Thursday, December 29, 2016

The Dangers of ABA: A Survivor's Story, Pt. 1

Image description: a bunch of black-and-white apples, with a red one that stands out among the bunch.  The red apple represents non-conformity.

content/trigger warning: ABA, ableism, compliance, conformity, aversives, suicidal thoughts, internalized shame, PTSD, religion, religious bigotry, anti-LGBTQ bigotry, LGBTQ conversion therapy, restraint and seclusion, self-harm.

When I was around 3 years old, I was diagnosed with autism.  What came next was a nightmare for me - I was placed in early intervention, which involved applied behavioral analysis, or ABA.  ABA is a method used by psychologists, speech pathologists, and some staff in special education settings to try and make autistic and other neurodivergent people pass for neurotypical as much as possible.  ABA was developed by O. Ivar Lovaas, an extremely ableist psychologist.

Just how ableist was Lovaas?  He said the following quote from his 1981 book, The Me Book:
“With responsibility, the developmentally disabled individual takes on dignity and ‘acquires’ certain basic rights as a person. No one has the right to be taken care of, no matter how retarded he is. So, put your child to work; his work is to learn.” 
There you have it, folks - he believed that people should have to learn to conform to the world, at the expense of basic human rights and dignity.  That's simply not true - everyone, regardless of disability, race, sexuality, faith (or lack thereof), gender identity, etc, must be given basic rights and human dignity.

Lovaas as also anti-LGBTQ.  In the 1970s, he developed LGBTQ conversion therapy with the help of George Rekers, a so-called "Christian" psychologist, and that's not Christ-like at all - to force someone to conform to the world, especially to get basic human rights.

Back to my post-autism diagnosis and early intervention, I was placed in a special education school called H. Winship Wheatley Special Center in Capitol Heights, Maryland, near my house in 1993.  It was an early childhood center for children from preschool to second grade.  I'm not sure what the age/grade limit is now.

Now I don't remember much about my first year of preschool because I was only 3 at the time, but in my second year of preschool in 1994, I was having more meltdowns because I was frustrated that I had to follow so many of the teacher's rules.  I think following those rules, plus the rules of the ABA pathologists.  It was too much to handle.

Kindergarten was even harder in 1995.  I had trouble meeting the expectations of the teachers and I was having even more meltdowns.  I had to sit out during playtime and other activities because of the meltdowns.

First grade was even worse in 1996.  I had a very strict teacher, who would take away our privileges if we didn't do exactly what she said: speak in the appropriate tone of voice, get all the answers right on your paper, pay attention, etc.  The fact that the fire alarm went off almost every day didn't help either.  There wouldn't even be a fire drill and it would go off.  The worst part was that it was a buzzer fire alarm, and being autistic and having a lot of sensory sensitivities, it was a living hell.  My teacher did something really horrible during a "fire drill".  As we were leaving the school building, I had my hands over my ears because I couldn't stand the noise, and she uncovered my ears and yelled "HANDS DOWN!"  This was also around the time I learned that I was autistic: I asked my mom why I acted different from the other kids and was being treated differently then they were, and she said it was because I "had autism".  I started to think autism was bad because I heard other people say I was bad.  I started to internalize the shame of being autistic.

Second grade wasn't much better in 1997.  I had a new teacher, but the fire alarm was still buzzing nearly every day.  My teacher gave me cotton balls to put in my ears to try and block out the noise - cotton balls.  The school said that the fire alarm was broken and they couldn't do anything about, but I think that's a bunch of bullcrap.  I think the school was trying to "desensitize" us so we would get used to the noise, but all it did was traumatize me, and it still does from time to time.

I graduated from Winship Wheatley in 1998 and started third grade at Arrowhead Elementary School in Upper Marlboro, Maryland in August of that year, also near my house.  I was placed in the "special wing" program because of my autism diagnosis.    It was terrible there - it was basically a classroom of special education students whom the mainstream classrooms didn't know what to do with.  There were students who were autistic, had AD(H)D, had emotional disturbances, intellectually disabled students, etc, lumped in one classroom.  That year was torture for me.  I was paranoid that the fire alarm would go off because of all those traumatic events at Winship Wheatley and I was bullied a lot for acting so paranoid, and the teachers didn't seem to care.  I was so paranoid of the fire alarms, plus I was bullied so many times I missed many days of school.

In 1999, my mom took me out of Arrowhead because she saw that it was very difficult for me there and sent me to The Harbour School, a special education school in Annapolis, Maryland, 45 minutes away from my house.  The Harbour School actually had elementary school (or "lower" school, as they called it), middle school and high school - it was a very small school.   I had to repeat third grade because I missed so many days at Arrowhead, but at least I wasn't getting bullied at Harbour.

In 2000, I started fourth grade.  I was making lots of friends, but then this girl came along and invited my friends to join her club.  I wanted to join her club too, but the girl said I had to be "cool" to be in her club.  She said that I had to like Mary-Kate and Ashley Olsen Movies to be cool, and that's when it hit me: all the social skills I learned in ABA, all the pressure to comply to everyone's expectations came back and I realized that I had to be "cool" if I wanted to make friends.  That's when I started asking my mom to rent me Olsen Twins movies at Blockbuster so I would fit in.  The girl also said that my clothes were babyish and that people were going to laugh at me, so I asked my mom to take me to JCPenney to buy me some trendier clothes.

I started fifth grade in 2001, and I kept trying to fit into school cliques to try to be cool, but I ended up making a fool of myself.  Another new girl came along and saw that I was trying too hard to belong - and she and her friends made fun of me for it.  I didn't enjoy much of fifth grade because of her and her friends.  I also became increasingly agitated towards my teachers, taking my frustration out on them and refusing to do work because I was tired of complying to expectations.

