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ABA therapy is not like typical parenting

Content note: This post is about the difference between intense behavior therapy and more typical forms of rewards and punishments used with typically developing children. It contains graphic examples of behavior programs, and is highly likely to be triggering to ABA survivors.

Anonymous said to realsocialskills:

I just read your thing about people with disabilities and their interests. Don’t people do the same thing to typical children? Restrict access to things enjoyed until act ABC is completed? For example, growing up, I was only allowed to watch tv for 1 hour a day IF I finished all of my homework and schoolwork related things first.

realsocialskills said:

It’s not the same (although it has similar elements and I’m not a huge fan of the extent to which behavior modification techniques are used with typically developing children either.)

Here’s the difference: Most children actually should do their homework, and most children have interests other than television. Typically developing children are allowed to be interested in things, and supported in pursuing interests without them becoming behavior modification tools.

(Another difference: intense behavior modification is used on adults with developmental disabilities in a way that would be considered a human rights violation if done to typically developing adults.)

Using behavior modification tools for one or two things in a child’s life isn’t the same as doing it with everything in someone’s life. Intense behavior therapy is a violation on a level that it’s hard to describe.

Intense behavior therapy of the type I’m talking about typically involves:

  • Being surrounded by people who think that you’re broken, that all of your natural behavior is unacceptable, and that you need to be made to look normal in order to have any hope of a decent future
  • Having completely harmless things you do pathologized and modified (eg: having hand flapping or discussing your interests described as “a barrier to inclusion”)
  • Having those things conflated with things you do that actually *are* a problem. (eg: calling both head banging and hand flapping “sensory seeking behavior” and using the same reinforcers to eliminate both) 
  • Being forced to stop doing things that are very important to you, by people who think that they are pointless and disgusting or “nonfunctional” (eg: using quotes from TV shows to communicate)
  • Being forced to do things that are completely arbitrary, over and over (eg: touching your nose or putting a blue ball in a red box)
  • Being forced to do things that are harmful to you, over and over (eg: maintaining eye contact even though it hurts and interferes with your ability to process information)
  • Having everything you care about being taken away and used to get compliance with your behavior program (eg: not being permitted to keep any of your toys in your room)

(Behavior therapy often also involves legitimate goals. That doesn’t make the methods acceptable, nor does it make the routine inclusion of illegitimate goals irrelevant.)

Here’s an explicit instruction from a behavior expert on how to figure out which reinforcers to use for autistic children:

Don’t assume that you know what a child with ASD likes. It is important to ask a child, observe a child or perform a preference assessment. When asking a child about reinforcers, remember that multiple reinforcement inventories can be found on the Internet.

You can also simply sit down with a child and ask them questions like “What do you like to do after school?” or “What’s your favorite food?"or "What toys do you like to play with?”

When observing a child, set up a controlled environment to include three distinct areas: food, toys, and sensory. Then allow the child somewhat free access to this environment.

Watch and record the area that the child goes to first. Record the specific items from this area that the child chooses. This item should be considered highly reinforcing to the child.

Continue this process until you have identified three to five items. Remember that simply looking at an item does not make it reinforcing, but actually playing with it or eating it would.

Notice how it doesn’t say anything about ethics, or about what it is and isn’t ok to restrict access to. This is about identifying what a child likes most, so that it can be taken away and used to get them to comply with a therapy program. (Here’s an example of a reinforcement inventory. Notice that some examples of possible reinforcers are: numbers, letters, and being read to). 

People who are subjected to this kind of thing learn that it’s not safe to share interests, because they will be used against them. That’s why, if someone has a developmental disability, asking about interests is often an intimate personal question.

This isn’t like being required to do your homework before you’re allowed to watch TV.

It’s more like:

  • Not being allowed to go to the weekly meeting of the science club unless you’ve refrained from complaining about the difficulty of your English homework for the past week

Or, even further:

  • Not being allowed to join after school clubs because you’re required to have daily after school sessions of behavior therapy during that time
  • In those sessions, you’re required to practice making eye contact
  • And also required to practice talking about socially expected topics of conversation for people of your age and gender, so that you will fit in and make friends
  • You’re not allowed to talk about science or anything else you’re actually interested in
  • You earn tokens for complying with the therapy
  • If you earn enough tokens, you can occasionally cash them in for a science book
  • That’s the only way you ever get access to science books

Or even further:

Being a 15 year old interested in writing and:

