Conversations about having more nuance when talking about ABA have been opening up in our community, and it’s been a heavy few weeks for people who wanted to have those conversations.
It’s been heavy for people who don’t want to have those conversations, too.
Some Autistic advocates are calling for a conversation about ABA and the zero-sum way it is discussed as always being abuse– especially as it relates to parents being accused of abusing children for choosing ABA.
Few topics in our community are more emotionally charged than ABA, an intervention therapy that is aggressively recommended to autistic children as many as 40 hours per week for children as young as 1 year of age.
The discussions happening in the Autistic community are not just about ABA, though.
Some Autistic People Are Weavers
These discussions are about ABA, but they’re not about ABA. They’re not about anything, and they are about everything.
The conversation is a Weaver discussion that Concluders saw as being about ABA. The conflict was not really about whether or not ABA was abuse— as everyone who weighed in on the topic mostly agreed that ABA is, in fact, harmful.
In fact, pretty much everyone in the emotionally-charged discussions agreed on just about everything.
But that isn’t being recognized, and this is a conflict that happens in nearly every important discussion, especially in the Autistic community.
Almost every unintentional conflict I’ve ever experienced — in the autistic community or in the broader world— has been because I was a Weaver having conversations with Concluders I actually agreed with. I just didn’t Conclude. I’ll get to what that means shortly.
In light of the ABA discussion and the conflict in the comments and broader community, we now have a framework to analyze the communication breakdown, hopefully to the end of a more equitable and inclusive dialogue.
A Weaver and Concluder Communication Crash Course
If you’re not familiar with Weaver and Concluder communication yet, I’ll summarize— to the best of my Weaver capacity.
Most people are Concluders. This means they communicate to make a point. There is an end goal to the communication, whether it be to educate, persuade, or entertain. There’s a beginning, middle, and end; or, there’s a thesis or main point, supporting evidence, and a conclusion.
A Concluder discussion can be blunt and direct, with no nuance. A Concluder may take the shortest route available to make a point.
Or, it can have some jokes, rhetorical devices, metaphors, or analogies. This is the person who makes a point, but with some flourish.
And lastly, some Concluder conversations are effusive, with lots of detours, sidebars, and scenic bypasses.
In light of the recent discussions on ABA, the first type of Concluder would set up their discussion like this:
ABA is abuse.-concluder type A
That’s it. Just direct and to the point.
The second might set up their discussion like this:
-ABA teaches compliance
-story about a child traumatized by ABA
-link to an article on ABA
-discussion of gay conversion therapy and how it has the same origins as ABAThe point, whether implied or directly stated, is, “ABA is abuse.”
The last type may set up their discussion like this:
-A look at how capitalism leads to systemic dehumanization
-a study on the neuroscience of complex trauma
-a story as an analogy about fundamentalist religion and the harms of long-term conditioning
-a sidebar about overstimulation and not having the words
-an implied or directly stated point that ABA is abusive-concluder type 3
Weaver Communication is different. Very.
A weaver’s communication is more like this:
A weaver does not communicate to arrive at a destination. They don’t make a point, but rather make many points that are all attempts at covering as much ground on a topic as possible without coercing the conversational partner to respond with any “appropriate” reply.
They’re looking to weave a tapestry with their conversation partner(s).
Being a Weaver goes beyond communication
Weavers aren’t just people who don’t exactly communicate to make a point, but their communication differences are a reflection of how they process, learn, aggregate, communicate, and store information.
Weavers see information as relative to its interconnectedness to all things. Something can be true or false, or sometimes true and sometimes false, or shades of both.
In the ABA discussion, or any discussion, a Weaver does NOT want to say, “ABA is abuse,” or any [insert noun] is [insert adjective] type of response.
Weavers do not tend to like absolutes or value judgements. A value judgement can be direct or implied, with words or with body language and tone. Value judgements are when something is stated or implied as being positive or negative, good or bad. Value judgements are Conclusions.
