Anti-Bullying Week: willow’s Blog

I am an Autistic advocate and a lived experience advisor, and this means that I am expected to put myself out for public scrutiny. There are those who think that as an advocate you have to share every aspect of your life there are also negative individuals in the world who will create their own version of your story to point score and turn people against you or just to create drama and scandal.

This week is anti-bullying week and at Autistic UK CIC we have a hash tag:


We are going to be sharing useful information on the different types of bullying, and we are also putting together a list of up to date resources to add to the Autistic UK CIC website. We will be delving deeply into this subject looking at everything from definitions to long term impacts.

Some of us feel strong enough to share our stories on our blog and this is my attempt to put my thoughts together in a clear way. This has been such a difficult post to write and it has led to a lot of flashbacks and tears. I have c-PTSD from years of bullying and trauma because of my differences, and I am not ashamed to say that I still have scars.

It’s not easy to talk or even write about bullying as an adult. It’s one of those unspoken subjects; a taboo.

As an advocate I have many people who share their stories of bullying with me and some of these cases have been extremely distressing. In five short years I have heard of multiple cases where bullying has been relentless, and it has had long term impacts on individuals’ wellbeing. Sadly, I know of several cases where bullies have pushed individuals into taking their own life.

People often perceive bullying as a childhood problem, but many of the experiences shared with me have been by adults who are experiencing bullying now. Just as Autistic children grow up into Autistic adults, those who were bullies during childhood carry their ways on through to adulthood and one bully can affect many people. They do a great deal of damage and adult bullies become very good at hiding their attacks, often presenting either as a perfectly charming individual or even portraying themselves as a victim themselves to gaslight their victim and observers.

Being out as an Autistic person makes me open and it makes me a target. I think this is something that we as advocates don’t talk about enough.

During my years as an advocate, I have become very mindful of the fact that there are different types of bullying and have seen it playing out in too many environments. It has become ingrained into our society and I am not immune.

I was bullied as a child, so I know the long-term impact this has on an individual. Since becoming an advocate I have had a couple of bullies who lurk in the shadows waiting for when I am at a low ebb to have another stab with their knifes ,usually in the back may I add.

One thing I am always very mindful of is that there are two sides to every story and those who are so quick to throw stones often live in glasses houses. I am the type of person who collects all the stones that people have thrown at me to build a protective wall because I have learnt all about bullying. I use that knowledge to protect myself now, but it shouldn’t have to be like this.

Grown up bullies use covert methods as bullying often becomes more strategic in adult bullies (think of corporate bullying and competitor bashing). Often there is an ulterior motive especially in employment settings, business, and not forgetting the world of social media which is a subject all of its own.

I am seeing so many of my friends and colleagues having to deal with bullies and witch hunts across social media that I have absolutely no motivation to reach out to anyone on these platforms other than those I trust. I haven’t been attacked directly yet, but some close to me have and I know it will only be a matter of time. I won’t even go onto Twitter because in my opinion it has become the modern-day version of the stocks. One thing I have noticed is those who criticise tend to do it late at night when the person receiving the criticism is either asleep or, when awake, in a less resilient frame of mind so are less likely to challenge the perpetrator.

For a long time, I let other people’s negativity, bitterness and narrow-minded perceptions stop me from sharing my views and using my voice. I would let the things people said really get to me and would spend days worrying about how people perceived me.

I have removed a lot of people recently from social media as I have constantly had people trying to draw me into their arguments and group attacks. That really does not work with my mindset. People who know me will understand why I need to protect my own health and well-being and will actually make the time to engage in discussion rather than just lurking around for when they want to throw in negative jibs. I have a really strong scaffold of people around me but over the last few months I have definitely pulled away from more and more platforms which are become toxic an inhabited by trolls.

Our whole lives do not need to be shared on social media for us to be active citizens and advocates. There is a big difference between giving up your time to bring about systemic change and spending your whole life attacking and criticising on social media, just because another person’s experiences don’t fit into your narrow experience.

I find it especially distressing during this time that people feel they have a right to criticise and condemn without even checking their facts first. So many people are dealing with challenges created by COVID-19. We don’t know what anyone is having to deal with behind closed doors, and all this nastiness and underhand bullying is just adding to the stress levels.

