No, Love, Your Child Doesn’t Need ABA

I see y’all out there. Parents trying to do your very best for your Autistic kids. You talk about how much ABA has helped your child and how you don’t know what you would have done without it. You say that you couldn’t possibly have done what your BCBA or RBT has accomplished. You truly believe that you, the person who knows your child the very best, don’t have what it takes to give your child the world. But, oh Love, you do! You honestly do.

The ABA industry systematically chips away at our confidence in our own instincts and abilities. With those scary prognoses and extensive treatment plans, how could we ever give our child what ABA can? From that perspective, it’s true. We don’t have the skill set to do what a BCBA or an RBT can do. For some parents, that will mean putting a child into ABA and trusting professionals with their care. For others, it will mean getting trained yourself so that you too can use behaviorism to manage your child’s actions. There’s another choice though. A less expensive and time consuming choice. A better choice.

A few days ago, occupational therapist, Greg Santucci, wrote about a fundamental flaw in the concept of ABA, one that we parents need to understand:

So, if the antecedent doesn’t really happen right before a behavior occurs, but rather results from a combination of factors that can stretch back days or even years, how could a BCBA or an RBT possibly recognize what’s wrong? How could they possibly know everything you know? You, Love. You saw what happened when your child’s favorite toy broke last week. You offered comfort and validation, but you knew your child felt grief, so you gave them space to mourn. Then, over the weekend, you saw your child’s energy revving up and you knew they needed to go outside, but rain changed your plans. So, you did your best to help your child get all that energy out while inside the house, but you could see a storm brewing. You have always been there. You are the safe space.

Now, it’s a new week and it’s time for ABA. Your child feels great stress from compounding factors that occurred well before the session. Then what happens? Your child refuses fulfill a demand and they get ignored. As they struggle without the support of a trusted adult, they get punished via planned ignoring for mourning their favorite toy and for needing outside time. ABA works because it crushes children into compliance no matter how they feel or what they need.

You can decide right now never to go back. Never to put your child into a situation where their behavior defines how they will be treated. You can give your child the exact support they need because you experience it all with them. You know when things get hard and how your child needs comforting. You can move past managing behaviors and instead coach emotions, helping your child feel and bear through the difficult times. And, those really difficult situations, like a child running into the street? Change the environment. Use a locking harness to make sure your child stays close to you when cars present a danger. Practice road safety with games like Red Light, Green Light in a safe location. Tell your child stories about how cars can hurt us, seeing the consequences from a child’s perspective. “If you get hit by a car, you won’t get to eat jelly beans until you get better because the car will hurt you!”

With emotion coaching and controlling the environment, you won’t need behavior management at all, and you certainly won’t need ABA. You can do this. You have all the skills already from your years of practice as a parent. Don’t let these medical professionals tell you that you don’t have what it takes. They are lying to you.

Learn strategies for how best to support your Autistic child by following these links:

Have you read An Advocate’s Guidebook for Caregivers of Autistic Kids?

Under No Circumstances Should You Be Consistent With Discipline!

No matter which of the five main types of discipline you use, it won’t work if you aren’t consistent. Consistency is one of the more important keys to addressing child behavior problems. Consistently setting limits, giving effective consequences and enforcing the rules all day every day can be tough, however. Examine what gets in the way of being consistent and take steps to increase your discipline consistency.

Source: VeryWell Family

Ugh. There it is. My least favorite advice about imposing discipline. Be consistent. Enforce the rules. It evokes a sense of rigidity. Control. Be consistent and make sure your child knows who’s boss. Be consistent and use your selected punishment immediately every time. Never show a crack in your armor or else your child will take advantage. Sounds pretty stressful to me, both for parent and child. How many parents receive this advice and are chastised for not being consistent when their kids when they behave like… well… children? How many discipline experts claim that children can’t feel secure without consistency? Consistency is a tool of behaviorism, the theory that people’s behavior can be studied and controlled externally, without regard for our thoughts and feelings.

What is behaviorism? The theory that psychology can be objectively studied through observable action.