Weavers like to explore the whole issue from every angle, in full dimension, turning over every proverbial stone. They rarely reach a concrete Conclusion. In fact, reaching Conclusions or stating them at all goes against their wiring. Instead, Weavers look to always expand their knowledge and context.
Weavers are not looking to agree or disagree with conversation partners. They’re not looking for a diagnostician or mechanic who can name a problem and a fix for it. They’re looking for an explorer who can deep-dive through all the possible angles and layers, then expand the patterns and fill the holes in the tapestry of their perspective.
So when a Weaver throws something out there, into the world, they’re looking for others to process with them so their tapestry has more colors and intersections, the patterns are more complex, and the end result is that both/all participants in the discussion come out of it with a more detailed, intersectional perspective.
To say, “ABA is abuse,” to a Weaver is to paint a multidimensional topic with one color on a flat sheet of paper. That is simply not how Weavers perceive, communication, or relate to information.
As a Weaver, I get in trouble, a lot, in communication with Concluders. It is almost impossible for me to force myself to agree to any Conclusion. Every nerve cell in my body revolts. I feel dishonest. If my knowledge on the topic is extra deep, I start giving caveats because the truth is actually very complex. If my knowledge is low, I’m uncomfortable taking a position because I need more information.
It is even hard for me to say something as basic as, “Killing someone is wrong.” Sure, almost every time, killing someone is wrong. But I can come up with scenarios where killing someone is the moral high ground (like stopping someone at the beginning of a school shooting).
In a world full of Concluders, not communicating a value judgement explicitly will get a Weaver in trouble. If a Weaver doesn’t demonstrate which side of an issue they stand on, Concluders will assume they’re implying they are on opposite sides or are morally flaky.
Weavers don’t see sides. They see patterns.
If you still would like more explanation, here’s an expanded exploration:
ABA and Weaver Nuance… but first, Giraffes!
There’s an TikToker, dreadfulrebel4x, who recently published a video that demonstrates perfectly Weaver and Concluder conversation.
Here it is:
Autistic people can be Weavers or Concluders.
In this video, Ave on Tiktok waits two hours while Concluders chat about topics that are more the kinds of things non-autistic people tend to talk about: local gossip, celebrity gossip, “Where’d you end up going for dinner?,” and finally, someone mentions taking a date to the zoo because she loves giraffes…
That’s when Ave sees a place to finally jump in and contribute. He goes on for five minutes talking about giraffes before he’s interrupted with a scornful, “Don’t you ever stop talking? Ever?!”
This rejection would be relatable for all autistic people whether they’re a Concluder or a Weaver because it demonstrates an epic infodump (when an autistic person gets a chance to talk about a topic of specialized interest they’re passionate about).
But a Weaver is double-wincing because even though it was all about giraffes on the surface, it wasn’t really about giraffes. Giraffes were a context to connect to something more important.
“Evolution is not intelligent design.”
Concluders usually assume everyone is a Concluder because society never talks about or explores communication or perceptive differences. This ableist erasure causes unnecessary problems for all Weavers.
Since Weavers are the minority, their communication is regarded as simply having poor social skills.
To a Concluder, Ave stated facts. They assume he ended the conversation. They will read the communication as a bunch of conclusions about things no one else in the discussion was likely to care about– disconnected facts about science and animal biology.
I like big buts, and I cannot lie.
BUT… another Weaver would have been thrilled and delighted with this conversation, even if they had no pre-existing knowledge about giraffes.
Because what Ave did was open the floor to a deep dive based on whatever context the conversation partner wanted to bring.
Ave ended with a look at how evolution is not intelligent design. It’s messy and has to work with the systems in place.
Another Weaver would know what to do with that communication. They would have tied it to one of their own passions or something that was currently on their mind.
If they have a passion for trains, they might talk about how the evolution of the railroad was messy and had to be designed around the existing infrastructure — which was imperfect– because it would be too expensive and time-consuming to start over and re-design every track and train station in existence.
