More People Are Learning The Truth About ABA

Popular media has begun picking up on both the science and the sentiment

In May, an opinion article was published in Fortune Magazine discussing the controversy surrounding ABA. Written by a lawyer named Ariana Cernius, the article outlines some of the problematic history associated with ABA, and highlights legal issues with the ABA industry.

Just this week, a similar article was published from my home province of Ontario, Canada. The reporter, Jessica Durling, attempted to include both perspectives in her story. Durling brought together voices from families, proponents of ABA, as well as Autistic self-activists who speak out about its harms.

While I imagine Durling’s inclusion of ABA-apologists was the result of unbiased and thorough reporting, it seems to me those who spoke in support of ABA actually hurt their cause more than they helped it.

I’m cool with that.

He said put their autistic behaviours aside

First on my list of ABA-proponents who can speak on behalf of ABA any time was Bruce McIntosh, a founding president of Ontario Autism Coalition (OAC). McIntosh suggested we need to be able to put our autistic behaviours aside.

“There are legitimate situations where an autistic person needs to be able to put their autistic behaviours aside. For example, how about a job interview.”

— Bruce McIntosh
“Oh, I’m sorry! I forgot to leave my autism at home for our job interview. Here, let me stick it in my purse, so as to make you more comfortable interacting with me, regardless of my actual qualifications for this job.”
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They’re not “autistic behaviours”, they’re human behaviours being done by Autistic human being. There is a difference: autism is a significant part of our neurology. Being Autistic encompasses one’s entire brain and body. We can’t just “set it aside” like an accessory.

Here’s a novel idea: how about people interviewing prospective employees not be assholes? They could actually consider the person’s… [checks notes] ah! here it is… qualifications. …Y’know, the training and skills required to do the job well?

There are lots of things Autistics are generally better at than neurotypicals (generally, not always — we’re not a homogenous group). For example, we’re often much better at pattern recognition and attention to detail. Hiring people because they’re Autistic is a strength, and an asset to the organization.

Instead of expecting people to play a part for an interview, we could ask them what accommodations they need, and then actually provide them.

An Autistic person can only mask for so long. It is physically, emotionally, and psychologically draining. Rather than someone causing themselves harm masking until they can’t anymore, we could see them as worthy for who they are.

We could see Autistics as worthy for who we are, rather than saying “you have to tone it down” for an interview. You’re not desirable or wanted as you are, so please put on this neurotypical mask to make your employers and coworkers comfortable.

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“We all work for rewards”

Whenever someone is attempting to justify the use of dog training style “therapies” for human beings, they make comments like “we all work for rewards, it’s a reality of life.”

Jaime Sanata, president-elect of Ontario ABA, was no exception. He’s my number one choice for ABA-supporters who can speak on behalf of their organizations any time.

He very eloquently said, and I quote, “I think we all work in a society where we receive those types of access to things when we do stuff alright.”

So poignant, so moving.

Except there is an extremely important difference: choice.

As Ariana Cernius said, “Most autistic people cannot choose to participate in or leave ABA–it’s selected for them by family members, who reap most of ABA’s benefits.”

Freedom of choice.

Jaime Sanata goes to work, and if he does his job well, he continues to earn a paycheque. He chose to apply, interview, and accept the job. He signed a contract. Every workday, he chooses to show up and do his job.

Most people subjected to ABA and other coercive therapies have little to no choice. Most — if not all — people did not sign themselves up for ABA, their parents, caregivers, or support agency did.

Their support workers or teachers were trained to use ABA techniques, without asking for the individual‘s consent. An assumption is made that because they’re Autistic, it’s okay to use these types of approaches without asking the person how they feel about it.

Pathologized behaviours

If you’re happy and want to jump up and down, you can go right ahead. If you’re mad and want to stomp your feet, you can go right ahead.

In organizations that use coercive methods, the bodies of autistic people are considered under the control of staff and therapists.

If an Autistic person is happy and wants to jump or flap, they are told “quiet hands”, or they won’t get the “reward” they’re working toward if they continue those “autistic behaviours”.

If an Autistic person is mad and wants to grunt, pace, or tap they’re said to be “acting out”. They may get a warning to stop, and if they continue, they may be restrained “for safety reasons”.

Think about that. Last time you were pissed off, did you stomp your feet? Slam a door? Curse? Yell? How would you respond if someone told you “stop that, or you won’t get ice cream after dinner tonight!”?

If you yelled at them to leave you alone, and they put their hands on you to stop you from leaving, how would you respond?

I can tell you I might start swinging. Definitely.

Why do we do these things when we’re angry? Pace, stomp, slam, yell? They’re ways of expressing our emotions, yes. They’re also ways we attempt to self-regulate, to get our nervous system back under control.

That’s what “Autistic behaviours” are too. We stim, flap, rock, sway, move our bodies in ways that help us self-regulate. When people are told they can’t do the things which help them feel better, what recourse is there?

Option A. The person “acts out” and is considered defiant, aggressive, unsafe, and non-compliant. They are treated as such, and their behaviours are viewed through this lens, usually resulting in escalating punishments or consequences.

Option B. The person bottles up their emotions and suppresses or ignores their own body’s messages telling them what they need to do in order to calm down. Over time, this can have severe negative impacts on a person’s mental and physical health.

There is another option

“They’re not the dominant service because they’re the best, they’re dominant because they’re the most aggressive in their marketing.” 

 — Anne Borden King

There is another option. We treat Autistic people as though we are worthy and valuable for exactly who we are — because we are — rather than trying to train and mould us into approximations of neurotypicals.

Once we do this, we see a whole person, not just “autistic behaviours”. We see a human being with flaws and strengths, a person with needs, just like anyone else. When we meet people’s needs, and give them the opportunity to safely be themselves, their gifts become more apparent.

And you know what? People are doing all of this — therapies which Autistics have described as abuse and torture — and for what? So little Johnny or whomever can grow up to get a job and be a “productive member of society”?

Really? ‘Cuz that’s working out so well for people.

© Jillian Enright, Neurodiversity MB

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Cernius, A. (2022, May, 13). The autistic community is having a reckoning with ABA therapy. We should listen. Fortune.

Durling, J. R. (2022, June, 18). ABA: Inside the controversy surrounding the most popular therapy for autistic children in Ontario. The Pointer.

Kupferstein, Henny. (2018). Evidence of increased PTSD symptoms in autistics exposed to applied behavior analysis. Advances in Autism, 4.–2017–0016

Sandoval-Norton, A. H., & Shkedy, G. (2019). How much compliance is too much compliance: Is long-term ABA therapy abuse? Cogent Psychology, 6(1).

Published by Neurodiversity MB

Jillian has Child and Youth Work diploma as well as a BA in Psychology. Jillian worked on the front lines of Social Services agencies from 2003 - 2012. Jillian has taken numerous continuing education courses and has attended various workshops focused on supporting neurodiverse children, in particular children with ADHD.

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