  • Being in self-contained special ed on the grounds that you’re autistic, your speech is atypical, and you were physically aggressive when you were eleven 
  • Having “readiness for inclusion” as a justification for your behavior plan
  • Having general education English class being used as a reinforcer for your behavior plan
  • Not being allowed to go to English class in the afternoon unless you’ve ~met your behavior targets~ in the morning
  • Not being allowed to write in the afternoon if you haven’t “earned” the “privilege” of going to class
  • eg: if you ask questions too often in the morning, you’re “talking out of turn” and not allowed to go to class or write in the afternoon
  • or if you move too much, you’re “having behaviors that interfere with inclusion”, and not allowed to go to class or write
  • or if you mention writing during your social skills lesson, you’re “perseverating” and not allowed to go to class or write

Or like: being four years old and not being allowed to have your teddy bear at bedtime unless you’ve earned 50 tokens and not lost them, and:

  • The only way to earn tokens is by playing in socially expected ways that are extremely dull to you, like:
  • Making pretend food in the play kitchen and offering it to adults with a smile, even though you have zero interest in doing so
  • You gain tokens for complying with adult instructions to hug them, touch your nose, or say arbitrary words within three seconds; you lose two for refusing or not doing so fast enough
  • You lose tokens for flapping your hands or lining up toys
  • You lose tokens for talking about your teddy bear or asking for it when you haven’t “earned” it
  • You lose tokens for looking upset or bored

Or, things like being two, and loving books, and:

  • Only having access to books during therapy sessions; never being allowed unscripted access to books
  • Adults read to you only when you’re complying with therapy instructions
  • They only read when you’ve pointed to a picture of a book to request it
  • You’re required to sit in a specific position during reading sessions. If you move out of it; the adult stops reading
  • If you rock back and forth; they stop reading
  • If you stop looking at the page; they stop reading
  • If you look at your hand; they stop reading
  • Adults interrupt the story to tell you to do arbitrary things like touch a picture or repeat a particular word. If you don’t; they close the book and stop reading.

Here are a few posts that show examples of the kind of thing I’m talking about:

tl;dr Intense behavior therapy has some things in common with methods that are used with typically developing kids, but it’s not actually the same. Intense behavior therapy involves violation and a degree of control that is not considered legitimate with typically developing children.

Getting social feedback without losing your ability to trust your own judgement

xulsigae asked:

Is it common to feel a lack of inner ‘social ground’ to stand on with Aspergers?

I’ve kinda lost a sense of knowing when something I do is actually right or acceptable after years of thinking what I did was right, but then finding out it was inappropriate. 

I know I have a strong moral compass, but my social one is wonky. Now I rely on the feedback of others to know when I’m doing okay. 

Are there any ideas for how to create an inner knowledge of what is right without using others?

realsocialskills said:

That’s complicated. I’m making a lot of guesses about where you’re coming from which may or may not be correct.

It sounds to me like maybe you’re figuring out that it’s important to get feedback, and having trouble figuring out how to do that without losing yourself.

I think part of what would help is to keep this in perspective:

  • Everybody makes social mistakes.
  • Social learning is a lifelong process for everyone (including people who are not autistic)
  • One of the most important social skills is figuring out how to get good feedback from others, and how to learn from what they tell you
  • This is true of everyone. Needing feedback is not a flaw. Everyone needs feedback.
  • Not everyone knows they need feedback; your awareness that you need feedback is actually an important social skill you’ve learned

Also, people who say that you’ve done something inappropriate probably aren’t always right. It can be hard to keep that in mind when you know that you make a lot of mistakes, but it’s important. The point here is to develop and improve your own judgment, not to abdicate it.

Learning how to manage feedback can be hard. Here’s a basic outline about some ways feedback should work:

  • You realize that you’re not sure about something
  • You figure out whose perspective you’d value about that thing
  • Or someone else tells you what they think about something you did
  • You ask them about the thing
  • They tell you what they think
  • You listen to what they think
  • You think about whether you agree
  • You might decide that you agree, or that you disagree
  • Or that you partially agree
  • Or that you need to process more
  • All of those are fine

Dealing with feedback involves several skills:

Noticing situations in which someone else’s perspective might be helpful, for instance:

  • If people are reacting in ways you don’t understand, it might be worth getting someone else’s perspective on what’s going on
  • If you’re saying things that aren’t being heard, it might be worth getting someone else’s perspective 
  • (eg: Is the problem that the people you’re talking to are jerks? Are you saying things to them that are invasive? Are there ways you could be communicating more effectively? Do you need to find different people to interact with?)
  • If you’re really uncomfortable with something that’s happening, it might be worth getting someone else’s feedback on what’s going on (sometimes this is really helpful in realizing that it’s ok to object to something or have boundaries)

A more concrete example of a situation in which it might be helpful to look for feedback:

  • You’re having trouble understanding what you’re supposed to do at work
  • When you ask your boss questions, you don’t get helpful answers.
  • You might ask a friend or coworker who you respect what they think is going on
  • (eg: They might tell you that the boss hates email and that you need to ask questions in person, or vice versa. Or that the boss doesn’t know how to answer that kind of question and you have to find the answers elsewhere. Or any number of other possibilities.)