Operant Conditioning: Subject learns behavior by associating it with consequences

Classical Conditioning: Subject learns to associate two unrelated stimuli with each other

ThoughtCo
Source: ThoughtCo

That’s a dog, because behaviorism is what we use to train animals. Sure, humans are technically animals, but we have a capacity to think, feel, and reason that is not paralleled anywhere else in the animal kingdom. Our children deserve more than dog training. Now, there may be times when consistency can be useful, such as when Autistic children need their routines to be predictable. Consistency, at the behest of a child, is part of maintaining a respectful relationship. Consistency applied to children without their consent must be carefully considered, because it has the potential for harm.

I’ve written at length about the merits of punishment-free parenting and emotion coaching. I’ve even talked about limits. No, not the limits they’re talking about in that VeryWell Family article above. I mean limits that take into account the needs and wants of children. Limits that lead to a genuine feeling of safety and understanding. And, I have a response to the ubiquitous calls to be consistent:

Be reliable instead.

Be the person your child can run to when everything is falling apart, knowing your response will be one of unconditional love and acceptance. Be the person who knows how to bring your child from crisis to peace through co-regulation. Be the person whose respectful limits are a cushion from harm and not a brick wall they shatter against. Show your child, through your own actions, how to make it through difficult situations, acknowledging every emotion, seeking out resources when necessary, and embracing restoration.

Where consistency means inflexible adherence to a norm, reliability requires dependability and trustworthiness. These are traits we all want to instill in our children and we can do that by first demonstrating them through our approach to discipline. So, next time you have the choice between being consistent or being reliable, you know which one to choose!

Learned Helplessness Vs Helping

Content Warning: Description of Animal Abuse in Historic Experiments

I recently ran across a meme with a troubling message. It said, Never do for a child what he can do for himself. A “dependent” child is a demanding child… Children become irresponsible only when we fail to give them opportunities to take on. I bristled immediately. “Never” do for a child? Absolute statements like this make me uncomfortable. I understand that the point is to be decisive and firm, but then there is no room for children to be imperfect or to have needs. Yes, giving children age-appropriate responsibilities builds competence and self-assurance. However, we should be open to children refusing responsibility in an effort to have their other needs met. Seems a lot of us misunderstand why children might be “irresponsible.” There’s a great fear that we’ll foster learned helplessness if we don’t demand that our kids fulfill their responsibilities. But, is that really true?

In the 1960s, psychologist Martin Seligman conducted a series of experiments to better understand why depression was so defeating. The first experiment involved three groups of restrained dogs. The first group was restrained and released. The second group included dogs who received an electric shock which they could stop by pressing a lever. Dogs in the third group were paired with dogs in the second group and also received an electric shock. However, their levers did not stop the pain. Instead, the paired dog from the second group controlled the only working lever, which meant that the dog in the third group had to suffer the pain with no control over it and, therefore, little hope of ending it.

In the second experiment, the dogs were presented with a similar scenario, except that Seligman introduced an escape option. The dogs in the first two groups, having either not experienced the shocks at all the first time around or having had access to a lever to stop the pain, fairly quickly escaped when the shocks began. However, the dogs in the third group made no effort and were able only to cry out pitifully when they were shocked. That presumed inability to take action is learned helplessness, and it results from hopelessness in the face of failure.

An especially important aspect of these experiments was the finding that “one cause of learned helplessness seems to be learning that reinforcers cannot be controlled” (409). For those who aren’t familiar with the term “reinforcer,” it means a punishment or a reward. So, the inability to control the punishment of these painful shocks directly contributed to the dogs’ acceptance that the pain was inescapable. No amount of punishments or rewards delivered after the learned helplessness had taken hold had any positive effect on the dogs’ behavior.

What you may find interesting is that Seligman did find a cure for the learned helplessness. He discovered that either picking up the dogs and moving them to safety or using a leash to drag them out of harm’s way provided enough motivation for them to take action. He called it “directive therapy” and it was simply an intervention wherein an outside participant showed each dog how to do what the dog didn’t realize was possible. He found that less and less force was required in pulling on the leash as the dogs began to realize that there was hope. The end result of this portion of the experiment was that all the dogs in group three fully recovered and were able to escape completely on their own (410).