It’s really not clever eating your own, especially when you only have half facts and hearsay to base your defamation campaigns on. The pandemic has already divided communities and that is the last thing we need. We can’t allow  our social structures and support systems to break down because it lessens our voice.

Those who are buying into this mindset of ganging up on others are not helping anyone. While people are fighting amongst themselves, they are not focusing on the good of society or the future issues that we are going to have to deal with. I refuse to interact anymore with people who are purely  focusing on their own personal vendettas.

We all have a choice of paths we take in life and I choose the one that leads to compassion and empathy, not criticism and condemnation.

Whorlton Hall Panorama Report – A Statement

From the Directors of Autistic UK

Written by Errol Kerr and Kat Humble

Within the past few months, the revelations as to how the most
vulnerable of our community are treated at the hands of healthcare
professionals have been horrifying, though unsurprising, to us at Autistic UK.

Whether it’s Winterbourne View, Whorlton Hall or who knows how many
others, there is the level of contempt amongst those who provide care for
autistic and learning disabled people. Our long-term physical and mental health
needs go unmet, thus shortening our lifespans and damaging the lives that we
and our families live. There is a very good reason why the suicide rate amongst
autistic people is nine times higher than the national average. This number,
combined with those who die from neglect or incompetence is a canker in the
heart of our society that is being ignored.

Denial of Rights

Some deny us our right to adequate support for being “too expensive” to meet our needs locally. Some attempt to deny us support because it’s too much effort and keep passing it on to another agency. Then there are those, like the gang of staff members at Whorlton Hall, denying us support in favour of constant abuse and victimisation because they do not see us as fully human. We are “other” to them and therefore fair game.

This is not new. It is not a surprise, at least not to us. It is an
obvious outcome of a society that does not value difference. A society that not
only doesn’t value difference but fears it. A society where people feel they
must distance themselves from others who don’t conform to their definition of
normal. It is also the obvious outcome of a system that is not only corrupt,
but essentially unmonitored despite the existence of the CQC. An organisation
that is rapidly proving itself unfit for purpose.

The inhuman abuses that our people have regularly suffered at the hands
of those meant to care for them will shock the general public for a little
while and then, when we are no longer front page news and people have forgotten
about us, another revelation will happen. But, as incredible as this
investigative programme was, it alone will not change what is happening.


In 2011, Panorama shocked the nation with the revelation of the abuses
at Winterbourne View. The CQC investigated the rest of the homes operated by
that company, Castlebeck Care, and found a “systemic failure to protect people or to
investigate allegations of abuse” and accused Castlebeck of misleading
them. Shortly after, the CQC came under scrutiny itself when it was discovered
that they had received numerous allegations of abuse dating back to 2008. The
head of the CQC resigned following the investigation. Sadly, that appears to
have been the sole outcome.

Now, eight years later, Panorama has
found another vile example to shock the public, Whorlton Hall. And again, they
have done a stellar job of showing the extent of the horrors that have
happened. Yet there have been numerous discoveries of such abuses between these
two investigations. One example was Mendip House, run by the NAS, who were
accused by the resident’s relatives of hiding the abuses suffered by their
loved ones for years before acting.

The Cover Up

Evidence in the report by the Somerset
Safeguarding Adults Board showed that the NAS had conducted internal
investigations which revealed extensive degradation of the people under their
care but did not alert the CQC or the police of these crimes. The report observed that it was “remarkable”
that, five years after Winterbourne, these abuses were not brought to light for
so long. The NAS was fined £4000 by the CQC for the financial abuses committed
by the staff, but not the perpetrators of the physical and mental abuses that
occurred. Despite these findings, the CQC stated that no other action was
required of them. No criminal charges were brought and the residents of that residential
care home were left without justice, like so many others. And so it continues.

Fit For Purpose?

A watchdog with no protective instinct is
useless. In a 2017 report by John Burton of the Centre for Welfare Reform, it
is shown quite clearly why the CQC is so ineffective. Instead of listening to
residents and loved ones directly, these worried people are directed to a call
centre where staff have no knowledge of who that home’s local inspector is or
how to reach them. All this call centre can do is essentially take a message
and put it on the home’s file. Reports of abuse and concerns of neglect are
left to pile up between inspections. Even then, those reports are often not
regarded, as the CQC rely most heavily on documents like care plans rather than
digging beneath the polished surface presented by a care home that knew they
were going to be inspected.

