ABA and Neurotypical Bias6 min read

I want to stop crit­i­cizing ABA and behav­iorism from super­fi­cial inter­pre­ta­tions of its tech­nique, which I accept I have done before. I accept that I still don’t under­stand them in depth at the tech­nical level.

So, what I will write about are the doubts and com­ments that, regard­less of the tech­nique, the method­ology, or its crit­i­cized objec­tives, still pre­vent me from accepting that it is a rec­om­mended inter­ven­tion for autistic people.

I simply write from my feel­ings, and I am open to being shown that my feel­ings are wrong, as I would live more peace­fully knowing that autistic people are being sup­ported by a safe, reli­able, and non-abusive therapy.

I know that today there are ABA ther­a­pists who do not seek to make autistic people “indis­tin­guish­able from peers” or that arbi­trarily extin­guish nat­ural autistic behav­iors. I also know that there are others who con­tinue to do so, they brag about so in autism groups for par­ents, even though other col­leagues say that, “That was before, and the sci­ence of ABA has come a long way since then.”

Moreover, recent studies on ABA do not allow me to believe those state­ments, as they con­tinue to con­sider “prob­lem­atic behavior,” for example, non-harmful stim­ming, and they mea­sure their effec­tive­ness on behavior extinc­tion:

Image taken from autistic advo­cate Ann Memmot’s review of this study:

Yeah? Has it changed?

In addi­tion to that 2019 study…

  • I know of dozens of recent cases of autistic people who have been harmed. The mothers of some of these chil­dren are autistic and are my friends.
  • This week a mother uploaded a video of the ABA therapy her daughter was receiving in which she was told “quiet hands” sev­eral times in the 30-second clip.
  • I read out-of-date researcher and experts, or are they up to date? Who put the sup­posed “human nature” and the (behav­iorist) “way we learn” before the autistic expe­ri­ence?
  • There are many ABA ther­a­pists who believe that we are our behav­iors and/or that there is no such thing as an autistic neu­rotype.
  • The lan­guage about autism from ABA providers, which is undoubt­edly patho­log­ical, is often loaded with hate towards autistic people. They even speak of “recovery from autism.”

They insist #NotAllABA and that a lot of progress has been made. And in some ABA ther­a­pists, at least, I read that they apply it in them­selves or their groups, and I have read that others some­what take sen­sory sen­si­tiv­i­ties into account.

But, with all that I read, par­tic­u­larly from those who aim to DEFEND ABA more than from those who crit­i­cize it, how can I not say any­thing? How can I shut up?

If I see abuse and antipathy towards autistic people and delib­erate igno­rance and silencing towards what autistic people explain about our own autism, how am I going to look the other way?

I can’t.

I think there’s an almost-insurmountable bias. A vast majority of ABA ther­a­pists and family advo­cates are not under­standing the autistic per­spec­tive. What cri­teria are you going to use to decide to change a behavior if you don’t take into account what the autistic person may be feeling or expe­ri­encing inside?

It’s like the old phrase prob­ably wrongly attrib­uted to Nietzsche about those who judge people who dance as insane because they couldn’t hear the music. An ABA ther­a­pist would surely focus on extin­guishing the dance in the same way that so many today seek to extin­guish hand flap­ping.

I am con­cerned about ABA ther­a­pists who don’t make them­selves respon­sible for the abuses that can and do occur. They say, “There is no abuse, because we don’t do any­thing without the client’s con­sent.”

This is dan­gerous because clients tend to be fam­i­lies with little or no edu­ca­tion about being autistic, not the autistic indi­vidual. This is also very often false. Several times this month I’ve read mothers say, “I had to ask the ABA team not to force my son to look into their eyes,” “I had to ask the ABA team not to insist on going on the activity if my child shows signs of dis­tress.”

And if those who apply ABA don’t under­stand, or choose not to under­stand, the autistic expe­ri­ence, they’re not going to reject fam­i­lies asking to arbi­trarily extin­guish autistic behav­iors. A sample of this is what hap­pens in cen­ters like the JRC, which also shows that today they don’t limit their prac­tice to pos­i­tive rein­force­ments, as some of them claim.

Therapists and family mem­bers have told me, “But there are autistic people who appre­ciate having received ABA.” One of them told me that we don’t know many cases because they aren’t resentful like “other autistic people” (refer­ring to me!), and “that’s why” they’re not on social net­works.

It’s weird, isn’t it? I’m in dozens of groups of tens of thou­sands of autistic people, dif­ferent groups, with dif­ferent ori­en­ta­tions, in dif­ferent coun­tries and dif­ferent lan­guages, and I’ve found about five autistic people who appre­ciate ABA and hun­dreds who resent having received it.

In those autistic people who appre­ciate ABA, I read inter­nal­ized ableism, they hate being autistic, they struggle to hide their autistic traits, and suffer for not achieving neu­rotyp­ical norms.

In addi­tion, that a person who received an inter­ven­tion rec­om­mends it isn’t proof that it is a healthy inter­ven­tion or atti­tude. Millions of people are grateful that their par­ents beat them with a belt them to “edu­cate” them, and that is not proof that beating with a belt is a healthy way to “edu­cate.” It’s not.

Another crit­i­cism we get is that those of us who crit­i­cize ABA don’t have a dia­logic or con­cil­ia­tory atti­tude. I con­sider this tone policing.

In the anti-ABA move­ment there is a lot of pain. You’re not anti-ABA just because. Nor, as a mother told me, because “Aspies (which I am not, not even in my pro­fes­sional diag­nosis) have been manip­u­lated by ven­dors of mir­acle cures or alter­na­tive ther­a­pies to oppose ABA and thereby facil­i­tate the sale of their prod­ucts.”

On the other hand, it is many times because non-speaking autistic people with high sup­port needs have told us about their expe­ri­ences on ABA, so it is also a lie that we are anti-ABA because we do not take into account autistic people with greater sup­port needs. It’s exactly the oppo­site.

There are rea­sons not to be dia­loguers in par­tic­ular in dehu­man­izing sit­u­a­tions, such as when a rec­og­nized ther­a­pist and “devout mother of a person with autism” says that going to chicken training makes her a better “ther­a­pist” to someone who does not have lan­guage.

In the his­tory of autism and ABA, autistic people have been dehu­man­ized in so many ways. Attitudes like the ones we read and live every day don’t allow us to believe that things have changed much in the last few decades.

Among those who defend ABA, very few have acknowl­edged the harm done, and the eth­ical codes of ABA do not clearly or explic­itly pre­vent them from con­tin­uing doing harm. And yet it is activists who are asked to keep quiet so as not to harm “good ther­a­pists,” and SUPPOSEDLY people who would stop receiving that inter­ven­tion and instead would receive ther­a­pies whose effec­tive­ness is not “proven,” per­haps because it is mea­sured by cri­teria other than behavior?

Well, I can’t help but ask for cau­tion regarding ABA. I have no evi­dence that it is an inter­ven­tion that allows autistic people to grow up under­standing how their autistic body-mind works in order to develop in THEIR own best way.

Originally pub­lished in Spanish at Aprenderaquereme.

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