The Wool Hat Story – ABA Torture of Autistic Child

TRIGGER WARNING: Mention of ABA and child abuse

A young boy crying while sitting outside on a lawn. Text reads, "The Wool Hat Story - A Firsthand Account of ABA Abuse On An Autistic Child".

Greg Santucci is an Occupational Therapist based out of New Jersey, and he recently re-shared a post he’d written on Facebook about a disturbing incident he experienced when on the job as an OT.

I contacted him to ask if it would be OK if I shared this story, and he quickly agreed. Be warned, this isn’t an easy read, but it does give you some insight on just how ABA “therapy” can do serious psychological damage to autistic children.

The Wool Hat Story By Greg Santucci – Occupational Therapist 

With over 5,000 new friends this month and a huge milestone of surpassing 12,000 followers in just 7 months, I wanted to share (and re-share for some) my story that was the WORST day of my career, yet inspired me to speak up and fight for those who can’t speak up for themselves.

This story has been posted before, and the overwhelming response was the very reason I started this page.

Trigger Warning: ABA, abuse and a wool hat

I was working as an Occupational Therapist in a school for Autistic children during their summer program. It was a Verbal Behavior program, which has principles deeply rooted in Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA). The entire educational team, from teachers to paraprofessionals, were trained in Verbal Behavior principles and techniques.

I was a few minutes late to my session because a little boy I was working with had difficulty transitioning back to class that day. When I went to pick up my next friend for OT, his classroom was empty. They had gone outside to the playground! Awesome! The little boy I was about to play with is a sweet little boy with giant brown eyes and very little language.

Sensing that I would have a very difficult time transitioning him back inside after only being on the playground for a few minutes, I was fine with having the OT session outside. OTs are really flexible like that. There are wonderful opportunities to work on motor skills, social skills, strength, coordination and motor planning during recess. Plus, I was late to the session. That was MY fault, The solution was to stay outside, where everybody wins.

The teacher had other plans.

Upon seeing me, the teacher told the student “It’s time for OT”. She wanted him to go inside, and proceeded to try and lure him off the playground equipment. As predicted, he wasn’t having it, and I proceeded to explain to her that I’m fine with working outside today.

The teacher explained that because she placed the demand, he had to go inside now. She went to retrieve the child. In a million years, I could’ve never guessed what was about to happen.

As the teacher tried to bring the child off of the playground equipment, he resisted (obviously). The situation escalated. The teacher and paraprofessional tried to physically bring him inside, against my objections, and the child dropped to the ground in protest. As they tried to pick him up, he started kicking them. That behavior, which they deemed “aggressive”, made the teacher implement the child’s behavior plan, which was designed by a Board Certified Behavior Analyst (BCBA) and agreed to by the educational team.

The behavior plan stated that when the child becomes aggressive, a “visual screen” is to be used. The visual screen should be used until the student calms down and stops being aggressive, and then the teacher should continue with the demand.

The visual screen was a wool hat.

According to the behavior plan designed by the BCBA, the teacher was to cover the child’s face with a wool hat, blocking his vision, until he stops being aggressive. 

The teacher asked her coworkers “should I get the hat?”. I had no idea what she meant. 

I’ve since learned that they used this “technique” all the time. In fact, the staff called it “the hat trick”, some even carrying hats around in their back pocket.

The teacher didn’t cover his face, though. Instead, she stood over him and taunted him with it. “DO YOU WANT THE HAT?” “DO YOU WANT THE HAT?” I can still hear her taunting him.

The little boy, with very little language, was screaming:


“THEN GO INSIDE FOR OT”, she said.

They broke him.

Wiping his face and trying to catch his breath, he stood up went inside.

He just wanted to play.

Black and white photo of a swing set and playscape looking creepy and lonely.

I was sick.

My co-worker saw my face and asked what happened. “It looks like you just saw a ghost,” she said. I had no words. I just stayed with my buddy and helped him calm down. 

After our time was over, I left work and called the state’s institutional abuse hotline. The state came in and investigated.

I was fired 48 hours later for insubordination. 

The administration defended the technique and the behavior plan. To them, I was the problem.

Imagine being upset, unable to speak, and having your vision taken away, with the only way to make it stop being for you comply with the demands of the adults hurting you. Imagine being that helpless. Multiple BCBAs, and multiple administrators, said this was fine.

Compliance can NEVER take the place of humanity.

Behavioral challenges shouldn’t be met with torture, ridicule, and punishment. Learn how to understand your child’s (or student’s) behavior and treat them as a whole person and with compassion.

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8 Responses

  1. Sandia says:

    Heartbreaking to read and think if this were my 4 yr old.

    • jaimeaheidel says:

      It is horrible to read. I can’t understand how people who chose to go into a profession where compassion is mandatory that they could treat their students like this.

  2. Anonymous says:

    Just another typical teacher in my past experiences. I have worse stories I lived through at the hands of “teachers”.

  3. Archer says:

    I never had anything like this happen to me, but ABA has given me PTSD and almost daily panic attacks that have led to hospitalizations that were also traumatic. I know for sure that ABA is cruel and can turn abusive so quickly…thank you for putting this story out there, the world needs to hear these awful truths.

  1. March 5, 2021

    […] with one of my posts on Instagram recently and shared a sobering story about their experience with ABA abuse. I asked them privately if I could use their story if I would keep them anonymous. They readily […]

  2. April 12, 2021

    […] The Wool Hat Story – ABA Torture of Autistic Child […]

  3. November 12, 2021

    […] Gregg Santucci, an occupational therapist from New Jersey shares a story about his disturbing experience while working with an autistic child in a school setting. The school’s BCBA team designed and approved a method that consisted of using a “visual screen” to make the student calm down and prevent aggressive behavior. The teacher would cover the student’s face with a wool hat until the undesired behavior stopped. The boy was upset and scared, but since he was non-verbal, he was unable to communicate his fears. The only way to escape the situation was to comply with the teacher’s demands.  […]

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