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Autism Advocates Petition to Cancel U.K. TV Series 'Train Your Baby Like a Dog'

The Mighty logo The Mighty 8/20/2019 Renee Fabian
a person holding a baby: Promo shot for U.K. series “Train Your Baby Like a Dog” © The Mighty Promo shot for U.K. series “Train Your Baby Like a Dog”

Autism advocates want a new TV series on U.K.’s Channel 4 titled “Train Your Baby Like a Dog” taken off the air. Advocates launched a petition, stating the show mimics harmful techniques used in applied behavior analysis (ABA) therapy in addition to dehumanizing children and putting them at risk for predatory grooming.

“Train Your Baby Like a Dog” features animal behaviorist and dog trainer Jo-Rosie Haffenden. After successfully using dog training techniques on her own children, including clicker training, Haffenden is now helping other families teach kids using the same techniques. According to the Independent, the first episode will feature Haffenden working with a toddler who throws tantrums and another who won’t sleep in her bed.

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While none of the children currently featured on “Train Your Baby Like a Dog” are on the spectrum, as far as we know, autism advocates nonetheless slammed the Channel 4 series for dehumanizing children and for the parallels between training dogs — clicker training in particular — and the use of applied behavior analysis (ABA) as the “gold standard” to “treat” autism.

In response, U.K. advocacy organization Autistic Inclusive Meets created a petition, which now has nearly 25,000 signature, asking the network to cancel the series.

“Clicker training is used in the behavioral therapy ABA (Applied Behavioural Analysis), used on autistic children,” the organization wrote, adding:

We here at Autistic Inclusive Meets, an autistic-led organisation based in London, ask CEO Alexandra Rose Mahon of Channel 4 to consider that this dehumanising to children, that it should not be given a platform and to consider cancelling the airing full stop.

Created by psychologist Dr. Ivar Lovaas, ABA is based on behavioral training principles that can be traced directly back to research on how to train dogs. In ABA, autistic children who follow neurotypical social norms are rewarded and expressions of neurodiversity are punished. However, autism is not an illness to “treat” — it’s a neurodiverse way of being human — and autistic adults have long advocated against ABA citing its harm to their health and well-being.

“We learn from an early age that many of the things that make us feel comfortable make neurotypical people uncomfortable,” autism advocate Kieran Rose told The Mighty in a previous article. “So we are isolated, excluded, viewed as broken or damaged. Cures are sought to fix us. Treatments devised to make us fit in.”

Research backs up the lived experience of autistic adults who received ABA as children and now say it caused them significant harm. One 2018 study of autistic adults and children found, for example, 46% of those who received ABA therapy met the diagnostic criteria for post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), a mental health condition associated with trauma.

ABA essentially requires people on the spectrum to “mask” or hide their autistic characteristics. Doing so takes a huge toll and can have a major mental health impact. Autistic people who mask regularly are more likely to experience depression, according to Neurodiverse UK. Another study found masking is correlated with a higher risk of suicide among people on the spectrum.

“Masking is exhausting and although there may be benefits (having a well-developed mask has helped me to do well in the work world), it comes at a cost,” Christa Holmans told The Mighty in a previous article. “Trying to be someone you’re not is exhausting, mentally and physically. People who meet me when I’m masking don’t get to see or know the real me. What message are we sending autistic children when we tell them that the natural way they are isn’t good enough?”

Along with Autistic Inclusive Meets, mental health advocates raised concerns about “Train Your Baby Like a Dog,” saying it potentially sets children up to be groomed by abusive predators later in life by teaching children to be compliant to any adult’s request as opposed to supporting a child’s ability to think independently.

“The children are shown no dignity or respect in clicker training behaviorism, and will be a prime target for grooming in the future as they will have been taught to comply to an adult's demands, regardless of their own comfort or autonomy for reward,” the Autistic Inclusive Meets petition says.

In response to the Change.org petition created by Autistic Inclusive Meets and other advocates, Haffenden defended the show and her techniques, saying the type of dog training used today does not resemble the training of the past so many autistic adults have spoken out against.

“Unfortunately the autistic community … had a horrific time and some of the techniques that are still used today involve things like restraining children,” Haffenden said in an interview with ITV’s “This Morning.” She added:

"They have been horrifically treated when it comes to training techniques and a lot of those techniques come from the old-fashioned dog training techniques and I think what has happened if they have seen the clicker and they have made a huge assumption that because a clicker is involved I am using the same techniques that was used so horrifically earlier.

"It’s about creating an environment where it’s safe to experiment and then showing them what experiments lead to the consequences that they want. Dog training and animal behavior has come such a long way from when we used to be jerking the lead and telling dogs ‘You have to do what I say.’ It’s about reading subtle cues and body language, and knowing how to set that animal up to succeed."

In a statement given to HuffPost, Channel 4 responded to calls to cancel “Train Your Baby Like a Dog” by saying the series “explores a new approach to child care, grounded in positive, science-based motivational techniques that are used widely by parenting coaches and animal behavior experts.”

The spokesperson added, “Throughout filming and broadcast, the welfare of all contributors in the program is of paramount importance and the process is supervised by qualified child psychologists.”

Gallery: This Is What It's Like to Live With Autism (Provided by Best Life)

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