Figuring out whose feedback is valuable:

  • Not everyone’s feedback is valuable; it’s important to figure out for yourself who you want to listen to and when
  • Some people know what they’re talking about and can tell you valuable things about how you’re interacting with others
  • Some people really, really don’t know what they’re talking about and will give you terrible advice
  • A lot of people have good feedback on some things but not others
  • Some people are really good at sounding right whether they know what they are talking about or not
  • It can be hard to figure out who to listen to, especially if you’re new to realizing that you need feedback

Listening to feedback, and evaluating it seriously:

  • If you value someone’s opinion, it’s important to listen to what they have to say
  • And to figure out why they think it
  • It doesn’t mean you have to agree; no matter how much you respect someone, they will be wrong some of the time.
  • It does mean that it’s important to listen to them, and to make sure that you really understand what they’re saying and why, before you decide what you think

Avoiding some feedback-avoidance defensiveness pitfalls:

  • Some feedback is hard to hear
  • It can be easy to react defensively, as a way to avoid engaging
  • One way to be defensive is to immediately say “no, that’s not true” or “no, I’m not the kind of person who would do that” without first listening to the person
  • Another way of avoiding painful feedback is to panic-apologize out of fear. 
  • That can be a way of avoiding the feedback too because you can feel like you’ve dealt with it by apologizing even if all you’ve really heard is that someone is upset with you

An example of not listening:

  • You: So, I was telling Mary how great my awesome dog is, and she looked really angry. What gives?
  • Them: Mary’s dog just died. It was kind of insensitive to go on about yours.
  • You: But I was just trying to be nice!

Another example of not listening:

  • You: So, I was telling Mary how great my awesome dog is, and she looked really angry. What gives?
  • Them: Mary’s dog just died. It was kind of insensitive to go on about yours.
  • You (without really understanding the problem): Oh. I’m a terrible person. I can’t believe I would be so insensitive.
  • (If you just emote about guilt without figuring out what they think the problem is and whether you agree, that’s not listening; it’s a defense mechanism)

An example of listening:

  • You: So, I was telling Mary how great my awesome dog is, and she looked really angry.
  • Them: Mary’s dog just died. It was kind of insensitive to go on about yours.
  • You: Really? I was trying to be nice and connect around a shared interest.
  • Them: When people are mourning the loss of a pet, they don’t usually want to hear about how great things are with someone else’s. It can feel like rubbing it in.

Sometimes it can feel like everyone else has it all together, that everyone else knows how to act, and that only you make major mistakes. That’s not true. Everyone is getting things wrong; everyone has social skills they could improve; that’s not unique to autistic people.

It might help to keep in mind that you don’t have to be socially infallible to be ok. You have a moral compass, and you know a lot about how to interact with people. And you also make mistakes sometimes, and have areas you could improve on. That’s an ok way to be, and feedback can make learning and improving easier.

when a seder is overloading

thelimpingdoctor replied to your post: Passover asks?

How do you deal with sensory overload in a situation where you can’t leave?

realsocialskills said:

Based on context, I think you’re probably asking about being overloaded at a large noisy seder.

There might be more options for leaving and taking a break than you might realize. I’m going to discuss those, then some thoughts on how to deal with it if leaving isn’t an option. 

Some options for taking breaks:

Helping in the kitchen

  • At seders, there are often (not always) things going on in the kitchen that people would welcome help with
  • If you find doing stuff in the kitchen less overloading than being at the table, excusing yourself to go help might be a socially acceptable way to take a break
  • Some examples of things people might welcome help with:
  • Cutting vegetables
  • Serving soup
  • Bringing out other things 
  • Washing dishes

Playing with the kids:

  • At a lot of seders, there are little kids who kind of run in and out
  • If these are kids you know, or they’re related to you, it may be socially acceptable for you to take breaks and play with the kids
  • This depends on the culture of your family or community; it’s fairly common for it to be socially acceptable, but it’s not universal

Pretending you have to go to the bathroom:

  • At a long seder, most people will excuse themselves to use the bathroom at least once
  • If you take a break for about that amount of time, that’s what people will assume you were doing
  • (You can also actually go to the bathroom even if you don’t need to use it - bathrooms can sometimes be a good place to take a break from sensory overload since people will usually leave you alone for a few minutes if you’re in the bathroom)

Options if you can’t take breaks or taking breaks doesn’t help enough:

Get oriented:

  • Sometimes sensory overload is caused as much by disorientation as by sensations
  • One way to become more oriented is to think through in advance what’s likely to happen
  • If you feel like stuff is more predictable, it’s likely to be less overwhelming and sensory stuff might be easier to manage
  • If this is a seder you’ve been to before, it might help think about what usually happens. Who will be there? How do they usually act? Who will ask the four questions?
  • It also might be a good idea to look through the hagaddah. Here’s one online.
  • If you’re feeling overloaded during the seder, it’s worth considering the possibility that you have become disoriented
  • If you look through the haggadah, figure out where you are in the seder, and how much is left, it might help you to become more oriented and less overloaded
  • It may also help to use a visual schedule, which shows you at a glance what to expect and in what order. Here’s one you can print, organized by cup.