If they’ve been dealing with the pain and expensive of dental work, they might talk about how about how almost every human has wisdom teeth that get impacted and abcessed and need to be surgically removed, an example of how evolution is not always “intelligent.”
A Weaver may think about the evolution of an embarrassing tattoo from their college years that has to either be lasered off or covered by another tattoo. One can not simply just wash off that big NO FEAR tattoo in Old English font across their upper back.
They cannot just color on top of a black tattoo. They are going to need a new design that can incorporate the messy and ill-advised history on their skin.
A Weaver might talk about the evolution— and resultant hiccups and imperfect operations— of literally anything they love or have on their minds.
This little speech about giraffes opened my Weaver mind and gave me context to talk about what has been heavily on my mind.
The community conversation about ABA, and more broadly, the unintentionally ableist way most contested issues in the community shut out Weaver communication to the detriment of our forward momentum.
Not acknowledging these communication differences is causing ongoing and unnecessary conflict and is unfairly villainizing some of the most hard-working advocates in our community.
“Evolution doesn’t have the benefit of restarting and rewiring.”
Evolution is not a reset button. It’s a long and slow process with no option for restarting.
What that illustration about evolution did was give me a way to contextualize the discussions Autistic advocates— especially Black Autistic advocates, and even more-so Black Autistic advocates who are parents— were trying to have with the community.
They were trying to weave a tapestry as a way to build community.
If the starting point is a value judgement– like ABA is abuse– then it will be easy for a Concluder to accept.
A Weaver’s gotta Weave, though.
But in a Concluder’s world, a Weaver is surrounded by pre-made tapestries. They have no option but to make a value judgement, even though that registers as immoral to them. If a Weaver decides to explore beyond the Conclusion they’re expected to take, there going to be misunderstood as disagreeing.
Both agreements and disagreements are Conclusions.
Weaving has to happen sometimes.
Many pre-existing tapestries are out there, created by people with incomplete perspectives and the privilege to speak from inherent authority as the default: as a man, as a white person, as a person with professional privilege, as a person from the US/UK/Canada, etc.
In the above graphic, the Concluders are smiling at each other because they both agree on the pre-existing fabric. They didn’t make it themselves, and they wouldn’t know how. This is easy for them and works for them. They’re happy with what exists.
They don’t have to make it themselves. They just need to agree that it’s “right.” Their communication is purposeful, letting the other person know they’re happy they both agree.
The Weavers aren’t looking at each other. They’re looking at the work they’re doing together, seeing what patterns emerge.
They know that what is on the market might work for most people, but not everyone. Some bodies don’t fit well– or at all– in department store clothes. Some people cannot walk into a department store and find clothes that match their sensory needs or reflect their culture and sense of style.
Being different from the majority shouldn’t mean that those people should just be happy that something exists, even if it’s a bad fit or the wrong material or out of budget. People equally deserve access to choice, to be able to do things and have things for beauty or style or culture.
Without the Weavers, only the majority gets what they need or desire.
When agreeing matters more than exploring, then the only people who get their needs met will be the majority.
Concluders are looking for the conclusion in these discussions, which can only be either, “ABA is bad,” (or some variation of it) or “ABA is good,” or even, “ABA is bad but is sometimes the lesser of two evils.”
Those are absolutes and value judgements. They are destinations that are not open for Weavers to be able to contribute. Value judgements set the tone for agreement or disagreement on standards.
Standards fit the norm, not the outliers.
A value judgement forces a Weaver wanting to extend a tapestry into ending a conversation they have never been invited to contribute to or express themselves in. They never get to explore or weigh in, to explain why the pre-existing tapestries do or do not work for them, or were never designed with their needs in mind to begin with.
Ideological Purity Is a Privilege
Saying “ABA is abuse” is almost always accurate. But #YesAllABA is an absolute that is borne from a position of ideological purity.
