My (limited) experience of harmful style therapies. I am lucky that I was never a victim of harmful therapys and that my family were very supportive and understood how to truly help me. yet, without their consent, a teaching assistant at my primary school took it upon themselves, to 'help' me - by using traits similar to those used in such harmful therapies. I remember once at mainstream primary school, aged 7, being so drained and shutdown from sensory distress and change - and a Teaching assistant (TA), rewarded me with hieroglyphs every time I managed to restrain from stereotypical Autistic behaviours - and then take it away again everytime she thought I was being naughty... For clarity, I could read and communicate hieroglyphs at that age-I loved them - yet I stared at those Heiroglyphs like they were the lost translations of an alien world... This story I hope express why positive reinforcement with favourite things, as a cover for emotional abu5e, still cannot help like people might expect it to.
I remember how I cried from pain, exhaustion and frustration that day. The TA had taken me out of my assembly, and changed everything about what I expected to do, with no warning, while also forcing me into a situation that was painful, bright and smelly in an unfamiliar room with unfamiliar unsafe people (her included).
She demanded that I did some 'work' - Suddenly all that need and essential recovery changed and a huge injustice was formed - especially because the work she wanted me to do, was a 'news paper' story I had already written, that morning in the school loos. The teachers had been amazed I knew so much about the topic when she saw it in my book, because I couldn't show that much understanding and could not do the work during class, but that morning at break time I had written the newspaper article in the quiet safety of the school toilets.
but that work wasn't good enough - even though it was graded at the highest points - because it was not written during class. So the TA was determined to make me write it 'properly' in the 'proper' way. Either way, it didn't make sense and seconds after being pulled out of assembly and being forced to do the work again - I shutdown and was unable to process what the instruction was in the first place.
I remember trying to Stim to regulate, and express pain, and she told me no. "Dont be naughty! theres no need to do that it wont help you silly girl!" she says in a sing song voice, as if her singing the abusive words make them any less gaslighting.
you dont have to shout or use your voice with aggression, for your words to be aggressive or cruel, after all.
I was naughty, so she took the hieroglyphs away Until I stopped (out of pure exhaustion). She used a lot of verbal Gaslighting about being normal and not being loved if I do this because it’s not fair on my mum being naughty all the time. I couldn’t make the connection why she was doing or saying these things. that she wanted me to stop. I was too shutdown from not being able to regulate.
Yet it was still perceived progress when I did stop, even though the perceived progress were mere coincidences, and not helpful progress at all.
Out come my Heiroglyphs, but I don't notice because I am so overwhelmed and I cant process any new information because she had not removed any of the previous injustices or sensory stimuli before introducing more things to process (words, requirements and favourite things)
Not long later, after not being able to stim, I climbed under the table because the lights were blindingly painful and I desperately needed to gently rock myself as part of a gentle energy saving vestibular stim. finally, after stimming under the table, I notice the heiroglyphs scrunched up on paper clasped within my hands and I begin to cry with relief as I read the familiar comforting ancient Egyptians rituals on the scroll. but crying is naughty too. However, I cannot connect that, let alone process that she wants me to stop... The TA bends down and takes away my comforter out of my hand, aggressively, creating another injustice because at this point I have not done anything wrong and she walks out, closing the door behind her... “you’re not getting this back until you sit back on your chair like a good girl. Then we can talk about your reward” She says in a singsong voice as she leaves. Then she proceeds to totally ignore me, until she perceived progress within my actions and communications. To this day, her actions taught me that if I was to be treated well, I have to earn it. In other words, she taught me that day that love and support and respect was entirely conditional on what I could do for people...
The injustice crashed my world down around me. Every sight becomes distorted, all of the wooden lines ingrained into the table legs dripping, angles melting, colours saturated and screaming at me. Every carpet fibre razor sharp, and standing to attention as if held up to my gaze from under a microscope. All the pain fired up twice as severe as before. I was suddenly desperate for the toilet, my tummy roaring at me that I would have an accident, but my brain couldn't process that through the overwhelm injustice induced shutdown meltdown. My skin on fire with my clothes itching and burning. The oxygen vanishing from my lungs as I fought to understand what had gone wrong. why the injustice had happened? overall, too exhausted and shutdown to connect anything. She just left me there. for a long, long time. She didn’t come back until I had exhausted myself from crying meltdown of injustice overload and pain. I missed hours of class that day I think. To her I was naughty-but I would have been capable of not reacting like that if she had empowered instead of abusing me and then blaming me for it: It didn’t make sense to me why she had taken my comforter away when she had just said I was good enough to have it. surely that meant I was naughty even though I was trying my best to be good? Why take it away? It was wrong... unjustified and I can’t handle injustice so much so that it causes physical and mental pain and shutdowns of capabilities. Which of course, made me look ‘naughty’... I was too shutdown to process it all. feeling so scared and alone and trapped. I thought no one was going to help me ever again. She didn’t come back, until I had sat silently back on the chair after pain from being circled up on the floor had made me need to stretch out a bit and exhaustion had nearly made me fall asleep in a puddle of my own tears.