…which brings us to helping. Put simply, learned helplessness is giving up because an obstacle is too insurmountable. For children, it may be sitting in the middle of their room unable to clean up, because they don’t know where to start. It may be accepting punishment for not getting dressed quickly enough because they feel that the punishment is inevitable, and they can’t do what’s expected of them to begin with. As noted in the experiment, the cure for learned helplessness is directive therapy, i.e. demonstrating a way to be successful. In other words, helping. When our children become overwhelmed with their messy rooms, we can intervene by helping them come up with a plan and working on the clean-up with them. Over time, they will gain more competence and the process will be less frustrating for them. When our children struggle to dress themselves, the easiest solution is to recognize that we need to take a few steps back and offer to help them dress. It may take a while for them to do things that seem simple to us, but the more we respond to their need for help, the more capable they will become.

There are three overarching lessons I learned from reading up on learned helplessness:

  1. A little failure is good. Letting kids figure things out on their own is crucial for their development.
  2. A lot of failure is bad. Leaving kids to become helpless in the face of challenge does no one any good.
  3. Our responsibility as parents is to help our children learn from failure without losing hope.

Whether a child seeks our help because they don’t know how to do something or because they want to connect with us or because they are weary and need some support or for any other reason, we will always do right by them when we help them, especially when we don’t think they really need the help. In doing so, we invigorate qualities like learning, self-motivation, and confidence… the very things that combat learned helplessness. So, please, help your kids.


If you’re a visual learner, check out this video from therapist Kati Morton! Toward the end of the video, she provides some tools for helping ourselves (and our kids) release these thoughts of helplessness.

Time-Ins Can Be Problematic Too

In the realm of peaceful parenting, the “time-in” is hailed as the respectful alternative to the “time-out.” Where time-ins give children the opportunity to connect with a trusted adult, slow down for a minute, and coregulate, time-outs isolate, punish, and force kids to stuff their emotions down deep. There’s evidence that time-outs are effective at curbing undesired behavior because of course they are. Time-outs are behaviorism in action, which is why they’re extremely effective at externally controlling children. It’s easy to control kids when you don’t care what’s happening with them psychologically. It’s much harder to interact with a distraught child and help them sort things out. Time-outs are to child rearing what turning your back on a misbehaving pup is to dog training. If that’s not what you want for your kids, time-ins might be for you.

A time-in involves interrupting undesired behavior by taking a child to a neutral spot and guiding them toward logical reasoning. The first step is to help the child calm down. What helps one child might not help another. My toolkit includes bear hugs, singing, movement, and simply being in the same space while my kids work through their emotions. I’ve started introducing deep breathing in my household once the kids have reached the point in the process when they can handle it. The next step is to empathize. After your child has calmed down, it’s important to let them know you get it. You’re not angry. You’re not judging them. You are connecting, human to human, over very relatable emotions. And, finally, when your child is ready, you can have a conversation about what happened and how to ease those big emotions in the future.

Time-ins are great. So great, in fact, that I’m a big advocate for them. However, I’ve noticed something in my own peaceful practice. When I’m angry or otherwise unsettled, I have a tendency to use time-in as a punishment. It becomes an opportunity to teach a lesson rather than a chance to relate. It serves as a lifeboat I throw myself and my child onto for a breather before jumping back into the fray. That’s not enough and it’s not what time-ins are for. Time-ins have to be child-led and child-focused. Children should be invited into the time-in space. Not coerced or pushed into it. Time-in requires time. My limited time. It’s hard for me to stop what I’m doing and focus on my child, but that’s what my kids need from me as their parent.

If you’re like me and you’re misusing time-in, I invite you to take this moment to switch up the game plan in your mind. What will you do next time to make sure time-in is working for your child and not just for you?

Isn’t Smiling a Reward?