Ideological purity is a total dedication to ideals. It’s noble, but it’s impractical and often results in villainizing people without the privilege to meet the unyielding standards of ideological purity.
Environmentalists with ideological purity often villainize the poor for their use of disposable convenience items or the disabled for their use of disposable straws.
Attachment parenting groups villainize parents for feeding children processed foods, for not breastfeeding, for screen time, and other issues unrelated to attachment parenting. This disproportionately impacts poor parents and parents of children who are disabled and have different needs.
Saying “restraint is abuse” is usually true, but it is sometimes necessary. As a mother, I’ve had to chase my child who got startled by kids at playgrounds, sirens, or motorcycle and took off running in the direction of a busy road or a steep cliff. Those chases ended in restraint.
Many parents of autistic children will have similar stories. They’re traumatic for both the child and the parent.
I don’t condone restraint and regularly advocate against it. I advocate against dangerous restraints and express that restraint is almost always unnecessary. A close friend’s autistic son was killed by restraint, and this is deep to my heart. I do a lot of work in this field because I take it seriously.
I then go into great detail to explain when restraint is okay by figuring out the toughest scenarios and what works best. I think about what’s important.
- How do policies and laws help in some circumstances but cause harm in others?
- What reduces the chance of restraints needing to be used?
- What deescalation trainings are the most effective at reducing restraints?
- What environmental factors can we change to reduce the need for restraint?
- What types of restraints are safest?
- What circumstances make restraint necessary?
Ideological purity can get someone killed or severely injured. It can cause lifelong PTSD.
But the people who take the absolute position, those who demand an all-or-nothing, have not thought about the consequences. They would prefer to isolate people digging deeper as “moderates” so they don’t have to sit with the discomfort that they cannot have a perfect solution right now.
I know of several instances wherein restraint of any kind by staff was prohibited or could only be done by a trained professional. A trained professional is not always available. There have been many times wherein a child did run into traffic, or gave themselves traumatic brain injury, because staff weren’t allowed to restrain for any reason.
We all want an end to restraint, but it’s not going to happen as an absolute, especially if we can’t have nuanced discussions about restraint. We all want the same thing, but getting there will take community and people doing work together.
Until we have more intersectional tapestries, we assume an authority we didn’t earn based on our inherent “rightness” (which is often whiteness or neurotypicality).
On the other hand, it frequently happens that when very strict rules about when restraint is allowed are in place, teachers and staff frequently escalate kids to the point of aggressive outbursts or meltdowns so they can use restraint or call a school resource officer or behavior specialist to get them out of the room.
If your child has communication barriers or is nonspeaking, then those are fears that are very real for you every day. Most parents never have to think of any of that until their child gets handcuffed and dragged out of school in a meltdown in front of everyone, or they have to have surgery to repair a fractured skull or detached retina from self harm.
I’m only beginning to graze the surface of restraint nuance.
And most parents have no idea that restraint happens in schools or every think about. They can trust that the school will keep their kids safe. So taking a position of #YesAllRestraint is a privilege afforded to non-parents and parents of kids who are unlikely to ever be restrained.
They don’t need to worry their child will be killed at school or severely traumatized and abused, and they don’t want to think about how their demands for purity can lead to catastrophic consequences for those with more skin in the game.
“Evolution has to work with what’s available.”
Ave had it so right. Replacing the entire infrastructure is not in the cards for evolution. It’s slow and messy and takes the path it can given the pre-existing circumstances.
Getting safe water in Flint, Michigan took years. And years. And years. It took almost half a billion dollars.
The infrastructure was terrible. Tearing it all out and rebuilding it would have taken longer, cost much more, and caused even more disruption and loss of safety to the 100,000 (approx.) residents impacted by the water crisis.
Looking at the systems in place— both the structural racism and the technical infrastructure of the water supply— requires a Weaver exploration. But Weavers are the first to be ejected and rejected from most communication.
