Autism and Aversive Therapies

CC BY-NC by Telstar Logistics

CC BY-NC by Telstar Logistics

Editor’s Note: Autism Daily Newscast recently published a story about a woman in China who claimed to “cure” 10 children with autism using her “violent” method of therapy.This article is an abridged version of a longer article that can be found in this month, Issue 10 of ASDigest.

This method, used at the Leyironghe Kindergarten in Ziyang, southwest China’s Sichaun Province, consists of using aversive feedback in order to shape behaviors. She’s done things like biting children who bite, or drenching children who are fixated on water.

Many readers thought it was abusive. One person wrote:

This is “clockwork orange” territory. Has psychology regressed?

And another reader commented:

I dread to think what psychological and emotional damage will be left with these children forever…. This is abuse of the most vulnerable – those cannot speak for themselves or choose their own fate. It’s disgusting

Aversive therapies have been around for years, and not only in treatments for autism. They are still used today to treat conditions such as phobias or alcoholism. For example, if a patient wishes to overcome a fear of heights, a qualified professional may gradually expose them to their fear, in order to gradually help them overcome its influence. Some patients with alcohol dependency may choose to ingest nausea-inducing medication to help them overcome their addiction. In cases like these, when the patient is an adult who is able to understand the full ramifications of the treatment, aversive therapy can be helpful.

When it comes to neurological conditions like autism, the ethics get even murkier. Applied Behavior Analysis, considered by many to be the standard treatment for autism, used aversive feedback in its early days. Most ABA providers today stick with positive reinforcers, but many individuals with autism still find the approach to be aversive. Online communities and blogs are filled with heated arguments on both side of the issue: parents who claim that ABA saved their child vs. adults with autism who describe it as “dehumanizing” and even “torture.”

Clearly, the debate over ABA is not one that will be easily resolved. As a parent, it is important to consider your child’s individual needs when choosing any therapeutic approach. Studies have shown the benefits of early intervention, and many parents feel extreme pressure to overload their child with many hours of structured therapies as quickly as possible. Does this “cure” children? The jury is still out on whether or not this is the case, and on whether or not these children even need “curing”. But as parents, we also want to give our children every opportunity we can to help them succeed and live a happy, fulfilled life. For many, ABA or similar approaches may seem like the answer.

Young children are not capable of giving informed consent for any therapy. It falls upon the parents to make these choices for them. There is a great deal of propaganda and opposing viewpoints aimed at parents of young children with autism, and the early days of receiving the diagnosis can be difficult for the entire family.

It is important for parents to be discriminating in their choices of approaches, and to make the best choices they can in helping their child develop without doing harm. Any therapy that uses physical punishment, shaming, or abusive practices is clearly unacceptable. What is less clear is whether or not the choices we make as parents during our children’s younger days will result in the types of outcomes that are beneficial to everyone in the long run.

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