In 2002, I started middle school - sixth grade - and I started to feel depressed.  I even started to think of suicide from time to time.  Part of the reason was because I had trouble adjusting to middle school.  The other part was that I was starting to feel burned out from trying to fit in so much.  I also started to get crushes on females.  I told my mom about it because we're pretty close, but she just said that it was just a phase, so I decided to let it go.

Seventh grade, the 2003-2004 school year wasn't too bad, but in 2004 when I started eighth grade, I started to feel more pressure to conform.  One time for a "journal entry" for Reading class, we were asked to share what TV shows we thought should be cancelled, and one guy said that Jimmy Neutron should be cancelled, and I said I liked Jimmy Neutron, and the guy said to me, "What are you, four?"  I told him that he could've said it in a nicer way, but then two other kids said that everyone is entitled to their own opinion.  I was frustrated because I felt I was being attacked for what I liked.  Plus, this was also the time when I learned that people thought homosexuality was a sin, so I started internalize even more shame, this time for being gay.

In 2005, I started my freshman year of high school, and I felt even more pressure to conform to what everyone else was doing.  The same girl who said that my clothes were babyish and who said I should watch Mary-Kate and Ashley videos to be cool said that I should start watching more "mature" shows like Grey's Anatomy, American Idol, etc.  See, I was watching mostly Nickelodeon shows like SpongeBob SquarePants, The Fairly OddParents and Drake and Josh, and apparently that wasn't cool enough to fit in with the other teens.  I asked my school counselor for advice, and she said that I had to watch those shows if I wanted to make the friends that I wanted, so I started watching Grey's Anatomy and American Idol.  Also, my mom bought me a Zondervan Teen Study Bible that year to bring me closer to God, and it said that homosexuality was a perversion and I started to feel even worse about myself.

When I started my sophomore year of high school in 2006, my depression really started to take it's toll on me.  I started acting out even more, taking out my frustrations on both the teachers and the other students because I was frustrated with having to conform - I was at my breaking point.  I've had my first of many hospitalizations for psychiatric reasons because I was having severe suicidal ideations.  I also started cutting myself because I had no other way of releasing my frustrations.

In 2007, my behavior got so out of control that I got expelled from Harbour and had to go to Kennedy Krieger High School in Baltimore, Maryland, where I had to repeat my sophomore year due to my poor academic performance.  It's a special education high school that's an hour away from my house.  Kennedy Krieger High School is part of the Kennedy Krieger Institute, which is heavily-ABA based.  The rules were: safe hands, calm body, etc.  Kennedy Krieger was also a living hell.  The school had a "Level System", with Level 1 having the least amount of privileges, and Level 5 having the most.  The privileges were going on school trips, shopping at the school store, going to school dances, eating from the school cafe instead of the nasty cafeteria food, etc.  Your level ranking was based on your behavior.  The highest I ever got to was Level 4 but it still wasn't high enough to go to the trip to the Inner Harbor, which I really wanted to do.  I was really disappointed.

Kennedy Krieger also uses restraint and seclusion to try and control unwanted behaviors.  I'm going to keep saying this over and over again: This never works.  I was restrained and put in seclusion many times and now I have PTSD from those traumatic experiences.

I don't remember much about my junior year (2008-2009) because it was pretty much a blur, but my senior year (2009-2010) was possibly the worst year of my life.  I, once again, tried to fit in with everyone else.  I started carrying my handbag to school, as well as my backpack because I wanted to be cool like all the other girls.  I tried to fit in with this clique of girls because they were popular, and I wanted to be like them.  But when they didn't accept me, I got very angry.

On May 26, 2010, I was were angry with the clique, so I wrote some nasty things about them, thinking nobody was watching.  I then crumpled up the paper and threw it in the trash.  Apparently, a teacher saw it, because she referred me to the Resource Room, which was a room where you were sent if you were behaving inappropriately.  Then my counselor came and asked me about the paper, which she apparently she got uncrumpled and got out of the trash can (since I switched schools, I got a new counselor).  I was livid that she got the paper out of the trash can and so I reached towards to try to get the paper from her.  She reached back so I couldn't get it, and the next thing I knew, at least two Resource staff members came and pinned me down to a mat.  I was so scared and agitated that I screamed bloody murder.  Then the Dean of Students came and one of the Resource Staff said that I was trying to assault my counselor, but I wasn't trying to assault her - I was just trying to get the paper from her!  I was trying to hold onto my pair of headphones because I felt secure with them, but one of the Resource staff managed to pry it out of my tightly clenched hands.  I tried to bite one of the staff to break free from their grip.

Later that day, as soon as I got home from school, I went to the kitchen and got a kinfe.  I went to my room and sat on my bed for about ten minutes, contemplating slitting my wrists.  I wanted to die because I felt so horrible about myself.  I thought I was evil.  What stopped me from doing it was that my mom would freak out if I she saw what I have done.

I finally graduated from Kennedy Krieger on June 11, 2010.  I cried because I was so happy - I was happy that I was free to be whomever I wanted.


  1. I am so proud of you for surviving. I think it is so common that we get bullied to just fall in line and act like our peers, especially in school. I relate to your experiences a lot. <3

  2. Thank you for sharing your experiences. Autistic myself with autistic children - can't imagine this as part of our life. Very pleased to be seeing this being shared. Your experiences need to be heard!

  3. Nice post, Christian Misfit. We need more survivors like to speak out about ABA. Here's something from Germany.

    Happy news! Huge German disability group, Aktion Mensch, defunds ABA-based intervention. (Applied Behavioural Analysis) (Analy$i$) (ABA).