Several weeks ago, I wrote a piece exploring the idea that rewards might be a tool of abuse and, therefore, something parents would be wise to avoid. In the aftermath, I was asked “Isn’t Smiling a Reward?” in the context of pushback from a reader who suggested that there is no way to avoid rewards in parenting. I will grant that the issue is complicated. Of course it is. We’re dealing with human brains! So, I dug a little deeper to better understand if and how rewards might be utilized within the context of peaceful parenting.

The first thing I know innately is that we are social beings. We seek to engage with others of our species as a primitive drive. We use facial expressions and body language to communicate whether other humans are in our circle or not. So, it stands to reason that we would take pleasure from expressions that indicate our inclusion into our preferred social group. With that idea in mind, I took to the science.

Here’s what I learned. Our brains have a reward center that uses the languages of dopamine and serotonin, two crucial neurotransmitters, to translate our experiences into something our minds can grasp physically. Brainfacts.org explains, “Dopamine-producing neurons in the ventral tegmental area (VTA) communicate with neurons in the nucleus accumbens in order to evaluate rewards and motivate us to obtain them.” In simple terms, the nucleus accumbens is a structure in the basal forebrain that scientists believe translates external stimuli into understandable gains, which allows us instinctively to recognize which behaviors are more likely to attain rewards and which ones are not. Check out this quick explanation:

We do not have to think to make the reward center of our brain operate. It is a very basic and very old system that operates behind the scenes. We may not even realize that our experiences are subtly altering our behavior. (And, this is why behaviorism is so effective, albeit harmful, for humans.)

In this sense, yes, a parent smiling at a child does activate the reward center in the brain; therefore, yes, smiling is a reward in the same way eating is a reward and sleeping is a reward and street drugs are a reward and so on. The term “reward” in this context means a reinforcer that encourages a person to return to the same behavior over and over again. However, when we talk about a “reward” in the context of peaceful parenting, what we mean is reinforcer that artificially manipulates a child into behaving in a way we prefer. For instance, providing candy for using the potty or saying “good job” to a child who has cleaned his room. These rewards offer temporary elation and encourage our kids to both crave our attention and unthinkingly submit to our authority.

Peaceful parents do not offer rewards in an effort to mold behavior. Instead of extrinsic (or external) motivation, we prioritize intrinsic (or internal) motivation. We know that extrinsic rewards are demotivating and that children will require more and more payoff to accomplish the same tasks the farther along we go. We don’t bribe our children with candy. If we give them candy, it is not a perk for connecting with interoceptive signals. It is an opportunity to sit around the table as a family and practice eating intuitively. We don’t pay our kids to do chores. If we provide an allowance, it is not an exchange for a job well done. It is an opportunity to learn financial responsibility.

And, we know this is the healthiest way to interact with our children, because science confirms it. A 2009 study found that people with low self esteem who engaged in positive self-statements such as “I am a lovable person” ended up immediately descending into self-deprecation when the self-praise conflicted with their concept of self. Empty praise backfires.

Alternatively, a 2016 study published in Social Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience looked at the effects of self-affirmation, which involves dwelling on values rather than pointing out personal qualities. Participants were asked to “Please think about an experience involving [VALUE].” That exercise was then followed by visualization and thinking about the experience they’d had. The result was an increase in positive self-worth, which was even stronger when participants considered future events rather than past ones.

Turns out that self-affirmation improves function in the medial prefrontal cortex (MPFC) and posterior cingulate (PCC), two areas the deal with self-referential processing (i.e. the parts of the brain that allow us to engage in mindfulness). These increases made the participants more resilient against any negative information that came later. This is why it is always more effective for children when we talk about values and efforts versus toward a future vision than when we talk about personal qualities and snapshot accomplishments. Both affirmations and praise activate our brain’s reward center, but only one insulates us against negative self-worth.

When we smile at our children out of sheer joy at their existence, it is rewarding to their brains, but it is not an effort to coercively manage their behavior. So, please, smile at your kids, hug them, love on them, and affirm them. In doing so, you will build up their self-esteem in a way that can make it unshakeable.

