As an allistic parent, I am always careful about writing for, or speaking about the autistic and disabled communities. I believe that they should use their own voice and be given a safe space to express themselves. It will look different; maybe a bit odd, or a bit messy, or too emotional or not emotional enough. It will cause people to stare, to point, to whisper, to look away or to ogle.
So I am not going to write about ABA therapy that many autistic and disabled adults describe as harmful.
I am writing this because I hate when neurodivergent or disabled people are silenced, over-looked and taken advantage of. That is exactly what happens with ABA therapy. It teaches kids to quietly sit and collect “tokens” or rewards for “good behavior.” The goal is to have you to blend in, to be compliant, to not complain. It is such bullshit! In all other “underrepresented populations” we cheer when they break barriers, stand up for themselves and make some noise. We celebrate “girl power” and cheer for “equal rights” advocates; but if you are autistic then you learn to have “quiet hands” and “quiet voices.” If you express yourself as an autistic child then you are put on a behavior plan at school and have to earn your way back into an “inclusion environment.”
It’s totally wrong but also so very convenient for society. The quiet and compliant child becomes a quiet and compliant adult. That adult will not complain when they are prevented from driving, from working (for real wages), from saving money, and most importantly from voting.
Ever wonder why the neurodivergent and disabled population are unemployed, under-employed, abused and often incarcerated? Could it be that for years we have been teaching them to be quiet, sit down, and collect their tokens?
We start charities that promote funding for ABA, applaud VC investment in ABA therapies, and vote for governments and schools districts that pass laws/budgets mandating ABA therapies. The community at large believes we are helping.
What we as a community forget to do, is to give a platform to disabled people: the loud, the awkward and the messy ones.
We often forget to give them a seat at the table.
I am writing not only in support for this article, “The Mismeasure of Misha“, but also asking that you spotlight the neurodivergent and disabled community in this conversation. Please consider publishing some of their comments, and follow up articles that focus on their experience both inside and outside the ABA therapy rooms. The ultimate dream would be to partner with them to write those articles and exposés. People like my son and his friends. They have value, they have a voice, and they don’t want to sit down, be quiet and collect their tokens.
But even more compelling is the testimony of young people who understand the reality of this approach better than anyone because they’ve been on the receiving end of it. It is nothing short of stunning to learn just how widely and intensely ABA is loathed by autistic adults who are able to describe their experience with it. Frankly, I’m embarrassed that, until about a year ago, I was completely unaware of all the websites, articles, scholarly essays, blog posts, Facebook pages, and Twitter groups featuring the voices of autistic men and women, all overwhelmingly critical of ABA and eloquent in describing the trauma that is its primary legacy.
How is it possible that their voices have not transformed the entire discussion? Suppose you participated in implementing a widely used strategy for dealing with homelessness, only to learn that the most outspoken critics of that intervention were homeless people. Would that not stop you in your tracks? What would it say about you if it didn’t? And yet the consistent, emphatic objections of autistic people don’t seem to trouble ABA practitioners at all. Indeed, one critical analysis of ethics in this field notes that “autistics have been excluded from all committees, panels, boards, etc., charged with developing, directing, and assessing ABA research and treatment programs.”
“Once we have arranged the particular type of consequence called a reinforcement,“ Skinner wrote in ”The Science of Learning and the Art of Teaching“ (1954), ”our techniques permit us to shape the behavior of an organism almost at will. It has become a routine exercise to demonstrate this in classes in elementary psychology by conditioning such an organism as a pigeon.”
“…Such an organism as a pigeon.” We often speak of “lab rats” as shorthand for the animals used in scientific experiments. We use the phrase too to describe people who work in labs, who are completely absorbed in performing their tasks again and again and again.
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