The Dark Side of Compliance.

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compliance and choiceFrom a very young age our kids with special needs are taught to be compliant and to listen to the “adult” as adults know better. Behavior therapy even encourages us to reinforce this behavior with a reward system so that our kids learn to be compliant and obedient. After all, the professional teach us parents that “it is a prerequisite to be compliant” before you can learn.

Many of our kids, especially the nonverbal ones, spend a minimum of 10 – 18 years being told what to do, how to behave and always listen to the adult teacher or a behavior therapist who is teaching them usually using behavioral techniques.

Unfortunately, this Pavlovian training has a downside. Earlier this year, there was a case at one of the high schools in San    Diego where the gang members had taken some on the higher functioning autistic girls and converted them to prostitution. Boys are not immune, there a countless stories of boys going into bathrooms or adult residential homes and being abused.   If they are told to bend over, they have been taught to be compliant and will bend over.

According to the scholarly literature, children with intellectual disabilities (this includes autism) are 4 to 10 times more likely to be victims of crime than others without disabilities are. Other articles show research that sexual predators are more likely to target autistic children because of their lack of understanding of social norms.

Parents and behavioral therapists are so happy when a child masters the goal of compliance. The problem is that those professionals that work with the very young are never around to see the long-term effects of what they have taught. It is the parents who are left trying to undo the years of behavioral reinforcement that have come home to roost. It is the parents who are trying to teach their 25 year old about choices and self-esteem.

My advice for parents is that no matter what therapy or treatment you use for your child, make sure to teach them that it is ok to be defiant, it is ok to say no. The real goal is cooperation and not compliance. Teach your child to be able to make choices and to have the self-esteem to stick with their choices.


By Dalia Shkedy – Ethan’s Mom

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