Using solid objects to ground yourself:

  • If you’ve become really overloaded or disoriented, sometimes grabbing hold of something solid can help a lot
  • If you’re at a seder, the most readily available solid thing is likely to be the table
  • If there’s someone present you trust who is ok with it, holding someone’s hand can help a lot too in ramping down overload

Sit in a less overloading place in the room:

  • Sitting on the edge of the room is likely to be less overloading than sitting in the middle
  • Sitting on the end or near the end of a table is likely to be less overloading than sitting between several people
  • Sitting near the door is likely to be less overloading (especially if you get overloaded from feeling trapped)
  • If there are florescent lights in the room, it helps to pay attention to whether one of them is flickering
  • If you’re already overwhelmed going into the room, you might not notice right away, even though it will bother you later. If flickering lights bother you, it’s worth making a point of checking to see if the light is flickering when you decide where to sit
  • If the room is likely to be very loud, you might be more comfortable if you use ear plugs. You can get disposable ones for cheap at a pharmacy

Stimming:

  • Some people can stop overload by moving in certain ways
  • Most people can at least mitigate it a little
  • Rocking back and forth can help a lot (and it’s not that weird in a lot of Jewish settings, particularly if there are a lot of religious people present.)
  • If you have stim toys that usually work for you, it might be a good idea to bring them
  • If you’re worried about stigma, it might work better to use different things
  • (That said, if a room is crowded and noisy and overloading, it’s very likely that no one is actually looking at you)
  • If you wear rings or bracelets, you can play with them
  • You can also play with the silverware if the seder isn’t extremely formal. You probably won’t be the only one.
  • You can also stim with the haggadah. (by holding it in your hands, flipping the pages, looking through it, or even reading it.)
  • If you have a water bottle with a stem you can chew the stem
  • (You can also eat stuff as a way of getting to chew to reduce overload. If you do that with stuff like celery rather than stuff like chicken it’s less likely to make you uncomfortably full)
  • You might be able to bring seder-themed stim toys to use, particularly if you bring enough to share. (For instance, if you bring out plastic frogs for the ten plagues, probably no one will think twice about you continuing to play with them)

Participating actively also might help to handle overload:

  • Sometimes it can be less overloading to participate in something than to be passively present while something is happening
  • This isn’t true for everyone, but it’s true for a lot of people
  • For instance, if people are singing loud songs and it’s overloading, you might be more physically comfortable if you sing the songs too
  • (This doesn’t work for everyone, but it works for some people)
  • If it’s a big seder and people are going on and on and you’re overloaded, ignoring what’s going on and reading the haggadah might work. (In that setting, you’re probably not going to be the only one doing that.)
  • Asking questions and arguing might be less overloading than being in the room while other people are doing that

Talking to people might also be an option:

tl;dr Passover seders can be really overloading. Scroll up for some ideas about how to deal with that.

Person first language?

Anonymous said to realsocialskills:

Why do you use person first language? I usually only see bigoted ableist people use pfl. What convinced you that pfl was the best choice for you (and other disabled people, since you use pfl to refer to disabled people generally)?

realsocialskills said:

I actually use both more or less interchangeably, except when I’m talking about or to a group that has a clearly expressed preference. (Eg: I don’t ever say “people with deafness” when I’m talking about Deaf people, I don’t ever say “intellectually disabled people” when I’m talking about people with intellectual disabilities, and when I’m talking about the autistic community associated with ANI/ASAN/AACC/autistics.org I don’t say “people with autism”). Mostly, though, I use whatever is more grammatically comfortable in the sentence I’m saying. 

When I am talking about things that apply to more than one group, I usually find it easier to say “people with disabilities”, because it’s the most straightforward way to express that I’m talking about more than one thing. I think it also is clearer as a way for me to acknowledge that a lot of people have more than one disability.

Also, person-first language is not only preferred by ableist bigots; it’s also preferred by important groups of people who are actively fighting ableism. It’s pretty strongly preferred by many people who are trying to emphasize their humanity in the face of people who only see them as a disability case study. I wrote a post about this a while back about the autism-specific politics of person first language.

