Earlier this year a research paper was published that reports shocking rates of Post-Traumatic Stress and mental health problems among autistic people who have undergone ABA. Read more
For seven years from shortly before my fifth birthday I went to a smallish private school called Clevelands Preparatory School. It was an old-fashioned establishment in an old Victorian house, and very much based on old-fashioned ideals.
That included the uniform. The boys wore short trousers year-round, and even the underwear was prescribed for the girls. Separate shoes for outdoors and indoors. And the school dinners: you ate what was put in front of you or you went without.
Discipline was strict, enforced through corporal punishment. In a small concession to liberal ideas it was the slipper rather than the cane. I don’t know what effect it had on other pupils but I found the thought of it terrifying.
So apart from my academic achievements (which were exceptionally good) I also learned to be compliant. To obey without question. To defer to authority. All because of the threat of violence hanging over my head.
After a little while obedience becomes habit. You don’t even think about questioning. You just do as you are told like a good little cog in the machine.
It was during this time that I developed strong inhibitions against many of what I now recognise as my autistic behaviours. Rocking, flapping my hands, echolalia and verbal stimming, toe walking. Because those behaviours weren’t acceptable, they weren’t how a good child ought to behave. “Sit still!” “Be quiet!” “Walk properly!”
As I have worked to overcome my inhibitions in recent years it has become increasingly apparent just how deeply that fear of punishment affected me. How much of it I still carry with me to this day. That fear is forever looking over my shoulder, judging everything I do to ensure I don’t break the rules.
I am almost incapable of breaking a rule. Even thinking of doing it fills me with a sense of danger, of dread. And I can trace it all back to my experiences at school. Back to that threat of violence. I fear violence: it terrifies me. Of all the triggers for my anxiety that is the most powerful, the one that can make me freeze, unable to even think. Literally scared witless.
These days I’m beginning to think of it as trauma, and I see parallels with the aversion-based conditioning of ABA. I was never struck, but I saw others punished. I saw one little boy who could not have been even 5 years old picked up bodily by the headmaster and shaken for refusing to eat his dinner, all the while being shouted at and verbally abused.
My heart is pounding in my chest just remembering the incident all these years later. And there were many others. I say I have bad things locked away in my mind: these are some of them. I have to move away from these memories now, lock them away again, wait for the screaming in my mind to diminish.
To me there is no doubt: I was conditioned to be compliant, obedient. It scares me to think that if someone in a position of authority had tried to abuse me physically or sexually I would have felt unable to say “No”. I still find it hard to assert myself when I disagree with my boss, say, or anyone else in a position of power.
There was another form of conditioning I underwent. One that was perhaps more insidious than the explicit threat of violence. I learned to seek approval, praise. It was a competitive environment and since I had no talents of the physical kind I could only rely on my mental abilities. Once it became apparent that I was gifted, excellence became expected. Anything less was received with disappointment and I felt the failure keenly.
Praise and reward is how I measure my worth: I am only as good as people tell me I am. It became my chief motivation and it still is to a large degree. And it’s all about satisfying other people’s expectations rather than setting my own goals. I’m not even sure I know how to work out what I want for myself.
In some ways I feel I am broken. Not because of my autism: certainly not that. But because I carry all this baggage of my past with me. It shapes every interaction I have with other people. It affects how I think and feel about events. I despair of ever being free from it: I don’t even know what such freedom might mean. But the weight of my past is suffocating me.