always seen as wrong/broken and in need of fixing. This is in the UK, in extremely recent years. I saw signs of trauma in particular in children who had been in aba for a long time, such as starting to pull out hair, a desire to please out of fear (e.g. repeating ‘I’m happy, I’m happy’ and trying to smile even when crying), and meltdowns triggered by the demands of aba itself. Staff saw dealing with meltdowns, especially when the child became violent or destructive as a badge of honour, because it showed they were ‘doing their jobs’. Children were left with no autonomy whatsoever, and no dignity. Skills were tokenised, but ultimately crushed under the more prominent demands of ‘point to the cat…good job, quiet hands’. It didn’t matter if a child was skilled in maths, or piano, what mattered was that they could learn stock phrases to sound neurotypical and comply, comply, comply.”

 “As a special ed teacher I have had some training. Instinctively I didn’t use ABA for teaching purposes, it made no sense to my autistic mind. I always had fun and success following the child’s lead. Verbal expression, eye contact all arise naturally when the child feels safe and accepted. ABC charts would have been filled for diagnostic purposes if child was being assessed by NEPS, Child Dev etc.”

“I work in education and have seen a couple of children who have been put through ABA. Contrary to Lovaas’ idea that autistic children who go through ABA become ‘indistinguishable from their peers’, it’s often easy to spot the students who have been through ABA programmes as they often come across as quite passive and unquestioningly compliant. I can’t lie, as a teaching assistant this does make my job easier but that shouldn’t be a reason to make children do ABA – it feels wrong to try to change their behaviours just to make things easier for their teachers and parents. One child had a full-time ABA tutor with him in school, which was definitely counter-productive as he had few opportunities to interact with other children in the classroom as the tutor was always the one interacting with him. It marked him out as ‘different’ which he didn’t like, and he struggled to make friends. Obviously social difficulties are a hallmark difficulty for autistic people, but in this case the ABA was an additional barrier to him making friends as he was being encouraged to present a false version of himself to the other students. I also think he’d have had an easier time making friends if he’d have been allowed to do it his own way and in his own time rather than having friendships engineered for him by his ABA tutor.”

“I worked at an ABA school as an intern in high school. At this point, I was unfamiliar with ABA. The experience was horrifying. I became suspicious of ABA before I started working there. The person who had set the internship up was an inclusion specialist at my school. They weren’t my assigned inclusion specialist, but nonetheless took a specific interest in me for some reason. Once I started expressing doubts, they pressured me to talk to the owner/CEO(?) of the school about it. We did. I was belittled and dismissed the whole time. Later, she (the owner) implied that I would be intellectually disabled without these services (I had been through a program that used some of the same techniques, but wasn’t ABA). This not only showed a disrespect for people with intellectual disabilities, but also a deep misunderstanding of disability and a manipulativeness that would continue throughout the internship. I wanted to quit, but people from all sides pressured me and gaslit me about my worries. The school itself was awful. There were bizarre, homophobic and transphobic posters on the wall. They were supposed to be about the ages of development for kids, but included things like ‘gender-appropriate play for age’ (?). More than once I witnessed abuse. I was supposed to find crafts for the kids, so I found one where we’d decorate paper plates and cut them into spirals to hang them. One kid accidentally tore his plate in half when cutting it and waned to start over. I said sure, because we had the materials and the time to do it and I didn’t blame him for wanting to start over. The staff insisted over and over again that he staple it until he started crying. Three adults finally surrounded him, used hand over hand to force him to staple it as he cried, and then started clapping and telling him ‘what a good job’ he had done. Later, they pulled me aside. In hushed tones, they said they wanted me to know what happened. They told me they just wanted him to understand that he didn’t have the right or ability to say no to them, ever. The other major incident happened later. The kids would help put small hand towels in the wash and dryer as a chore. They would also help to fold them. (Yes, this was a part of ‘school’.) The students were folding towels. The head teacher, who had a penchant for being rude, impatient, and dismissive of students started bullying the kids. One kid, tired, got upset and lightly tossed a towel at the teacher. She immediately began to belittle him more and he had a meltdown, crying and pacing. She looked him dead in the eye and said ‘That’s right. Cry. No one here cares about you.’ The whole school was a nightmare. They would seclude students, often with no teachers around, in a ‘quiet’ room for bad behavior. They’d restrain them by pushing them into a chair with a pillow (supposedly it was a sensory thing they ‘liked’. I have doubts). They would drag students screaming and crying from the park where we had lunch to the classroom if they ‘misbehaved’. They made fun of students with each other frequently. It was awful.”