I was too weak to stand, so I sat. I didn’t know she was waiting for that- I was too drained to process information even though she told me- I had simply just exhausted myself and couldn’t make any noise or move too much anymore. Bingo! Perceived progress has been made. The teacher was SO pleased I had stopped, and sat back down, not knowing that it wasn’t by choice but because of huge pain and exhaustion. Out comes my comforter. I’m pleased to see it, desperately so. But it doesn’t help. I can’t process what I’m seeing or make sense of the one thing that usually guarantees joy. It can’t help, until the emotional abuse stops. In this way even my favourite passion comforter was no reward at all for the abuse I had faced. The reward of masking my Autism so people would like me was not beneficial either because I wasn’t accepting of myself to truly thrive as an Autistic person; especially as I was always so burnt out from masking all the time. I couldn’t then process the world around me and develop helpful life skills.
However as I sat there silently numb and in agonising pain that I wasn’t allowed to express, my Teacher was pleased I was making progress. My family? Less so. They would be mortified if they found out/know about it. It wasn’t done with their permission and I couldn’t communicate it at the time. They made sure stuff like that didn’t happen again, thankfully. or I wouldn’t be where I am today, as a happy and successful Autistic women full of self acceptance, that’s for sure! There is a lot of great therapy out there that creates true healthy progress – and there’s a lot that doesn’t. I wish to showcase what components of therapy could be harmful, and why, so people can recognise it for themselves in any therapy or setting they come across. Therapies like this are heart breaking for many reasons -there are many human rights violated despite it being legal, and hailed as ‘life saving’ by some parents -oftentimes Autistic students also suffer with: -boundaries and consent disrespected in favour of masking or hiding autism (for example forcing eye contact, hugs, shaking hands or 'presenting') -planned ignoring -forced sleep deprivation -forced into painful sensory circumstances to bait a reaction (and then punished for reaction, until trauma defence mechanisms make them react 'less autistically') -withholding food -restraints -Deliberate changes to routine and expectations to judge reactions (and then punnish it, to create trauma defence mechanisms) -Forced communication -Deliberate sensory deprivation / over stimulation -physical abuse -isolation -Positive reinforcements being taken away as punishment for bad behaviour (bare in mind all behaviour is considered bad behaviour, so it creates a huge lack of trust and safety. even the positive favourite thing becomes unsafe to help them - and so does their safe person) -TW- sometimes, even murder or electric shocks in some Autism specialists schools or therapy (it is rare to be that bad – but this is still accurate in 2021 in very few schools and settings– with any luck, these facts have since changed or improved)
Autistic people are often punished simply for existing in a way that therapists deem as unhelpful or incompliant – where as they are existing in a way that helps them. It’s heart breaking to think that so many are forced into this therapy because people believe it helps.
However The only ‘progress’ seen from therapy’s like this is perceived progress where trauma eventually is taught as a defence mechanism - but honestly?
Many students who struggle to process information might struggle to process a mask to shield from abuse - I sure did!- I couldn’t make connections at all to mask my Autism to stop bullying or abuse- if I was shutdown with injustice and trauma I don’t think I could even make a mask to defend myself.
In a therapy setting like this school that encourages electric shock therapy - that lack of compliance and self control would have me shocked, abused and gaslighted too – even when I wasn’t actually doing anything wrong – just merely existing and processing information too slowly for their liking or understanding.
The worse part is that this is ‘professional’ well reviewed therapy’s because people don’t understand that an Autistic person who has developed a trauma response to not do these 'naughty' 'autistic' things, is actually far less capable and happy than if they were left alone.
That’s my truth- that justifying abuse for any reason- can not help. Naturally, everyone’s truth is different -not everyone will validate this as a form of emotional abuse for whatever reasons - and we can only speak our truths in the hope of making concrete change in peoples hearts by challenging misconceptions.
Therapy’s like this are designed to ignore all needs and instead abuse and torture and gaslight preferred behaviour into existence by create trauma responses, instead of helping the root of the ‘issue’ or behaviour (eg forced eye contact, forced stillness, forced eating, forced hugs despite lack of consent-etc).
Perceived progress from therapy like this, looks like a Autistic person performing as if they are neurotypical -they dress it up as ‘no longer violent’ - however this perceived progress where students may not show as many SIBs- is STILL NOT MAKING HEALTHY PROGRESS- As their root struggles and issues are ignored and abused and gaslighted. It’s impossible to thrive while abused like that.
Also there’s other non abusiv3 ways to safely manage SIBs that empower holistically. I say this as a Autistic person and pro child carer who’s worked with 100s of children – many disabled and Autistic kids (nearly 2 decades experience) who were labelled as ‘no hope cases’ for violence and SIB --we helped all of them safely manage and stop 90% SIBs while empowering them to be happy and make true healthy progress in all aspect of life. So parents or carers are targeted when they need hope and help and then they are convinced to believe this is the only help available. There’s no shame in that- it’s natural to need Hope and help wherever you can get it, especially in extreme circumstances- and if you’re brainwashed to believe perceived progress is real- then of course you’ll think it’s helpful. Everyone’s truth is different and there’s no shame in that.
So what do we do with these emotions when we feel our truth so strongly? We use them. Use the emotional anger and heartbreak to: sign petitions to forge change Speak your truth- Words are powerful and so are our story’s- challenging misconceptions, that in turn alter how society’s sees the truth in harmful therapies and it’s abuse. I’m doing my best to advocate - with all my privileges and my limited capabilities, but most of all - I’m NEVER giving up the fight for our human rights.
x <3 x