I respect all of the disability-affirmitive reasons that some people prefer to be called disabled and all the disability-affirimitve reasons that some people prefer to be called people with disabilities. I don’t have a particular position on who is right. My own preferences for myself shift a lot, and depend a lot on context. I mostly just use whatever language people around me are using, unless I feel like they’re using language specifically to express contempt.

red flag for being taken advantage of

Anonymous said to realsocialskills:

I’ve had an issue in my life with people who take advantage of me, and only recently have I been able to start recognizing a few of the red flags of that. Stuff like: You always end up paying more than (or getting less than) your fair share if you go out with them, they pressure you into doing stuff you can’t afford, etc. I think it’s wrapped up in emotional abuse, but I’m bad at seeing it. Are you better at recognizing red flags that you’re being taken advantage of, and if so, what are they?

realsocialskills said:

I think the biggest thing to watch out for is what happens when you don’t want to do something, get angry, or try to say no:

  • Is there ever a polite way to say no to something, or do you always have to either do what they want or be rude?
  • Is “I can’t afford that” something they are willing to take for an answer without arguing or guilt-tripping?
  • If you’re angry about something, do you always end up apologizing for being angry/blowing something out of proportion/etc, or do people sometimes agree that you have a point and apologize to you? (If only one of those things ever happens, that’s a problem).

If there’s a pattern where you have to be rude in order to say no, something is really wrong. Some people manipulate the rules of politeness to stop people from having boundaries or saying no to them. Some people are really good at making you feel like you’ve done something wrong every time you say no to something.

If things are going well in a friendship, everyone involved will say no from time to time. Everyone will get annoyed from time to time. Everyone will have inconvenient preferences from time to time, and everyone will compromise to accommodate the others from time to time. If you’re the only one compromising, something’s going wrong. If you’re always doing what others want even if it makes you really uncomfortable or hurts you, something’s wrong. If you’re not able to express feelings or say no, something’s wrong.

The thing going wrong might not be that people are taking advantage of you. There are other possibilities. For instance, some people are trained in childhood to never say no, and it can be hard to learn as an adult that you don’t have to want what others want, that it’s ok to say no, and that friendship involves compromises in both directions. If you haven’t learned that, it might be hard to communicate and negotiate, even if no one is intentionally taking advantage of you. That said, all of this is a major red flag for people taking advantage, and it’s worth taking the possibility very, very seriously. (And both problems can be happening at once - manipulative people usually prey on people who already have trouble asserting boundaries.)

And in any case - if you’re not ok with what’s happening, that’s a problem that matters, because it matters what you want and what your boundaries are. If you’re not ok with what’s happening, then the situation is not ok. You’re allowed to have boundaries whether or not anyone is wronging you. 

“Autism is a spectrum”

Whenever I write posts about autism, someone will reblog with a comment along the lines of “you have to remember that autism is a spectrum, ranging from extreme cases to mild Aspergers.” Here is a recent example.

It’s true that autism is a spectrum, but it’s not a spectrum of severity from low functioning to very mild. Autism is much more complicated than that. 

There are a number of things that go into autism. It’s a combination of impairments in cognition, communication, sensory perception, and movement. These impairments combine in different ways. And “high functioning” and “low functioning” don’t accurately describe any of them.

All autistic people are disabled in significant ways, and it’s not always obvious how. There are a lot of stereotypes, and they’re misleading.

When Aspergers syndrome and autistic disorder where separate diagnoses, the primary difference was whether someone developed expressive language before or after the age of three. That doesn’t tell you anything important about their abilities. (Which is one reason they’ve been combined into Autism Spectrum Disorder into the DSM-V.)

One way stereotypes can be misleading: some nonspeaking autistic people have significantly better language comprehension than some autistic people who speak. (And you can’t tell from affect either: A student who spends all day rocking in a corner might be understanding significantly more than a student who spends all day sitting still at a desk.)

Autistic impairments can also change over time, or in times of stress.

Someone you think has “very mild Aspergers” may well have no ability to understand language when they’re upset. They may have severe auditory processing problems and be unable to watch TV without captions. They may be physically incapable of walking across a crowded room. They may have very little voluntary motion and be dependent on prompts in their environment. They might not be able to initiate interactions or independently tell you that they are injured or sick.

Not all autistic people do the thing I described in my post on noticing when repetition is communication. (And not all autistic repetition is for this reason). But it has nothing to do with severity. When an autistic person repeats the same thing over and over in a conversation with you, it’s very important to consider the possibility that they’re trying to communicate something but don’t currently have the words to get you to understand. This is true even if they live alone and five minutes ago they gave a complicated lecture on physics.

tl;dr Autism is a spectrum, but it’s not a simple severity spectrum.

Nonviolent Communication can be emotionally violent

Nonviolent Communication (NVC) culture facilitates abuse in part because NVC culture has very little regard for consent. (I said a little bit about this in my other post on ways NVC hurts people.) They call it nonviolent, but it is often a coercive and emotional violent kind of interaction. 