These abuses will not stop until the CQC
is reformed from the ground up. Autistic and Learning Disabled people are
speaking, CQC, are you listening?

A critique of the use of Applied Behavioural Analysis (ABA)

Posted with permission from Dr. Damian Milton, originally written as the Appendix for the Labour Party Autism / Neurodiversity Manifesto Steering Group, 2018

Content Warning: this article discusses depictions of torture and abuse.

“…right from the start, from the time someone came up with the word ‘autism’, the condition has been judged from the outside, by its appearances, and not from the inside according to how it is experienced.” (Williams, 1996: 14).

This report looks into the commonplace implementation of Applied Behaviour Analysis (ABA) and Positive Behavioural Support (PBS), criticisms of these approaches, and why they are not usually supported by neurodivergent communities, before concluding with some recommendations for future practices.

ABA can be defined as the application of techniques based upon the philosophy of radical behaviourism (pioneered by B.F. Skinner and others). ABA seeks to utilise these theories of learning in order to alter behaviour. Contemporary theory and practice, despite moving beyond the ‘methodological behaviourism’ that prioritised behaviour modification, to the use of ‘functional assessments’ of the ‘antecedents, behaviour, and consequences’ of behaviour within a context (or ABC method), still primarily focuses on reducing behaviour deemed ‘aberrant’ or ‘inappropriate’ and increasing behaviour deemed socially ‘valid’ and ‘acceptable’. By following the principles of radical behaviourism, thoughts and emotions are treated as behaviours operating in the same ways as observable actions (Research Autism, 2018). Such a philosophy is criticised by other schools of Psychology or Philosophy of Mind (Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, 2015). Proponents of ABA suggest that it is a ‘natural science’ of behaviour, rather than a ‘social science’ dependent on hypothetical constructs.

“Behaviour Analysts are not distracted by the many different theories of the causes of autism.” (, 2018).

Critics would suggest that rather than being an objective natural science however, it rather uses a flawed set of conceptual concepts at the expense of excluded concepts that have developed through other disciplines and perspectives. Despite being a general theory and practice, it is often incorrectly assumed to be a specific intervention used with autistic people (by both some proponents and critics). The history of ABA is not without significant controversy outside of working with autistic people though. One of the pioneers of using ABA to make autistic people ‘indistinguishable from their peers’ was Ivar Lovaas who also utilised the method as a form of ‘conversion therapy’ for transgender children:

“Rekers and Lovaas conducted the treatment in response to the parents’ concerns not the child’s. Furthermore, they challenged all four of the reasons Rekers and Lovaas stated for going forward with the treatment, including the need to relieve the boy’s suffering, the idea that the “problems” would continue into adulthood, that an early intervention may be the only treatment that worked, and that “the parents were becoming alarmed.”” (Wilhite, 2015).

These remarks are eerily familiar with regard to the reasons given as to why ABA is often administered upon neurodivergent people. In the UK, a somewhat less extreme version of ABA has taken shape in the form of Positive Behaviour Support (PBS):
“Another way to decide what to teach a child with autism is to understand typical child development. We should ask what key developmental skills the child has already developed, and what they need to learn next. The statutory curriculum in the countries of the UK also tells us what children should learn. Then there are pivotal behaviours that would help further development: teaching communication, social skills, daily living or academic skills that can support longer-term independence and choices.” (Hastings, 2013).

Despite contemporary behaviourist theorists such as Hastings (2013) who favour PBS claiming to use a non-normalising social model approach, it is clear from the above passage that a normative approach to child development and education is being utilised. Such a view can be contrasted with autistic and wider neurodivergent and disabled activist accounts regarding behavioural intervention. A recent multicentre, cluster randomised controlled trial conducted by Hassiotis et al. (2018) however found no ‘treatment effects’ in terms of reductions in ‘challenging behaviour’ between those being cared for by staff trained in PBS compared to those who were not, and that further research should: “…endeavour to identify other interventions that can reduce challenging behaviour.” (Hassiotis et al., 2018:1).