Are Rewards a Tool of Abuse?

As peaceful parents, we recognize that rewards and punishment are tools of manipulation and they have no place alongside things like emotion coaching and relationship building. But, should we go so far as to call rewards a tool of abuse? That’s a heavy, heavy word and one I was reticent to use in describing punishments, like spanking, for a very long time. However, within the past year, I have come to realize just how destructive spanking really is. Now, I’m turning my attention to rewards to investigate their effects on children.

Rewards are an implement of a field of psychology called behaviorism. Put plainly, behaviorism is a psychological approach that assumes all behaviors are the result of conditioning and that behavior is always purposeful. It leaves no room for cognitive sources of behavior. So, where behavior is deemed a problem, the solution is not to resolve what is happening with the person internally, but to externally mold the person’s behavior into something the therapist considers more appropriate.

While behaviorism as a branch of psychology traces its roots back to 1913, the use of external manipulation is far, far older. It’s mentioned throughout the Bible, we see it in the form of punishment as marks cut deep on skeletal remains, and we all know it for the anxiety and fear it produces. Behaviorism has some practical applications, such as animal training and smoking cessation when used by choice. Consent is key, as behaviorism has such a substantial potential to be harmful. To understand how very undermining it can be, take this story as an example. I saw it in an autism-related facebook group and it is a fantastic illustration of what I mean.

My degree is on Cognitive Science, which included quite a bit on behaviorism. I was never aiming to be a therapist, and had no idea I was autistic when I was in college.One of the interesting things about behaviorism is that it works even on subjects who have no idea they’re being trained. You can train a grown adult into quite elaborate behaviors without them being aware they’re being trained, or sometimes that they’re even doing the behaviors. Case in point, my brother’s psychology class decided to try training their professor. They picked three behaviors they wanted: writing class notes more towards the middle of the board, using the word “I” more, and tucking his hand into his upper inside pocket a la Napoleon. They then chose three reinforcers: scribbling notes, looking up at the professor, and leaning forward interestedly.The professor was an excellent subject, and by the end of the semester was using “I” in virtually every sentence, had his hand tucked in the target pocket any time he wasn’t using it, and writing all his class notes in a 2 foot square box in the middle of the room-spanning chalkboard, all without realizing he was doing it. In fact when they fessed up at the end of the semester, he didn’t believe them until they turned him around and showed him 3 hours of notes crammed into a tiny invisible square for no good reason.How do you think the professor reacted to the revelation? If you guess “not well”, you’re right. If you ponder why that might be, even though he liked that class particularly (such attentive, responsive students!), and hadn’t minded the training process at all, you may have some insight on why so many autistic people dislike ABA, even in kinder, gentler forms.

Researcher Alfie Kohn suggests that rewards and punishments are two sides of the same coin. He wrote a book about his perspective called Punished by Rewards: The Trouble with Gold Stars, Incentive Plans, A’s, Praise, and Other Bribes. He explains that, “There are at least 70 studies showing that extrinsic motivators—including A’s, sometimes praise, and other rewards—are not merely ineffective over the long haul but counterproductive with respect to the things that concern us most: desire to learn, commitment to good values, and so on. Another group of studies shows that when people are offered a reward for doing a task that involves some degree of problem solving or creativity—or for doing it well—they will tend to do lower quality work than those offered no reward.”

So, rewards tend to be demotivators over time. They interfere with natural human curiosity and self-realization. They aren’t that different from using a treat to teach a dog to sit. After all, humans and dogs are both animals. Many of our innate, unconscious motivations are the same, such as seeking food and drink, and avoiding danger. Rewards offer temporary motivation, but it comes at a cost. However, there is a way to keep rewards fresh… and it’s enticing: intermittent reinforcement.

In practice, intermittent reinforcement involves rewarding a subject sporadically rather than continuously for a behavior deemed to be desired. For children, it might be a gold star for being kind to a classmate where the child has to be kind over and over before being noticed. The anticipation of the reward keeps the desired behavior front and center. But, intermittent reinforcement has a dark side. It is a preferred form of trauma bonding used by abusers in violent relationships.

