ABA and Neurotypical Bias

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  • I read out-of-date researcher and experts, or are they up to date?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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