According to the UK Society of Behaviour Analysts, the use of ABA should be based on a number of values, including a focus on the ‘individual’ and on ‘skill acquisition’. “Behaviour analysts ensure that the goals, methods, and outcomes of any intervention are important, understandable, and acceptable to the person whose behaviour is being changed, as well as to those who care about the person (e.g., parents, carers, teachers).” (UK-SBA, 2018).

Given that ABA is practised upon young children and less verbally articulate autistic people, coupled with the lack of understanding often found in non-autistic people’s interpretations of autistic ways of being and actions (Milton, 2012, Chown, 2014, Heasman and Gillespie, 2017, Sasson and Morrison, 2017), these values cannot be ensured. The ethical decisions as to what behaviour is to be addressed and why is left to carers and professional advisors. It is also notable that the behaviour often deemed in need of change by professionals for ‘social validation’ are not as important, understandable and acceptable to the autistic person expected to perform and comply.
Similar issues would also be pertinent with all neurodivergent identities.
“Any decisions made about how behaviour will be assessed or changed are sensitive to the individual circumstances of the person and are aimed at improving quality of life.”
(UK-SBA, 2018).

Yet, when quality of life is defined in normative terms and without the input of neurodivergent people, or even deliberately not addressing critique, it can only too quickly become ableist oppression. Behaviour analysts suggest that ‘skill acquisition’ should be seen as primary goal of intervention. This places the pressure on the neurodivergent person to conform to society, whilst not making the same effort in return (Milton, 2014, 2017) “…to address quality of life issues by improving skills that can remove barriers to learning and facilitate independence and best practice utilises methods based on ABA…” (Keenan et al. 2014: 167).

The narrative presented by some leading advocates of ABA see autism and other neurodevelopmental ‘conditions’ as barriers to learning, and ABA as a way of facilitating independence and improving skills, and that this will all lead to a better quality of life. This statement is however highly normative, and unsympathetic to a social model of disability. Criticisms of ABA are often misrepresented by ABA proponents as a caricature, without attempting to engage fully with those criticisms. This is particularly relevant when such practices are implemented on potentially vulnerable people.
“One expects lobby groups to give vent to fixed and emotionally charged views, but one expects more from scientists. Tolerance of scrutiny, acceptance of criticism, and objectivity in experimental approach and the interpretation of outcomes are expected. A discipline that makes extravagant claims of its methods, overstates its scientific status and has difficulty agreeing on definition of its terms will struggle to achieve scientific credibility.” (Hughes, 2008).

For many neurodivergent activists, the normalisation agenda inherent in such approaches is not a caricature, but a felt experience of living in what is perceived to be an inherently ableist society. Who gets to define what is ‘appropriate’, ‘challenging’, ‘disordered’, and ‘socially important’, is always imbued with unequal power relations (Mason, 2005). A denial of the directly felt harm of those that have had such methods implemented on them is often met with increased anger and frustration from members of the neurodivergent communities, as well as some parents (for examples see: realsocialskills, 2018, Omum2, 2018, Dalmayne, 2018), yet despite this, activists have attempted to explain what their contentions are, even making distinctions between differing experiences of ABA (Unstrangemind, 2018). The impasse between these perspectives is not just over the ideological purpose that a method is set to, but also the processes of ABA-based practices.

Although Milton (2016) found that interventions akin to PBS were popular amongst parents, this was contrasted with the views of autistic people. Tensions between these views are likely to persist, but a greater understanding of the reasoning behind why differing stakeholders are attracted to differing ideologies and practices can help all to build a common language in which to debate the issues. Such a way forward is being held back by those with a dogmatic adherence to ABA however, and a focus purely on the reduction of so-called ‘challenging behaviours’.

“…the whole ABA movement appears increasingly more like a cult than a science: there is a charismatic leader, a doctrine, a failure to engage with criticisms, inquisition and denunciation of any who criticise (however mildly), misrepresentation of critics, and proselytising exercises to gain more converts and spread the word.” (Jordan, 2001, cited Fitzpatrick, 2009: 141).

A study by Remington et al. (2007, cited Fitzpatrick, 2009) compared those who had home-based ABA to those who did not, over a two-year period. Using measures of intelligence, language use, daily living skills, and a statistical measure of ‘best outcomes’, the majority made no significant advances. Magiati, Charman and Howlin (2007) found no significant differences in a range of outcome measures either, although large differences were found regarding outcomes within both control and experimental groups. Hogsbro (2011, cited in Milton, 2016) found that on average, ABA provision had a negative impact on a number of standardised measures. Yet, the parents of children on such programmes were found to hold the highest expectations for their children’s educational progression, and professionals and parents using this model subjectively rated improvements higher than all other groups. Similar findings were also found by Kupferstein (2018).