NVC has very different boundaries than are typical in mainstream interactions. Things that would normally be considered boundary violations are an expected and routine part of NVC dialoging.

That can be a good thing, in some contexts. There are settings where it can be very important to have different emotional boundaries than the default. To have intense engagement with people’s emotions. To hear out their emotions and state yours and try to refrain from judgement and just hear each other, and then talk together about what would meet your mutual needs.

In a NVC interaction, you have to regard your needs and the other person’s needs as equally important, no matter what they are. You have to regard their feelings and emotional reactions as equally valid and worth hearing as yours, no matter what they are. That is a good thing in some contexts, but it’s dangerous and deeply destructive in others.

That kind of interaction can be a good thing. I understand the value. But here’s the problem:

One way NVC can be abusive is that it supports coerced emotional intimacy, and coerced consideration of someone’s feelings even when their expressed feelings are abusive. This isn’t actually a good thing even when someone’s feelings are not problematic in and of themselves. Coerced emotional intimacy is a violation in and of itself, and it’s a violation that leaves people very vulnerable to greater violations.

I recently challenged an NVC advocate to answer this question:

Consider this situation:

An abuser has an emotional need for respect. He experiences it as deeply hurtful when his partner has conversations with other men. When she talks to other men anyway, he feels betrayed. He says “When you talk to other men, I feel hurt because I need mutual respect.”

Using NVC principles, how do you say that what he is doing is wrong?

This was their answer:

“You’ve described him as "an abuser”. Abusing people is wrong because a person with abusive behaviour doesn’t or can’t hold with equal care the needs of others.

Is he doing something wrong? Or is he being honest that he feels hurt when his partners talks to other men? His partner can become his ex-partner if she doesn’t agree to what he’s asking for.“

That, in a nutshell, is the problem with NVC philosophy. This abusive partner’s honest expression of his feelings is actually part of how he is abusing his partner. NVC has no way of recognizing the ways in which expression of genuinely felt emotions can be abusive. It also has no recognized way for someone to legitimately say "no, this is not a conversation I want to engage in” or “no, I don’t consider that feeling something I need to respond to or take into consideration.”

Part of what it would take for NVC to stop being an abusive culture it to recognize that NVC-style dialogue and emotional intimacy require consent every single time people interact that way.  Like sexual intercourse, this kind of emotional intercourse requires consent, every single time. Having a close relationship is not consent to NVC. Having a conflict is not consent. Anger is not consent. Having found NVC helpful in the past is not consent, either. Consent means that both parties agree to have this kind of interaction *in this specific instance*.

NVC can’t be the only kind of interaction allowed, even between people who are very close to one another. And it’s not ok to coerce people into it.

And yet, NVC culture is not careful about consent at all. NVC tactics are routinely used on people whether or not they agree to have that kind of interaction. (Some NVC advocates may say otherwise, particularly in response to criticism. But actions speak louder than words, and NVC proponents do not act in practice as though consent is important. They are case in point for When Your Right to Say No is Entirely Hypothetical) This is wrong. Emotional intimacy requires consent.

NVC practitioners express deeply felt emotions and needs to non-consenting others. They do this with the implied expectation that the other person experience their expressed feelings as very very important. They also expect that person to respond by expressing their feelings and needs in the same pattern. They also expect that person to refrain from judging the NVC proponent’s expressed feelings and needs. It is not ok to force this pattern on someone. Doing so is an act of emotional violence.

It’s not ok to force someone to be emotionally intimate with you. It is not ok to dump your deep feelings on someone with the expectation that they reciprocate. Other people get to decide what they want to share with you.

An example: White NVC proponents sometimes express feelings about their racist attitudes towards people of color, to people of color who have not consented to listening to this. They do so with the expectation that the person of color will listen non-judgmentally, appreciate the honesty, and share their intimate feelings about their experiences with racism as a person of color. This is a horrible thing to do to someone. It is an act of racist emotional violence.

NVC people also use empathy to violate boundaries. They imagine what someone must be feeling, name that feeling, and express empathy with it. Then they either insert a loaded pause in the conversation, or ask you to confirm or deny the feeling and discuss your actual reactions in detail. These are not really questions. They are demands. They do not take “I don’t want to discuss that” as an ok answer. They keep pushing, and imply that you lack emotional insight and are uninterested in honest communication if you don’t want to share intimate information about your feelings. That is coerced intimacy, and it’s not ok.

For instance, an NVC advocate with power over someone might say in response to a conflict with that person: I can see that this interaction is very difficult for you. I’m sensing a lot of anger. I’m saddened that your experiences with authority figures have been so negative. (Expectant pause). I think you are experiencing a lot of anger right now, is that right?

