As a child, I didn’t need ABA to teach me compliance for other children taught this well enough on their own. Aversives and rewards from trained behaviorists were not what taught me to hide myself but rather the torment I received from other children for daring to be different.
I wasn’t diagnosed with autism as a child. I was intelligent and studious which masked my difficulties from those in power over me. I was quiet, a “good” kid. I didn’t cause disruptions in class or meltdown in public. I followed the rules, to an obnoxious degree, and did my best to impress the adults around me. No one suspected I was autistic because I didn’t fit the stereotypes. I was just odd, weird, different. I didn’t understand social situations, obsessed over my interests, stimmed, melted down at home, and more, but as a young girl my autism went missed.
Yet, even without a diagnosis, I didn’t miss out on compliance therapy. While other children who had been diagnosed went through official ABA programs to make them “indistinguishable from peers,” I went through compliance training in the form of bullying that was as effective at suppressing my autistic traits as I’m sure an ABA program would have.
(As a side note, none of this is to discount the severe harm that ABA programs can cause nor downplay the trauma that often remains once the program is complete. Further, there are programs labeled as ABA in order to be covered by insurance that do not follow the tenants of ABA. These programs falsely labeled as ABA can be useful to the autistic person and may result in a good experience with “ABA”)
Through the bullying of peers and teasing from family, I learned to suppress myself. I learned not to move in certain ways that would get me teased. I learned not to talk about the things I care about because other people find this annoying. I learned to cry silently and hide my distress. I learned to hold back and follow the lead of others since I seemed to always be missing something in social situations. I learned that I learned that I was different, weird, odd, wrong. I learned to hate myself and all of my unique traits.
Over the years, the memories of the bullying I faced have faded and become muddled. I no longer remember the specifics of the other children’s tormenting words or actions. What I do remember are the feelings. I remember the loneliness of not having any friends, of not having any other kids to play with or talk to. I remember the dread I felt each morning when I had to go to school, dread so strong that I developed an eating disorder in order to get out of school. I remember the embarrassment and shame of being picked on and not understanding why. I remember crying every day after school.
Most of all, I remember in all the ways that the bullying is still with me today. I remember when I start to stim in public and feel awash in embarrassment and shame. I remember when I miss a social cue and want to climb into a hole. I remember when I meltdown and words that don’t feel like mine buzz around in my mind, insulting me, pulling me further down. I remember each day when I feel self-conscious about my natural ways of being and instinctually try to hide myself. I remember when I struggle to say no or disagree with those around me.
I may not have gone through ABA, but I didn’t need to. Their goals of compliance and indistinguishability were achieved through the relentless bullying enacted by my peers. The other children may not have been trained in behavioral analysis or therapy methods, but they didn’t need to be. The other children saw a child who was different, a child who was smart but didn’t understand, a child who was strange to them, and they let loose a barrage of torment to squish the weird out of me. And for a long time, their efforts succeeded. I hid myself and all my autistic traits. I tried to blend in and fit in, but no more. No longer do I hide myself to make others more comfortable. No longer do I strive to fit in with those who would mock me for who I am. I am unapologetically autistic and I am fighting back against my informal compliance training.