ABA Is as Ubiquitous as Contaminated Water in the United States
ABA, or behaviorism as a philosophy, has become the norm in the United States. It’s everywhere. It’s in all aspects of public schools, political campaigns, advertisements, casinos, sports, traffic flow engineering, building design, etc.
Behaviorism is anywhere that a client wants to benefit from modifying the behavior of someone or a group of people.
It’s abusive to rig slot machines to have intermittent reinforcement on a schedule that increases the odds of gambling addiction, but behaviorism is a science of results, not an exploration of morality.
It’s not abusive if someone uses behaviorism to modify environments to make them more inclusive. If a behaviorist observes that a child is failing two classes that are normally areas of strength for a child, they may do an analysis and determine those two rooms have very dim lighting compared to other classes. If the behaviorist then recommends the rooms get better lighting, that’s not abuse.
If we unilaterally say behaviorism is abuse, that means parents are abusing kids by sending them to public schools, especially those with a high population of kids deemed “at risk.” That’s a Target market of the behavior industry.
Ideological purity assumes the moral authority from a position of privilege. “Either homeschool, or have hundreds of dollars per month to send your child to private school. If you’re not wealthy, if your child can’t meet the entrance or behavioral criteria of private schools, and if you have to work and can’t stay home with your child every day, you’re an abuser.”
Saying ABA is abuse is true. Often. Other institutions are abusive, too, like the patriarchy, white supremacy, colonialism, late stage capitalism, extremist religion, toxic masculinity, queerphobia, and all other forms of Social Darwinism.
The people most impacted by the harms of these systems are not at fault. Ideological purity places the moral onus on those most marginalized to deal with the choiceless existence of being oppressed.
Ideological purity requires marginalized peopl to solve impossible circumstances with the least access to resources and the most oppression.
It’s a privilege to make an absolute statement.
We don’t make absolute statements when our children’s or our own safety is at risk because we can’t afford that privilege.
In other countries, ABA is merely beginning to shove an aggressive toe in the door. Conversations about ABA have to take into account that approaches in advocacy need to differ according every country’s and region’s laws, norms, and cultural intersections.
Weavers Communication Leads to Progress
People get angry at Weavers because Weavers encourage people to expand their tapestries beyond ideological supremacy.
Ideological purity prevents evolution by demanding perfection that is impossible in existing structures.
Refusing to acknowledge that reality is bullying, victim blaming, and regressive.
I’ve not seen one advocate in this discussion asking people to embrace or love ABA. I’ve not seen one advocate asking people to be okay with the status quo. They’re merely asking to be a voice in the narrative, to be seen, heard, considered, and valued.
They are courageously asking the community to inspect how ideological purity and Concluder communication may work in many instances, even in most instances, but may cause undue harm for those most pushed into the margins.
They are claiming the right to be heard, and that is all. Not to form Conclusion, but to Weave.
Weaving is not an inferior form of perception and communication. It’s not moral flakiness. It’s necessary to ensure that all angles are considered and no one’s needs, lives, truths, or barriers are invisible, unseen, unsupported, and disrespected.
They’re advocating for a broader and healthier approach to tackling oppression– especially the ooppression in autism services.
They’re asking people to see beyond the impractical– even impossible– purity of their absolutism so that we can, as a community, work towards that imperfect evolution that moves the bar from “surviving” to something closer to “thriving.”
For some people, the journey to thriving is painful, messy, inopportune, and even impossible given the current circumstances and resources available to them. Maintaining that they only need to be more concrete in their morals could get them killed.
That’s not moral superiority. It’s supremacy.
A Toxic Culture of Impossible Purity
Purity narratives are nothing more than respectability politics and fairy tales. They encourage a complete abandonment of the messiness of reality and punish people for not maintaining that illusion.
It’s easy to put oneself on a pedestal of purity, creating a power differential between the most aggressively pure and the people who can’t abide unrealistic and arbitrary behavior standards that don’t work for them.