That is not ok. When you have power over someone, it is abusive to pressure them to discuss their intimate feelings rather than the thing they object to in your behavior towards them. Emotional intimacy requires consent; it is not ok to force it on someone as a way of deflecting conflict. And when you have a lot of power over someone and they aren’t in a position to assert a boundary unilaterally, you have a much greater obligation to be careful about consent.

NVC advocates may tell you that they are just trying to have an honest conversation, with the implication that if you want ordinary emotional boundaries, you are being dishonest and refusing to communicate. They are not right about this.

You do not have to be emotionally intimate with someone to listen to them, or to have an honest conversation. It is ok to have boundaries. It is ok to have boundaries that the person you’re talking with doesn’t want you to have. Not all interactions have to or should involve the level of intimacy that NVC demands. It is never ok for anyone to coerce you into emotional intimacy. Using NVC-style dialogue tactics on someone who does not consent is an act of emotional violence. 

More on bullying

Anonymous said to realsocialskills

this ask is about bullying and being an adult who kids ask for help:

i know from experience that it’s important not to teach bullied kids that the way to defend themselves is to mentally place themselves as superior to the bullies, because that can crush the kid’s self-esteem later, & can so easily turn them into someone who bullies a different kid to feel better.

but what should you say to support kids instead?

yrs, a past bullying victim, now older & trying to support kids thru the same thing

realsocialskills said:

I think, before considerations about teaching kids who come to you for help self defense, it’s important to consider what you might be able to do to protect them. You are likely in a position to offer them material protection as well as self-defense advice. This is a situation in which actions speak louder than words.

For instance:

Can you offer bullied kids a refuge?

  • If you’re a teacher in a school, can you start a lunch club or recess club where kids can eat and hang out in your classroom instead of going to the playground?
  • If neighborhood kids are coming to you for help, can you make your house or yard a safe space for them to hang out in away from bullies? 

If you’re an adult with some kind of power over kids (eg: a teacher, a youth group leader, etc), you might be able to make some things better by supervising things more:

  • Can you pay close attention to what’s going on, and intervene when the wrong kid gets suspended?
  • (You know from being bullied that the kid who gets caught often isn’t the kid who started it.
  • If you pay enough attention, you might be in a position to protect the kid who is being unjustly punished.)
  • Can you pay attention to when harassment and bullying rules are being broken, and enforce them? Rules can actually make a difference when they are enforced consistently.
  • (For instance: if there’s a rule against touching people’s stuff without permission, can you pay attention to when kids take other people’s stuff and insist that they stop?)

If the bullies are taking or destroying the kid’s possessions in a place that’s hard to supervise, can you offer them a safe place to keep it?

  • Being able to store things in a place bullies can’t get to can make a huge difference
  • For instance, a kid whose science project keeps getting destroyed by bullies can complete it if teachers give her a secure space to store it and work on it
  • A kid whose dolls keep getting destroyed by his brothers will probably be much more ok if an adult gives him a safe place to keep his dolls.

If the bullies are preventing the kids from eating:

  • Can you provide a safe place for them to eat? 
  • If bullies keep taking food away from the kids who are coming to you for help, can you give them food?
  • If kids need to break rules in order to eat safely, can you allow them to break the rules?

Has the kid been physically injured or threatened in a way the police might take seriously?

  • Sometimes the police might take things seriously even if the school does not
  • Calling the police is not always a good idea, but sometimes it is
  • If calling the police might be warranted, can you offer to sit with the kid while they call the police?
  • Or to call for them?
  • Or to go to the police station and make a report together?
  • Going to the police is a lot less scary if someone is helping you; and children are more likely to be believed if adults are backing them up
  • If they have to go to court, can you offer to go along for moral support? (It makes a difference. Testifying is often terrifying and horrible and it’s not something anyone should ever have to do without support)

What else can you do?

  • I don’t know you, so I don’t know what the kids coming to you need, or what you’re in a position to offer. 
  • But there are almost certainly things you can do that I haven’t thought of
  • if you think it through, you can probably think of and do some things that materially help bullied kids.
  • Actions speak louder than words. If you help protect them, you send the message that they are worth protecting.

You can also be an adult who believes them:

  • Being believed about bullying is incredibly powerful
  • So is listening
  • Kids who are bullied often have everyone in their life try to downplay how awful it is
  • If you believe them about their experiences and listen, you send the message that it matters that others are treating them badly
  • And that it’s not their fault.
  • And that they’re ok and the bullies are mean.

There is an emotional self-defense technique that works better than the destructive one we were taught as children. It was developed by Dave Hingsburger, and he describes it in The Are Word (a book anyone working with people who are bullied for any reason need to read.)

I wrote a post a couple of weeks ago about how it works, and I will probably do so again in the future. 

