“Aversive” therapy for autism and developmental disorders?

Ever since I started paying attention to quackery, in particular quackery used on autistic children, I’ve come across some bizarre articles. Of course, the vast majority of autism quackery is related to antivaccine beliefs and the need to “detoxify” autistic children from whatever toxins or mercury antivaccinationists think caused their children’s autism. If only it stopped at that, though. In any case, I don’t remember exactly where I came across this article, particularly given that it’s an English language article published on a website called The Nanfang Insider, which bills itself as reporting on “urban life in Guangzhou, Shenzhen, and Dongguan. I have no idea how accurate its reporting is, and the English used for the article is at times a bit shaky, but the article, CHONGQING DOCTOR CLAIMS CHILD ABUSE CAN CURE CHILDREN OF AUTISM. The article is bizarre in the extreme, and very disturbing.

I’ll show you what I mean:

The prevailing view is that autism is incurable, but a 36 year-old Sichuan native named He Xiaoyan claims she can do it, reports the Chongqing Commercial Report.

He operates the Leyi Amalgamated Kindergarten in Geleshan County. Throughout the past ten years, the school has taken in 960 children, some of which are autistic. He says she has “cured” ten of them.

He uses forceful and violent methods to treat these children using what she calls “hate therapy”. She uses a simple idiom to describe the treatment: ”If violence is used by the child, then violence will be returned on the child.”


What does this mean? Unfortunately, it means exactly what it sounds as though it means. There follow six examples of what this means:

  1. Four year-old Xiaoxiao was prone to biting, both herself and other people including students and teachers. To remedy this, teachers first tried slapping Xiaoxiao’s hand. When that didn’t work, He purposely provoked Xiaoxiao in order to incite her to bite. When Xiaoxiao bit someone, she was bit herself, sometimes even by He. Xiaoxiao was told, “Whether you bite yourself or others, it will hurt.” Half a year later, Xiaoxiao stopped biting people.
  2. Five year-old Tongtong was prone to falling on the floor whenever he was angry, thereby hitting his head and causing it to bleed. To treat Tongtong, He wrapped up Tongtong’s head in protective material and allowed him to repeatedly fall on the ground. This way, He allowed Tongtong to hurt himself, but not harm himself. Also, because Tongtong was afraid of heights, He suspended him from a tree a meter off the ground as part of his therapy. After screaming for three minutes, Tongtong was let down. A month later, Tongtong’s behavior changed.
  3. Six year-old Feifei was prone to running into walls. If there was no one to prevent him from doing so, Feifei continues to run into walls until he was bloody. He treated this case by provoking the child to run into a wall in the presence of a parent. He then took the child’s head, and rammed it into the wall with the parent watching. Next, He asked for the parent to comply, but they refused, causing the parent to further cry in front of the child. After two months, Feifei’s behavior changed.
  4. Six year-old Liangliang loved playing with water to the extent that he would get his entire body wet. He took Liangliang to a pool where he immediately jumped in. As part of his therapy, He took Liangliang by the head, went to the deepest part of the water, and held his nose and mouth underwater for an extended period of time, twice. Later, if Liangliang was seen playing with water at the kindergarten, he was pelted with water from head to toe. A year later, Liangliang changed his ways.
  5. Five year-old Shuaishuai was prone to throwing things around. At first, striking Shuaishuai’s hand with a chopstick proved to be useless. Then, He devised a treatment: Shuaishuai was given a ball and allowed to to throw around. Later, when Shuaishuai reached out for the ball, He hit his hand. Shuaishuai then changed his behavior so that he only threw objects when no one was watching. At this point, He would hide and jump out whenever Shuaihshuai was about to throw anything. Six months later, Shuaishuai stopped throwing things altogether

This is nothing less than child torture. Look at how long each case went on before there was a “cure, periods of time ranging from a month to a year. For example, it took six months of He biting Xiaoxiao after provoking her to bite. It took a month of Tongtong hitting her head on the floor whenever he was angry before he stopped. Perhaps the most disturbing case of all is that of six year old Liangliang, whose only “crime” (or behavior problem) was that he loved to play with water. So what did this quack do with this poor child? He held his face underwater twice and, if he was seen playing with water, pelted him with hit head to toe. It took a year for the child to “change his ways.”

On second thought, the story of six year old Feifei is even worse. Think about it. To stop him from running into walls until he got bloody, He provoked the poor kid into running into the wall and then rammed his head into the wall with the parent watching. Apparently he did it so hard that the parent cried, and apparently he did this for two months before the child stopped running into the wall.

This quack, He Xiaoyan, is described in the story as having graduated from someplace called Serious Medical Clinical Pediatrics, whatever that means, wherever that came from, and her chamber of horrors is the Leyi Amalgamated Kindergarten in Geleshan County. The original source I encountered refrenced an original news story in Chinese describing these “treatments” further. Although obviously I can’t read Chinese, Google Translate does a good enough job to let one get the gist of the story, with even more disturbing examples. For instance, there is a mention of a boy being outside in 40° C (104° F) and hung from a tree by the waste until his crying persuaded the teachers to let him down. Why was this done? The boy was afraid of heights.

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There are other examples, including a photo of a woman yelling at autistic children and of staff force-feeding a child.

Basically what’s going on here is “aversion therapy,” in which a therapist tries to decrease the frequency of a behavior by making that behavior unpleasant. It’s a dubious sort of treatment that has little rigorous scientific evidence to support it but has nonetheless been used for drug addiction, bad habits, smoking, and various other purposes. Not only is it not strongly evidence-based, but it’s considered unethical to use on children, even more so on children with developmental disorders like autism. Indeed, as has been noted, parents and other advocates for the developmentally disabled have been particularly vocal in their condemnation of behavior therapy that uses aversive procedures in general—and with good reason.

Apparently what’s going on at this Chinese clinic is just that. Moreover, even if one accepts the claims of He Xiaoyan, it doesn’t work. In the Chinese language article she stated that she has treated 960 children, “some of whom” are autistic, and “cured” 10 of them, whatever that means. Not a very good track record for such a nasty therapy, and it’s not evidence of “curing” autism given that it’s not even mentioned how many children in the school are autistic, how many have other developmental disorders, or how many just have behavioral issues. Whatever the case, it’s sad to see quackery such as this, no matter where it is.