“I was an ABA therapist for a short time and it was definitely abusive. When my bosses found out I was autistic they said the company never had an autistic employee, and played an autism speaks video at the next staff meeting about how horrible it is to have autistic children. It felt like they were trying to get me to quit between that and refusing my reasonable accommodation.”

“It is child abuse and I use my position as a Court Appointed Special Advocate to try to prevent children from being subjected to ABA.”

From autistics who experienced ABA themselves:

“I believe I was enrolled in ABA when I was very young, almost too young to remember. I obviously didn’t respond to it very well, because my parents took me out of it eventually. It left mostly trauma and confusion, as I remember simultaneously having a terrible childhood while also having a great one.”

“My personal experience involved physical contact such as slapping my hands whenever flapping occurred. There were other incidents, however this one stands out.”

“I spent 11+ years getting pulled out of class in order to learn the same social skills over and over again, and then got yelled at for not performing well in school because I wasn’t learning the material.”

“Every session ended with me in tears.”

“I’m super flinchy and my grandfather who got an early version of it was visibly left unable to unmask and relax, and flinchy.”

“Simply put, ABA was structured to destroy my self-confidence and agency for not following arbitrary cultural rules. Had I been allowed to interact on my own terms, I would simply have been able to learn, and I still hold that I was never truly disrespectful, just not obsequious, but unfortunately the people around me growing up felt that they could enact any harm on me to try to change this, regardless of where I actually stood.”

“Experienced torture and shutdown due to ABA can not understand my own needs and am unable to ask for basic things to survive from being taught my needs won’t matter. cannot communicate effectively and have not learnt any skills to live independently. don’t know who i am always taught whatever i might be was wrong. it’s a struggle to try and learn who i am at 40.”

“Trying to change who I am a person by mentally abusing me as a way to train me to “be better” was the hardest thing I’ve ever had to go through. It disconnected me from my family as I felt I couldn’t trust them nor that I was loved by them. It made me fearful of all face-to-face interactions because I am still mentally afraid of the consequences, even though it’s been over a decade since my last ABA sessions. I have lifelong PTSD over ABA and it needs to be banned. ”

 “My memories are mostly early childhood with the quiet hands being prominent. It’s hard to sit still and focus for any kid but ADHD and ASD meant there was no way. a lot of forced eye contact too and I just I can’t.”

“I was told to stop playing in the ‘wrong way’ and was taught that my emotions and feelings were wrong. I was fortunately pulled out after two weeks because of how expensive it was, and my family didn’t view it as very effective for my own needs.”

 “I had to wear plaster boots to stop me stimming by toe walking, I was not damaging my feet, it just didn’t look ‘normal’, this is alongside electronic shocks and other harmful practices.”

“My mom had to fire a few therapists for using physically abusive tactics.”

“I was physically restrained for not following instructions. (quiet hand and eye contact bullshit.) My hobbies were shamed and ridiculed and I was told to have more ‘girly and age appropriate hobbies.’ I was forced to ‘try’ new foods (they were forced into my mouth) and I was yelled at for vomiting afterwards. I brought my comfort item one day and it was forcibly taken, I was told I could have it back if i did well… My sister got it back 3 days later when I told her what happened.”

“I am less emotionally developed than others my age due to ABA.”

“ABA is very traumatic, I do not want to talk about my trauma.”

“I have not been enrolled in ABA but my caregivers did use method similar to it when I was a child (holding my hands so I didnt flap, make me look in the eyes, force me to work without washing my hands at recess (hard time writing with sweaty/clammy hands), ect) and I do feel like it made me less able to regulate myself and caused me more anxiety and distress. One example I like to use is: Would you hold down the handof someone communicating in sign language? No? Then why would you hold down the hand of an autistic child? It enable us to regulate ourselves, destress and communicate how we are feeling also.”

” I would not wish the experience I had on anyone else. “

“ABA is responsible for me being hesitant, and in some cases incapable of expressing who I am. While I do not consider this PTSD, I consider it to be a huge factor in the disconnect between my emotions and my expression.”

“I never want any child to go through what I had to suffer through. “

” I am not a dog to be trained. I am left flinchy at harsh voices and unable to completely relax without weed and avoiding my parents who got me into this state.”

“Expensive PTSD-inducing hell i wish i didn’t have to go through.”

“It’s one of the worst things to ever happen to me.”

“It ruined my ability to say no, taught me that I didn’t have bodily autonomy and primed me for abuse later in life. I can only imagine how much worse other people might have it. 😦 ”

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