“I had virtually no socially-shared nor consciously, intentionally expressed, personhood beyond this performance of a non-autistic ‘normality’ with which I had neither comprehension, connection, nor identification. This disconnected constructed facade was accepted by the world around me when my true and connected self was not. Each spoonful of its acceptance was a shovel full of dirt on the coffin in which my real self was being buried alive…” (Williams, 1996: 243).

In this quote, the late Donna Williams (1996) suggests that by learning by rote how to act as a nonautistic person can produce a ‘masking’ effect and be detrimental to long-term well-being and mental health. Williams (1996) directly criticised the use of behavioural techniques such as ABA for only working on function and appearance, and for their lack of fit with autistic perceptions. For Williams, such techniques:
“…may feel like a senseless ritual of abuse, regardless of its ‘good’ intentions.” (Williams, 1996: 51).

Kupferstein’s (2018) recent study regarding the potential links between ABA, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and autistic people found that respondents across all ages who were exposed to ABA were 86% more likely to meet the PTSD criteria than respondents who had not been exposed to ABA practices.

Major issues with the ABA theory and practice:

– What behaviours are reinforced and deemed as functional and of social importance and relevance is chosen by an outsider
– ‘Reinforcements’ may be inappropriately given (e.g. the bombardment of emotionally laden praise, and hugging, and punishments being potentially internalised as rewards such as timeouts)
– Rote learning can lead to training people to behave as if their problems do not exist, or lead to ‘autopilot’ responses
– The claim that ABA will suit everybody as an applied method – it clearly does not
– The focus on behaviour at the detriment of subjective understanding and cognition
– Often focuses on compliance and founded on normative assumptions
– Reduces opportunity for natural curiosity and exploration
– Utilises ‘reinforcements’ that are often extrinsic rather than intrinsic motivations for activities
– The lack of generalising of newly learnt ‘skills’
– Sometimes punishment is endorsed as a ‘last resort’
– The intensity of programs (often suggested that one works on ABA programs for forty hours a week).

Instead, it is recommended here that practices should:

– Take a holistic and person-centred approach which therefore takes into account neurodivergent sensibilities, sensory perceptual differences, subjective accounts, cognitive theory, and a social model of disability
– Building understanding and communication between all involved
– Enabling environments to be more accessible
– Reducing direct confrontation
– Ethical considerations must be built in to every step of the process of acquiring professional competencies
– Use of dangerous restraint methods and forced seclusion should be seen as disciplinary offences
– Rather than focusing on perceived weaknesses and absent skills, utilise strengths and interests
– Neurodivergent perspectives must be built in to every step of the process of acquiring professional competencies
– Building local expertise and communities of practice, drawing upon multi-disciplinary expertise, but places the neurodivergent person at the centre of considerations.

Although similar criticisms can be made of other normative interventions that are administered upon neurodivergent people, few have as poor a track record in terms of participation as ABA and PBS. Although individual practice by parents and indeed professionals may not seek normalisation in the use of ABA, the flaws in its theory and implementation mean that we should be looking beyond its scope. Therefore the endorsement of PBS by the Care Quality Commission, alongside the widespread use in schools and mental health services needs urgent review. As a way forward, it is suggested here that the person-centred and socially sensitive approaches being developed by groups such as Studio3 and AT-Autism are promising and that these need to be tested with high quality research.

Child Autism UK (2018). ABA and autism. Accessed online at:
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Fitzpatrick, M. (2009). Defeating Autism: A Damaging Delusion. London: Routledge.
Hassiotis, A., Poppe, M., Strydom, A., Vickerstaff, V., Hall, I. S., Crabtree, J., and Cooper, V. (2018). Clinical outcomes of staff training in positive behaviour support to reduce challenging behaviour in adults with intellectual disability: cluster randomised controlled trial. The British Journal of Psychiatry, 1-8.
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Mason, M. (2005). Incurably Human. Nottingham: Inclusive Solutions.
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Original publication can be found on