Have any of y'all helped out bullied kids? What have you done?

Nonviolent Communication can hurt people

People who struggle interpersonally, who seem unhappy, or who get into a lot of conflicts are often advised to adopt the approach of Nonviolent Communication. 

This is often not a good idea. Nonviolent Communication is an approach based on refraining from seeming to judge others, and instead expressing everything in terms of your own feelings. For instance, instead of “Don’t be such an inconsiderate jerk about leaving your clothes around”, you’d say “When you leave your clothing around, I feel disrespected.”. That approach is useful in situations in which people basically want to treat each other well but have trouble doing so because they don’t understand one another’s needs and feelings. In every other type of situation, the ideology and methodology of Nonviolent Communication can make things much worse.

Nonviolent Communication can be particularly harmful to marginalized people or abuse survivors. It can also teach powerful people to abuse their power more than they had previously, and to feel good about doing so. Non-Violent Communication has strategies that can be helpful in some situations, but it also teaches a lot of anti-skills that can undermine the ability to survive and fight injustice and abuse.

For marginalized or abused people, being judgmental is a necessary survival skill. Sometimes it’s not enough to say “when you call me slurs, I feel humiliated” - particularly if the other person doesn’t care about hurting you or actually wants to hurt you. Sometimes you have to say “The word you called me is a slur. It’s not ok to call me slurs. Stop.” Or “If you call me that again, I’m leaving.” Sometimes you have to say to yourself “I’m ok, they’re mean.” All of those things are judgments, and it’s important to be judgmental in those ways.

You can’t protect yourself from people who mean you harm without judging them. Nonviolent Communication works when people are hurting each other by accident; it only works when everyone means well. It doesn’t have responses that work when people are hurting others on purpose or without caring about damage they do. Which, if you’re marginalized or abused, happens several times a day. NVC does not have a framework for acknowledging this or responding to it.

In order to protect yourself from people who mean you harm, you have to see yourself as having the right to judge that someone is hurting you. You also have to be able to unilaterally set boundaries, even when your boundaries are upsetting to other people. Nonviolent Communication culture can teach you that whenever others are upset with you, you’re doing something wrong and should change what you do in order to meet the needs of others better. That’s a major anti-skill. People need to be able to decide things for themselves even when others are upset.

Further, NVC places a dangerous degree of emphasis on using a very specific kind of language and tone. NVC culture often judges people less on the content of what they’re saying than how they are saying it. Abusers and cluelessly powerful people are usually much better at using NVC language than people who are actively being hurt. When you’re just messing with someone’s head or protecting your own right to mess with their head, it’s easy to phrase things correctly. When someone is abusing you and you’re trying to explain what’s wrong, and you’re actively terrified, it’s much, much harder to phrase things in I-statements that take an acceptable tone.

Further, there is *always* a way to take issue with the way someone phrased something. It’s really easy to make something that’s really about shutting someone up look like a concern about the way they’re using language, or advice on how to communicate better. Every group I’ve seen that valued this type of language highly ended up nitpicking the language of the least popular person in the group as a way of shutting them up. 

tl;dr Be careful with Nonviolent Communication. It has some merits, but it is not the complete solution to conflict or communication that it presents itself as. If you have certain common problems, NVC is dangerous.

When you prefer not to decide something

wolfesbrain asked:
 
Read the post about consent problems. Curious about not quite opposite problem. Lack of opinion/preference being mistaken as consent problem e.g. “Where do you wanna go for lunch?” “I’m fine with wherever you want .” “Yeah, but, where do /you/ want?”

realsocialskills said:

Sometimes you can solve that problem by telling them explicitly that you want them to decide. Eg:

  • “I’d like you to pick a place.”
  • “I’m kind of tired of all the places I go, do you know of somewhere good?”

If you say it this way, it’s clearer that you’re actually *expressing* a preference (that they decide), and it looks less like you’re avoiding saying what you want in order to be polite.

Another possibility is to ask them for help narrowing it down, eg:

  • “Can you give me some options?”
  • “What are some places you like?”

Then, if you really don’t have a preference, you can pick one of their suggestions at random. And if you do have a preference, hearing a list can make it easier to make a choice.

These approaches don’t always work, but they do in a lot of situations.

Examples of anti-skills

quixylvre asked realsocialskills:

…In trying to explain to my mother what “anti-skills” are, she wants me to provide a list of examples. Could you, in a single post, provide a list of anti-skills that autistic people are routinely taught, perhaps also an addendum with anti-skills that are merely occasionally taught instead of consistently?

Some anti-skills I can think of off the top of my head, with some relevant links:

I also talked about some anti-skills in this post I wrote for someone considering working as an aide for an autistic kid.

These are some of the anti-skills I know about, what are some others y'all know about?