Problem Behavior – Why it doesn’t exist

An acute problem behavior experience

Sometimes it is almost funny how certain things in life fall into place. I had not planned on writing a post on this. At least not any time soon. But two recent events lead me to change my mind.

First #BehaviorsMean happened on twitter. The hashtag is part of a series of autism related hashtags. I do not keep a schedule of these things as that is too stressful for me. I just happened to be online last night when it started so I participated.

The more I participated in tweeting my thoughts about what is described as “problem behavior” when it comes to autism, the angrier I got. So I stopped after submitting a few tweets.

Then today when I took a shower I remembered an incident a few days ago. I am currently staying at my parent’s house for a few days. A few days ago I also took a shower. A while later my mother came into my room and this is the conversation we had:

Mom comes in without knocking.
Mom: “Are you still five years old?”
Me, rather startled: “What?”
Mom: “You are not five years old anymore.”
Me: “No.”
Mom looking at me silently with a look on her face I cannot decipher.
Me: “Why?”
Mom, angrily: “You could really wipe down the shower after you’re done!”

I was taken aback. In my own home I do not wipe down the shower after showering. I take showers sitting down in the bathtub which I clean about every two days.
I do know my parents wipe down their shower because the walls are plastic and the hard water is a problem if not wiped down properly. But I did not forget on purpose. It is simply not part of my routine.
I said sorry and that I would try to remember. But I was seriously hurt by how angry my mother seemed to be. And how rudely and hurtfully she brought the whole thing up.

Now, a few days later, like I said I took another shower, and remembered that scene. And I remembered because of another incident that happened right before I took this evening’s shower.
My mother was in the bathroom brushing her teeth. I came in and started walking back and forth, waiting to be able to take a shower. When my mother was done brushing her teeth this conversation happened:

Mom: “I really want to hug you right now!”
Me: “No, I don’t want to.”
Mom: “Oh come on, please!”
Me: “No.”
Mom: “Poor poor me, nobody wants to hug me.”

Then she went on to pretend to cry. I got upset and started rocking back and forth on my feet a bit. Then she started imitating one of my stims which I do when something bothers me. I told her that that was not funny and that she please stop. She insisted it was funny and finally left.

Now I know my mother did not mean to mock me. She is a really good, and nice person. She was just joking around, trying to mask that it really did hurt her that I did not want to hug her. But still. I could not help but think:

“So when I don’t do something you told me a few times I am ‘still five years old’ and may be scolded.
Yet when you still ask me for hugs even after I explained to you many times why I can’t have any it is perfectly acceptable to declare your suffering and then mock my needs?”

It made me angry. And it made me realize that this was a perfect example for why I have such a big problem with the term “problem behavior”.

Problem? Whose problem?

That really is the essence of the entire issue I am taking with the term. Whose problem? People who use the term “problem behavior” suggest through its way of use two things:

1. That the behavior in itself is generally a problem. For everybody. All the time. Everywhere.
2. That the person engaging in the behavior is the one causing the problem because they are the one causing the behavior.

Let us get one thing straight right away: People call it problem behavior because people have a problem with it. Not because it actually represents a problem.

“Problem Behavior” is an ableist/disablist term. Ableists/disablists use it to declare behaviors they do not want other people to engage in as problematic. They need to do that first so that then they can justify forcing the person to stop the behavior.

“Problem Behavior” is not a problem in itself. It is declared a problem by people. Many behaviors that are seen as totally acceptable when engaged in by non-autistic people are considered “problem behavior” when engaged in by autistic people.
Take stimming. It is considered socially acceptable for a non-autistic person to bite their nails, tap their foot, and twirl their hair. It is considered “problem behavior” for an autistic person to flap their hands or jump on the spot.
Take objection. It is considered socially acceptable for a non-autistic person to say “No.” to pretty much anything. It is considered “problem behavior” for an autistic person to refuse eye contact, a handshake, or comply with ridiculous tasks of for example ABA therapy.

