CW: Compliance training, mention of abuse.
Compliance is a word that many autistic people and parents of autistic children automatically associate with behavioral therapy such as ABA, but in fact a lot of everyday parenting and teaching hinges on behaviorism with compliance as a goal. Sticker charts for various tasks or for “good behavior,” withholding privileges until goals are met, and punishments or consequences for failing to meet expectations are all common forms of compliance-based, behavior-shaping parenting and teaching techniques.
Certainly to some degree, many children are subject to compliance training in school and at home even if they are not neurodivergent in any way. Many adults see this as the only way to get children to learn anything at all, including family values, empathy, and the difference between right and wrong. Some studies (as reported in Punished by Rewards by Alfie Kohn) have shown that disabled students are typically even more tightly controlled by behavioral management than their non-disabled peers in school.
Unfortunately, those children are more vulnerable to the harm that can come from compliance training than their non-disabled peers.
Consider the lessons learned by behavior based teaching: do the things I ask of you and you will be rewarded. Be “good” and you will be praised and favored. Fail or refuse to do what I say, and you will be punished in some way: whether by scolding, being singled out in a group, isolated in a time out, or merely having your privileges and favorite things withheld.
Children frequently internalize these lessons so that even when parents and teachers are not around they may adhere to a “do what I’m told” mentality. Autistic children in particular, frequently confounded by unwritten neurotypical rules and social codes, may stay in the relative comfort zone of avoiding conflict, doing what they are told to do, and being “good” to attempt to stay out of harm’s way.
Autistic children also tend to rely on scripts to cope with unfamiliar or confusing situations; non-autistic adults may not realize the extent to which autistics use scripting as a tool even when the autistic person appears to have advanced verbal skills. And the scripts that often feel the most safe are compliance scripts:
Yes. Okay. I’ll do it. Whatever you want is fine.
Or: silent acquiescence.
Now consider the situations an autistic child, and then an autistic teenager, and then an autistic adult may find themselves in, find themselves unsure of what to do or how to respond, and may find themselves defaulting to compliance scripts:
- Childhood bullying.
- Being abused or groomed for abuse by a person they know.
- Sexual experiences in which they feel pressure to consent.
- Childcare decisions including unsolicited advice from family members.
- Healthcare situations in which they have unmet needs.
- Workplace pressures to take on more responsibility, or forgo accommodations
In my personal experience and in talking to many other autistic adults, I’ve found that the experience of defaulting to compliance scripts – yes, okay, whatever you want is fine – is incredibly common for autistic people no matter what our ages, cognitive abilities, communication abilities, education levels, or work experiences may be. Everyone I have talked to about this, including myself, has had the experience of agreeing to something – or being too afraid to refuse something – that caused us direct harm. Not just once or a few times, but repeatedly throughout our lives.
For this reason alone (though there are many other good reasons as well) it’s of crucial importance that behavior based compliance training not be central to the way we parent, teach, or offer therapy to autistic children. Because of the way it leaves them vulnerable to harm, not only as children, but for the rest of their lives.
For this reason we should endeavor, as early as possible, to teach children that they have the ability to truly consent or refuse to do anything. That they have a right to body autonomy even when it inconveniences or frustrates us. That their needs, opinions, and their desires all matter and are counted as important.
We should give them scripts they can use in place of compliance scripts, when they aren’t sure what to do.
- No thank you
- I’ll think about it
- I don’t like that
- I don’t want to
- I can’t do that
And also encourage nonverbal expressions of refusal such as turning away, shaking their head, leaving the room, vocalizing in protest, and so on.
As we support them in their learning and personal development, we should strengthen, not dampen, their ability to express NO – it may be one of the most useful tools they will ever have.
(header image is the text “The Importance of No / Meg Murry/ FB/RespectfullyConnected” on a white circle over a yellow background. Above the text is an orange triangle with an exclamation point inside.)