Content note: this post is about ABA (applied behavior analysis), and what it would take for a behaviorist to be considered ethical. Proceed with caution.
When self advocates talk about the problems with ABA, a lot of behavior therapists say things along the lines of “that’s not real ABA; ABA is a science, not a particular method.” Or “that’s just some bad practitioners.” They will say this even when self-advocates criticize things that are routine practices in ABA, and even when they are in fact explicitly advocated in the BACB standard of practice for behavior therapy.
If you want people to believe that you’re not the kind of behaviorist they’re criticizing, acknowledge that most behaviorists are, and that they have completely legitimate reasons not to trust you.
“What kind of staff are you?” she continued. I was unsure of what she meant so I asked her to clarify. “Well, do you work in a group home or an office?” I told her that I worked in an office and I was a behavior therapist. I must admit that I said the behavior therapist part with some pride. She stared at me, “What do you do?” she asked in a very measured tone. “I’m a behavior therapist. I work with people who have problems.”
That was it. She was angry. “You shouldn’t be here. You lock people in little rooms. You shouldn’t be here.” Both her anger and her words took me aback and before I could answer my friend spoke up. “Maybe it’s good that he is here then. He may learn something from the movie that will help him understand people better.” She agreed and the two of them discussed my betterment. When others started to arrive she left us to help people find seats.
Sitting through that was bad enough but sitting next to someone who was bound to feel smug for the next few hours was nearly intolerable. At the reception afterwards she approached us again and asked if I had liked the movie and I assured her I had. She wanted to know if I had learned anything and I told her that I did. I learned that it was good to be challenged about what I do from the people I do it to. Even though I had not locked anyone in a little room for some time, I knew that I had used time out and other procedures like it. I knew that I would remember her for a long time, but especially whenever I wrote a program to manage someone’s behavior.“
— Dave Hingsburger, “i to I: Self Concept and People With Developmental Disabilities”
Note here, that he didn’t respond with anger and say "I don’t lock people into little rooms! I’m not that kind of behaviorist! How dare you judge me like that?!”. He listened to what she said, acknowledged that she had good reasons to say it, and realized that this should give him serious pause for how he treated people in behavior therapy. He didn’t assume that no longer doing one particular abusive practice meant that he was immune to that kind of criticism.
If you are a behavior therapist, especially if you are a BCBA, a lot of people have very good reasons not to trust you. Even if you’ve never personally locked someone in a little room, your colleagues still do and still retain good professional standing. Even if you’ve never written a program to extinguish stimming, your colleagues still routinely do so, and your professional association’s guidelines for practice in autism therapy explicitly encourage this.
You can’t rely on the positive reputation of behaviorism for legitimacy, and at the same time expect to be immune from the negative reputation of behaviorism that comes from the horrific abuses that have been and still are committed by behaviorists.
If you choose to be a behaviorist, particularly if you chose to be a BACB cerified BCBA, and particularly if you call what you are doing ABA therapy - you are not entitled to any benefit of the doubt. You’ve got a hell of a lot of evil weighing you down.
You are the product of a discipline that locks people in little rooms as punishment, and did so even more frequently in the past. It’s not against the current ethical standards of practice.
Quiet hands is still practiced. So is shocking people. The current standard of practice for autism therapy
still calls for 25-40 hours a week, even for young children. It still calls for treating stimming as a target behavior for elimination.
Don’t expect us to be deeply impressed that you don’t personally torture anyone. The fact that it needs to be said, means that you have to work hard at proving yourself if you want to be trusted. And don’t expect people to believe you right away either, because a lot of people who say they don’t torture people really just mean that they do it in subtle ways, or that they do it only as a last resort.
Self advocates have a lot of really good reasons to doubt that you’re an exception. If you want to be seen as one, acknowledge that you’re unusual in that regard and that they have every reason to assume you’re not trustworthy.
If you want to distance yourself from abusive behaviorism, do it all the way. Don’t wait for self advocates to associate you with abusive behaviorism. Distance yourself from abusive behaviorism even when doing so harms your professional reputation (and it will, because abuse is the norm). Acknowledge that self advocates and others have every reason not to trust you. Horrible things have been done by behaviorists for a long time. Horrible things are still being done.
Maybe you don’t do any of that. Maybe you don’t torture anyone or teach them antiskills. Maybe you don’t insist on a number of hours that prevents someone from having any down time, non-behaviorist education, or social relationships.
Maybe your teacher doesn’t do those things either. But someone who taught their teacher, did. And someone you and your teacher regard as a collegue in good standing, still does.
The fact that you personally don’t torture anyone, even if true, does not undo the tremendous evil in behaviorist culture, theory, and practice. It does not absolve you of the responsibility of dealing with it, either.
Don’t expect the benefit of the doubt from those of us who are from communities that have been harmed (and are still being harmed) by behaviorism. You don’t deserve that as a default, no matter how good you are personally. Any respect you get for your professional work is something you have to earn personally, and you’re starting with a debt.