Just horrible

Hai just linked me to an open letter concerning an “Applied Behavioral Analysis” program and how it traumatized a four-year-old autistic child.

We believe it to be particularly destructive of a child’s emotional development that hugs and kisses, gestures we normally use to express affection and love, are used instrumentally in many behavioral programs. The child is required to give and to receive these gestures as part of the training, without regard to his or her actual feelings. These “behaviors” will therefore come to have a different meaning for your child. Your child may develop obsessive-compulsive behavior in this area if he or she is in an ABA program that is similar to the one we had, since the meaning of a behavior comes out of the context it is most used in. Hugs and kisses, in the program we had, meant “I surrender (my project of autonomy, my understanding of my pain, my resistance to your will, my attempt to obtain freedom to pursue my intrinsic interest in this toy or manipulative).” They meant “I seek safety in this behavior” of performing the required hugs and kisses, because “I have learned that then the pain will stop (and so will my right to choose who will receive my affections).”

I start to cry just reading that paragraph.

We have come to believe that the attempt to eliminate a targeted “behavior” by responding to it in a discouraging way (or not responding at all) is very dangerous. Keep in mind that what is being extinguished is not simply “a behavior”: when this occurs with human beings, as opposed to the animal studies where the term originated, the process is much more complex. What is suppressed is “a choice,” and that implies a deep internal restructuring of the child’s understanding. If the behavior to be extinguished was his way of communicating distress, he may learn that he should not seek comfort when he hurts. He may learn that he should hide pain and somatize it (e.g. develop other symptoms such as stomach aches). He may conclude he is not loved. He might even become so alarmed that he develops symptoms of PTSD [Post Traumatic Stress Disorder] as our son did.


We believe that one of the primary reasons our son’s PTSD is so severe and so persistent is that the assault on his body, in the form of restraint that was painful and terrifying, took place in the sanctity of his own home. Home is the place that must be safe, that must be the place of rest where we let down our guard, and must be the place where we feel protected. It is a fact that some of the most severe cases of PTSD occur when the assault took place in the victim’s own home, because where there exists a deep expectation of safety it is most traumatic to have it suddenly violated.

There’s a lot more in that letter, and elsewhere on the CIBRA (Children Injured by Restraint and Aversives) website.

I am just appalled.

I’ve never taken any psychology courses, so I can’t speak to the validity of these arguments, but restraining a child, punishing him for expressing his hurt and fear, refusing to indulge his interests and instead leading him along like a dumb animal…I have trouble understanding how any of that is supposed to help him mature emotionally and intellectually.

Maybe it isn’t. Maybe it’s just supposed to make him shut up.