A behavior modification aftermath

Content note: This post is written with parents and professionals in mind. It’s about a common way that rewards-based behavior modification hurts people, and the importance of being aware of that effect in work with people who might be ABA survivors.

I’ve seen a lot of well-meaning people who are trying to fix special education and adult disability services say things like “you have to find out what they’re interested in and incorporate it.”

This can be good advice. It’s also important to realize that this is loaded, and that not all disabled people are going to be willing or able to show you what they’re interested in.

For people with disabilities, “what do you like?” can be a deeply intimate personal question. It can be very dangerous to let people know what you are interested in.

Autistic people (and others with intellectual and developmental disabilities) are often subjected to intense behavior modification. This is often aimed at silencing them, getting them to pretend to be non-autistic, or otherwise change in ways that deny fundamental things about who they are.

You have to take some pretty extreme methods to get someone to comply with that kind of behavior program. One traditional way is to use painful punishment like starvation and electric shock. These days, that’s considered distasteful, and most therapists prefer to use positive methods.

In practice, what that often means is that anything a disabled person expresses interest in will be taken away and used as a reinforcer for a behavior plan. The more they care about something, the more their access to it will be contingent with compliance with what powerful people in their life want.

Even if the thing they care about is something like math. Or books. Or access to fresh air. Or their teddy bear.

People subjected to this kind of thing learn quickly that when they express interest in something, it will probably be taken away.

And beyond that, they learn that when people know what you care about, they will use it to manipulate you into doing awful things to yourself. In many cases, this includes being manipulated into maintaining a grateful affect and praising the therapist.

When people have experienced this type of violation, sharing their interests with anyone is a big risk. Particularly if that person has power over them. Particularly if that person is a member of a professional culture that largely approves of what was done to them. (And if you’re a teacher, therapist, direct support professional, or similar, you have power over them and your professional culture approves of misusing it.)

It’s important to keep in mind that people you work with have every reason to believe that it is dangerous to tell you what they care about. They don’t know what you will do with that information, and have every reason to believe that you will use it against them. (Or that information they give you will get back to people who will do so.) It might take a long time before some people are willing to share their interests. Some people may never trust you. The way you teach and offer support needs to take this into account.

tl;dr It’s important to be aware of the loaded nature of asking disabled people to express interest in things. It’s important to make space to incorporate interests; it’s also important to allow people to keep their interests private.