I was going to write a direct rebuttal to the recent NYT piece titled “The Kids Who Beat Autism” (DoNotLink here). I am still working on that for a future publication date, but I think this gets to the heart of the matter. I’ve included some links regarding ABA throughout the post, including blog posts from autistic adults who underwent ABA as children, posts by parents of autistic children on why they oppose ABA, and some pertinent factual information.
Applied Behavioral Analysis, or ABA,, is the most commonly promoted autism therapy in the United States. Most proponents won’t tell you that ABA was originally developed by Dr,. Ole Ivar Lovaas as a cure for homosexuality in “sissy boys“. They also won’t tell you that one boy Lovaas declared “cured” grew up to come out as gay, before ultimately committing suicide. They’re unlikely to talk to you about the long-term emotional impact on children who undergo ABA. What they will talk about is whether or not they think ABA “works”.
The underlying premise of ABA for autism treatment is that, rather than being a complex difference in neurology conferring strengths and weaknesses, autism is a set of undesirable behaviors such as stimming or avoiding direct eye contact, which must be “extinguished“. An ABA success story means a child who is “indistinguishable from peers.” This means a child who seems “normal”, not a child who feels normal or has their needs met.
ABA is often extremely intensive, with 40 hours a week being quite commonly proposed as reasonable, often in addition to a child’s other therapies and schooling. A typical ABA session may include enforced eye contact, ignoring a child’s requests or communication for not being in the preferred form, ignoring or chastising a child for talking about their preferred interests, scolding a child for engaging in soothing repetitive behaviors, and praising/punishing a child every few minutes for every minute task conceivable. For 40 hours a week. For years. By someone who may not have any formal training or prior experience whatsoever.
At its core, what ABA teaches is compliance, obedience, whether it does this through bribes or through “aversives” (up to and including GED electro-shock as torture). A child who has been taught for 40 hours a week since preschool to defer to adults, to be malleable and agreeable and compliant, to have “quiet hands” and not vocalize when something an adult does distresses them, is a very vulnerable child who may grow into a very vulnerable adult.
When ABA “works” it does so by training a child who is autistic to behave as if they were not so. It is no more a cure for autism than it was for homosexuality, and just like homosexuality, what autism needs is not a cure, but acceptance.
Parents always have the choice to accept our children, or require they change to stay in our good graces. We can choose to love our gay sons and lesbian daughters, and welcome their partners into our families. We can choose to love our trans children, to use their preferred pronouns and to think of them as they think of themselves.
We can choose to love our autistic children and to help them navigate the world with independence and accommodation. We can fill them with pride and teach them to advocate for themselves and others. We can make the world more accessible for autistic children and adults, and improve their odds of having a fulfilling and happy life.
Or, parents can choose to make our love conditional. We can take away their phones and their friends. We can kick them out or refuse to help them financially. Before they turn 18, we can even have them locked away in “troubled teen” facilities, or medical facilities that engage in torture in the name of battling autism, like the Judge Rotenburg Center. (What they’re doing? That’s ABA in action.) The power gap between parents and children is enormous, and we can abuse that power quite easily.
For too long the predominant organized parents voice on autism has been one of conditional love. Of enrolling developmentally disabled toddlers into 40 hours a week of ABA. Of patronizing disrespect. Of refusing to acknowledge a child’s communication efforts. Of chelation and bleach enemas, GAPS diets and hyperbaric chambers. Anything, anything, anything to force our children to change to earn our love.
We need to let the world know there is another choice, and some of us choose to love the love the children we have, autism and all. We need an organization, a movement, of parents and family members utterly committed to ending all efforts to eradicate autism and all abusive therapies intended to cure someone of autism.
I don’t know exactly what our parent ally community should look like or what to call it, but I know it can’t have room for functioning labels or ABA or any goal of a “cure”. It must be centered on unconditional love. The focus should be on promoting acceptance of autistic children and adults, countering fear-mongering hype about autism and rising rates of diagnosis, and making the world for more accessible for our autistic loved ones.
If we can let our children know we love them, and let the world know we are proud of them, I think we could accomplish a lot of good.