The whole truth is that ideological purity is popular because it rewards people for rigid and inflexible, willful ignorance. It gives whole groups an excuse to erase anyone who might shatter the comfort of their illusions.
Those who can’t abide the impossible standards of absolute purity are accused of “both sideism.” That’s a Conclusion based on the supremacist logic of binaries, as if there are only two sides.
There are as many versions of the truth as there are people in the world.
Black, Brown, and Nonspeaking Autistics, and Autistics from underrepresented populations need to be centered as we Weave our way into a healthier Autistic community.
No one needs to agree with anyone whose personal views and morals differ from their own, but if our community is dedicated to helping autistic people— especially children and adults who rely on intensive support from their families— we must hear each other without moral supremacy.
The strategies for combating oppression will never involve pre-made tapestries that exclude the voices of those most impacted by oppression.
As Autistic people, we are all oppressed; however, we do not all experience oppression the same way.
Every opportunity we have to listen to and learn from the lives of people whose circumstances are different from ours is an opportunity to engage in more effective activism.
How Can I Support Weaver Communication if I’m a Concluder? 5 Steps to Co-Weaving
- Before assuming someone is implying a value judgement or taking a position, examine their communication. Are they stating facts, or are they demanding or implying that you agree with them? If they’re merely giving examples, from their experiences or things they’ve witnessed, make the “least dangerous assumption.” Assume they are a Weaver, not a manipulative person pushing an agenda. Agendas are destinations, and that is a Concluder form of communication.
- Ask questions in good faith to joint troubleshoot (co-process) with the person bringing up the topic that feels controversial to you.
- Monitor your reactions and be prepared to let go of absolute, all-or-nothing thoughts. You don’t need to agree because your reality is not the same. You don’t have to change your values to broaden your perspectives or to learn how the ways you advocate for your values can be more intersectional.
- Determine what about their perspectives you are personally not seeing and make an effort to learn more. You do not have to agree or disagree with absolutes. You just need to see people and Weave their thoughts and lived experiences into your tapestry.
- Step away and listen without contributing if you feel like you can’t emotionally handle a conversation. These topics are often tied to profound and valid trauma, and it’s okay to table an important topic until you are in a place to set aside your subjective reality in order to see another person’s different subjective reality.
As Autistic people, we are used to having our voices and communication styles erased, belittled, misinterpreted, and even criminalized.
But without understanding the perceptive and communication differences present within our community, we perpetuate that same erasure against advocates who are doing the same work with the same ultimate goals.
Weaver communication is conducive to a broader, more intersectional perspective that lends itself to solutions that are dynamic and that acknowledge that perfection is not always possible given the current social infrastructure.
We cannot create progress until we have a tapestry that includes the threads of every intersectional stakeholder perspective impacted.
Weaving is hard work, but it’s essential.
Accounts to Follow for Weaver Perspectives
Mr. Chazz, an educator encouraging people to break harmful generational cycles, having talks on ABA with Autistic advocates
Discussion with Asiatu Lawoyin on ABA:
Discussion with SephScatterBrain on ABA:
Fidgets and Fries
Oswin Latimer, Autistic Consultant
Foundations for Divergent Minds
Morénike Giwa Onaiwu
Penn State Presentations from Nonspeakers
Jules Edwards from the Penn State Conference on Integrating Indigenous Knowledge with Modern Supports
Articles on ABA and intervention therapies with intersectional perspectives
Applied Behavior Analysis is Abusive to Native Children from Jules Edwards of Autistic, Tying
Nonspeaker pages, books, vlogs, media, and blogs
- Free PDF download: Thin Slice Judgements and The Different World Autistics Inhabit - May 5, 2022
- When a Non-Autistic Child Is Raised by Autistic Parents, Their Experiences Are Similar to Autistics Raised by Non-Autistics - February 10, 2022
- Difficult Community Dialogues: On ABA, Evolution, Weaver Communication, and Intersectionality - January 18, 2022