The Art of Extinction

“Whatever you do.. don’t react..” he said.

The therapist sat staunchly.. emotionally withdrawn yet completely aware of the stress mounting in the room.

“Eric? Touch, SPOON.” He said.

Eric was unphased. His eyes continued scanning around the room seeming to look right through the therapist and I.

“Eric, touch SPOON” he repeated.


“Eric, touch SPOOOOON”.. this time he said it seeming to think annunciating would help Eric understand.. but no. Eric wasn’t understanding.

Small gestural prompts ensued while Erics annoyance built. He was three and could care less about touching that spoon,.. but this,.. this, is what he’s supposed to be doing. This, is how you treat Autism.

The therapist pressed on. The same demand. Over. And over. Erics frustration mounting and starting to take over. He wanted out of that high chair and NO parts of this spoon business.

My heart was breaking. It was clear he just wasn’t there. He was in his own space and we weren’t welcomed in.

“Eric, touch spoon..”

His pouts turned to cries.. his cries to screams.. and his eyes,.. his beautiful eyes.. kept pacing the room searching for some to help him,.. someone.. because I… wasn’t.

“Remember,.. don’t react” I kept telling myself.

The therapist anted up. While Erics body wriggled in the straps of his high chair, the therapist took Erics hand and placed it on the spoon while saying “Touch SPOON..”

That was it. Eric had had enough. The sad wailing turned to violence.

His little body arching back and forth.. the high chair sliding around on the floor by the force of his fight.. his face red with tears streaming down his plump cheeks.

“Eric, touch SPOOOON”.. I couldn’t believe it.

“I can’t watch this!! I can’t do this!!” I said the therapist as I cried along with Eric. “How am I not supposed to react? He doesn’t understand!”

“It’s called extinction” he said calmly.

“You have to ignore the emotions of it.. and remember this is for his own good.”

I was 24. A single mom and Eric was my only child. In 2006, a lot of things weren’t understood about the treatment of Autism. To me, it seemed so unnatural what was happening.. but what did I know? I had doctors and behavior analysts telling me that this was the way it was done. And that I.. nicely put.. had to suck it up.

Extinction. The psychological definition refers to “the gradual weakening of a conditioned response that results in the behavior decreasing or disappearing.”.

I wish that I had received the disclaimer on this practice that the user of the method could also be affected. That learning to ignore an emotional response.. is not always the best skill to master.

We kept on our mission.

For two years, three times a week the therapist would come. Eric would sit in his high chair. I would accept extinction as normal.

No progress was ever made.

F that spoon.

As a parent you always wonder. You wonder if you’ve shown your child enough love.. if you’ve given them good moral ground. For some parents,.. you wonder if you’re trying to do the right thing caused more harm than good. If your emotional extinction of compassion in their most desperate time of need is eternally seared into their memories...

I’ll never know. But I spend every day trying to do my best. He can’t tell me what he thinks of those times.. if he even remembers them.. but I remember for him and live each day in penitence for my failures.

Life, is subjective. I think those two years of therapy.. well, I know, that those two years of therapy.. had a more profound impact on me that I ever thought they could.

Ignore the feeling. He is ok. She is ok. Its all,.. Ok.

If I can learn to block out the cries of my sweet son.. who am I? What am I?

What I am, is not alone. There are some reading this now who have been down this road themselves. That know what it’s like to be able to flip a switch on your feelings and chalk up the petty irrelevant REAL quick.

It’s protected me in ways. It’s given me an edge in others. What it has not done however.. is absolve me of my sins.

Today, Eric is back in ABA therapy. You may think that’s crazy right?? But here is the truth… 13 years ago we were all figuring it out. Including the therapists. ABA is not what it once was. In fact, after only 2 months of working with the most amazing therapists ever.. Eric intentionally communicated a personal need for the first time in his life using his IPad.

As I watch Eric get older.. now 16.. the reality of his future so precarious.. I remember that I, am his. While I’ve made mistakes, I will be his champion. I’ll be the one to make it right. I’ll do whatever it takes to make him smile. I’ll be whoever I need to be to see it through. I’ll accept my faults and do my best. And my best, will be good enough.

I, am a blessed woman.

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