“Problem Behavior” is not caused by the autistic person. In fact it is the non-autistic person determining problem behavior who creates the problem in the first place.
Instead of just being okay with the autistic person’s way of doing things, the non-autistic person decides to find a behavior problematic. Which then of course means the behavior needs to be corrected. That is how you create a problem where there is none.
Taking it one step further, many “problem behaviors” are actually caused by non-autistic people. Stimming for example is often triggered as a reaction to overwhelming social interaction, or an environment that disregards sensory needs – both things are often caused by the non-autistic people around the autistic person. Or the environment created by the non-autistic people. Not the autistic person themselves.

“Problem Behavior” is an entirely made-up invention that allows non-autistic people to force autistic people into norms that are also completely made-up.

The “Problem Behavior” label as justification for injustice

Once a behavior has been deemed “problem behavior” it becomes imperative the behavior get corrected. The generally accepted fact that this need for correction exists, opens the door for a lot of injustice in the name of that correction.
After all, if there is a problem it must be solved. And since the autistic person is causing the problem it does not matter, if the solution harms the autistic person, right? If you are not a part of the solution you are a part of the problem. So you will be treated as the problem.

Autistic people are being shocked with portable electroshock devices hundreds of times a day at Judge Rotenberg Center for so called “problem behaviors”. A practice illegal to use against prisoners. A practice illegal to use against animals.
Stimming of any kind? Shock. Stand up to use the bathroom without asking first? Shock. Trying to get away from the pain the electric shock causes? Shock. Speaking up against another student being tortured? Shock.

Autistic people are being treated inhumanely for so called “problem behavior” during ABA therapy. Any non-compliance is deemed “problem behavior”. Children are not allowed to object. They are not allowed to refuse. They are not allowed to say no.
Only when they comply with the tasks and requests put in front of them will they find relief from the constant pushing of the ABA teacher. They are dehumanized, their free will is taken from them, and they are being trained like pets.

More subtle forms of dehumanization on the grounds of “problem behavior” happen to autistic people every day. The most common might be to not be taken seriously. The second an autistic person displays “problem behavior” it seems like a switch flipped in the non-autistic people around them.
There is a general lack of respect. And only because certain behaviors have once been deemed as problematic. Not because there is an actual reason for why the autistic person should be less respected or taken less seriously than a non-autistic person.
“Problem behavior” is often thought to mean an autistic person is less intelligent. Just because an autistic person hops up and down while reading a book does not mean they are reading that book in any way less effectively than the non-autistic person who is sitting still while reading.

Non-autistic people seem to generally expect autistic people to not engage in their “problem behaviors” when out in public. I wrote about passing before HERE.
Because somebody who has never met me decided that some of my ways to act are “problem behaviors” I now have to hide essential parts of myself every single day of my life. How dare you stranger?

Problem Behavior – only if it is for everyone!

If we stuck to the literal meaning of the term, I could be okay with it. Problem behavior. A behavior that causes a problem. That is a real thing.

My mother trying to force me to hug her. That is a real problem behavior for me. Me yelling in a bout of echolalia for an hour while my husband needs to study for a test the next morning. That is real problem behavior for him.
My neighbor smoking on the balcony and the smoke drifting into my apartment. That is real problem behavior for me. Me running onto the street and almost getting hit by a car in a sudden episode of anxiety that causes autistic elopement. That is a real problem behavior for the driver (and me if I get hit!).

Unfortunately the term is not used that way. It is only used to clinically describe behaviors that as a fact are not actual problem behaviors but deemed such by non-autistics who seek to conform autistic people to some social norm.
Yes in theory there are exceptions. I could agree with self-harming behavior labeled “problem behavior”. I might agree with labeling dangerous behaviors like eloping as “problem behavior”. But that is about it.

And until the term is used correctly in its literal meaning and used for all people neurodiverse and neurotypical alike and not to conform, abuse, and dehumanize autistic people it is ableist/disablist and should not be used. Ever.


I want to encourage everyone to read the actual #BehaviorsMean twitter conversation HERE.

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