Shahida Arabi, author of Power: Surviving and Thriving After Narcissistic Abuse, writes,

Flowers after days of the silent treatment. Crocodile tears after weeks of brutal insults. An unexpected extravagant gift after a rage attack. A sudden moment of tenderness after hours of critical remarks. What do these all have in common? In the context of an abusive relationship, they are all demonstrations of intermittent reinforcement – a dangerous manipulation tactic used to keep you bonded to your abuser.

Psychologist B.F. Skinner (1956) discovered that while behavior is often influenced by rewards or punishment, there is a specific way rewards are doled out that can cause that behavior to persist over long periods of time, causing that behavior to become less vulnerable to extinction. Consistent rewards for a certain behavior actually produce less of that behavior over time than an inconsistent schedule of rewards. He discovered that rats pressed a lever for food more steadily when they did not know when the next food pellet was coming than when they always received the pellet after pressing (known as continuous reinforcement).

In laymen’s terms, when we know to expect the reward after taking a certain action, we tend to work less for it. Yet when the timing of the reward or the certainty that we’ll get it at all is unpredictable, we tend to repeat that behavior with even more enthusiasm, in hope for the end result. We relish the joy of a “hard-earned” reward that much more.

Intermittent reinforcement can trigger behavior that looks a lot of compulsion and obsession in humans, especially in the context of a toxic relationship. So, where does this leave us on the question of rewards being abusive or not?

Here is my perspective. The way we wield rewards is crucial. When we use rewards to manipulate our children into doing what we want, we have fallen into dangerous territory. The more we use rewards to coerce children, the more it begins to look like abuse. However, humans do crave social acceptance and recognition is an important part of that. Clinical Psychologist, Dr. Laura Markham, has some advice for how to incorporate recognition without falling back on rewards. She says,

The good news is that there are better ways to give our children encouragement. In fact, when children feel seen, accepted and appreciated for who they are, that becomes a super power, an internal source of affirmation that outweighs any external evaluation and gives them an internal compass to express their values, from compassion to hard work.

So when you find yourself starting to say “Good Job!” or “Good Sharing!” try these phrases instead.

1. Empathize with his excitement (instead of evaluating and telling him what you think about his accomplishment.)

“Yes! You’re pedaling all by yourself!”

2. Let her know you’re really seeing her (and let her evaluate whether what’s she’s doing is working.)

“I see that you’re doing the sides of the puzzle first.”

3. Empower him to choose how to behave in the future by pointing out the results of his behavior (so he develops his own moral compass.)

“Look how happy your friend is to have a turn with your toy.”

4. Encourage effort (because that’s what creates results.)

“You’re working so hard on that…. I think just a little more practice and you’ll nail it!”

5. Be specific in your description (so your child feels his accomplishment is seen, rather than just a global “good job.”)

“You counted from zero to twenty! Last week, you couldn’t count that far. I see that you’ve been working on learning those numbers!” 

6. Ask questions to help your child reflect (so she begins to trust herself to be the arbiter of her own performance.)

“Do you like the way it came out? Why or why not?”

7. Express your own feelings, including gratitude.

“I love it when we work as a team like this! It makes the work so much faster! Thanks so much for helping me.”

Notice the difference?  You’re not judging your child. You’re loving him. As Deepak Chopra says,  “Love is attention without judgment. In its natural state, attention only appreciates.”  That’s the kind of attention every child needs.

These words ring true for my own family. Peaceful Dad and I do not use rewards or punishments with our crew. And, this decision was recently affirmed when our new speech therapist remarked on our son’s ability to engage with her without the need for rewards. I took the opportunity to gush about peaceful parenting, intrinsic motivation, and emotion coaching. The reality is this: No rewards, no punishments, respectful, and connected discipline is not only possible, it’s also evidence-based and fruitful for all children. It’s achievable, but it does take a big shift in thinking on the part of us parents.

For a deeper dive, check out Isn’t Smiling a Reward?