Review – Autism: Challenging Behaviour (Documentary)

Autism: Challenging Behaviour – BBC 4

Autism Challening Behaviour

A documentary which explores the controversy surrounding ABA (Applied Behavioural Analysis) which is widespread in the US, but uncommon in the UK. This documentary follows two boys, Jeremiah (on the left of the photo) and Jack (on the right) as they attend Treetops. At the time of filming Treetops in Essex was the only local authority ABA school in the UK, and I think that is still the case although there are private schools that offer ABA.

The documentary opens with an introduction to the two boys and their families, and what the families hope going to Treetops will do for their children. Jeremiah’s father hopes that Treetops will teach Jeremiah out of his autism because he feels like he can’t spend more than five minutes with his son without becoming frustrated. Jack’s mother doesn’t have a firm idea of what she wants, she wants to understand her son better.

Then we get our first view of what ABA is at Treetops – a staff member sat opposite a child saying “Copy me” and then doing things like touching their nose, raising their arms or patting the table, and then some teaching of signing. After that it swiftly cuts to some historical footage of ABA, which is not particularly pleasant viewing, and we watch staff members demanding quiet hands, shouting “NO!” at children who do things wrong, forcing them to “Look at Me”, and sending children to the corner for flapping their hands.

Intermingled with all of footage, both modern and historical, in this documentary are staff members from Treetops and St. Christophers, the school it is later contrasted against, as well as some other professionals within the field and one autistic man. During the above historical footage we get the following quote from a modern day professional:

“If I had a child who was three years old and appeared to be a violin prodigy and I said, ‘Okay we’re gonna do forty hours a week of violin drills’, social services would be knocking on my door. But if it’s a child with autism, it’s okay?”

After this we return to Treetops, with a voiceover telling us that ABA has changed before diving into a quick explanation of what the first few days at Treetops entail for Jack and Jeremiah – finding out what they enjoy, what things they love, assessing them, and then using the things they love to get them to work. Then there is a quickly brushed over mention of blocking self-stimulatory behaviour for the sake of getting the child to learn.

This is why it’s difficult to completely believe it when claims are made that ABA has completely changed. You often find discussions in forums where ABA therapists will say “Well I don’t force eye contact, stop stimming, or treat autistic children like dogs”, but so many of the things I read and watch about ABA include forcing eye-contact, stopping stimming, and reducing visible autistic traits just in a slightly less obvious way than before, and this is despite reports from the autistic community about that damage that this can cause to an autistic person.

We are then treated to footage of staff members attempting to move Jeremiah to a new activity. In the footage they do not use visuals or appear to provide any sort of preparation (a sand time for example). In addition to that, this is the room that Jeramiah is in:


They justify their colourful and visually stimulating rooms later in the program by basically saying “Well the real world’s over stimulating so they have to learn to deal with it”, and that may be true but Jeremiah is four years old and has only just started at this school. Combining sensory over-stimulation with transitions was a meltdown waiting to happen. And what do they say about their teaching method in this situation?

“The child has to know that nothing else fun is going to happen until you follow through with my request (…) It may take a while but soon you get a child that’s compliant to all your demands”

At this point in the documentary we are introduced to the school that Treetops is contrasted against, St Christophers special school, who have rejected the use of ABA and instead believe in educating society at large to accept autism. Sadly, the choice between St Christopher’s view and Treetops view is explained as “the choice between accepting autistic people as they are or pushing the to learn new skills”. This basically presents St Christopher as just letting autistic students do nothing all day, and Treetops actually teaching them, which is an ignorant point of view to take. Accepting autistic people and teaching them new skills are not mutually exclusive.

Then we take a break from the UK and meet Scandinavian ABA consultant Gunnar Frederickson, who makes his views on autism pretty clear, that he does not see anything good about autism and cannot think of a single positive aspect of it. In later footage he also says that self-stimulatory behaviour is useless and should be stopped, that he doesn’t care if a child is stressed during his sessions because they won’t remember it. Generally not an accepting view of autism at all. We see some footage of him getting a boy to copy him before poking the child and attempting to entice him with food, and when that doesn’t work he says:

“It is unreasonable to get upset when a nice man offers you food”

We then go back to Treetops for some more footage of ABA, and the voice-over tells us that ABA is good teaching and good parenting which gets children away from behaviours that enslave them. We also learn that the staff at Treetops are largely unqualified before starting work at Treetops.

Then we meet some new people, two families who have autistic sons who are homeschooling them, and an autistic woman with a son with Aspergers, and hear their views on autism and ABA in general. Local authority schools are not portrayed favourably by the families pushing for ABA, they basically stop short of saying that homeschooling is better than sending your child to a local authority school that doesn’t do ABA.

Then there is a section on Jack and his food issues, where the “successful” method used with him at Treetops is contrasted with a young man at St Christopher’s who is offered food but does not accept it so will ultimately face medication or tube feeding. There’s even depressing music as background to these scenes. Actually, St Christopher’s does not get fair screen time, a lot of the footage seems to just be there to make Treetops look better, and their involvement in this documentary doesn’t seem to serve much more of a purpose beyond that. I would be interested to know what other footage was shot at St Christopher’s that didn’t get into the final product.  Later in the documentary we are shown footage of Jack eating his food, but we aren’t actually told how they achieved this. With a bit of digging online, I found an article online that explained how they approached his food issues:

Jack was given a spoonful of the baby food he liked if he ate a tiny spoonful of regular food, if he was sick he wasn’t allowed to eat his custard.

The Guardian “Is it right to try to normalise autism?”

Just before the end of the documentary we go back to Gunnar and meet is “most successful” ABA child, Richard. Whilst there we learn how Gunnar dismissed all the family’s concerns, particularly those about the way he treated Richard. Then we get to see some footage of Richard sobbing whilst doing ABA, whilst current day Richard looks really uncomfortable and upset. Then everyone basically agrees on how terrible and sick he was as a child and now he is better.

There’s a brief summation from each of Jack and Jeremiah’s families, and then that is the end of the documentary. I don’t really have anything insightful to say to sum up this review, but it did nothing to change my views about ABA. I think this documentary was poorly balanced, and I wonder if that was done deliberately to paint Treetops and ABA in general in a more positive light.

“You have to think about what we are teaching children with compliance. It is a form of cruelty to deny a person who they are”

Lee, an autistic mother of a son who has Aspergers.

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