All ABA Hurts Autistics
For this year's Autistic Acceptance Month, Autistics United Fort McMurray chapter organizer Christopher Whelan has written a series of short essays on autistic rights. We have selected a few of our favourites to share!
[Image description, a black button with white words “quiet hands”, with the “quiet” crossed out to say “loud” in multiple colours]
All ABA Hurts Autistics
Applied Behavioural Analysis (ABA) therapy is the practice of converting autistic behaviour into neurotypical behaviours through the documentation and evaluation of behaviour and then re-directing it to more acceptable expressions. It has had a traumatizing effect on autistic people, and the communal trauma of this still-prescribed therapy reverberates throughout the autistic community. As well as being linked to post-traumatic stress disorder in adults, ABA does not produce results in shaping behaviour except for facilitating shame, despair, and self-harm.
ABA, as its founder Ivar Lovaas had envisioned and practiced it, utilizes torture implements against people who exhibit autistic behaviour, open-hand violence, and denying subjects food and sleep until they stop exhibiting autistic behaviours. Lovaas-styled ABA is still practiced today around the world, closer to home than anyone would like to believe. While the use of aversive-based therapies are a clear example of anti-autistic violence, we must also challenge the idea that the new “Gentle ABA”, which is gaining traction in the West as a referred therapy for autistic people, is a reformed and gentle version of its original namesake.
Instead of using torture and aversives to convert autistic behaviour into neurotypical behaviour, it is instead achieved through incentivizing neurotypical behaviour. Subjects are given candy, playtime, and other rewards for exhibiting acceptable learned neurotypical behaviours instead of the expressions that come most naturally to them. Instead of being punished for appearing autistic, they are rewarded for appearing neurotypical. That is why “Gentle ABA” does not produce results. It does not re-direct behaviour. It encourages us to appear a certain way, temporarily.
Neurodivergent circles use the term “Masking” to describe incidences where we must appear to be neurotypical in order to meet our basic needs, be safe from harassment and bullying, and be treated as an equal in society. Quietly sitting in place when we want to run around a room screaming, and keeping quiet when we want to say our favourite words and talk about our special interests, are examples of Masking. Masking is inherently both harmful and necessary in our world. Gentle ABA incentivizes autistic people to wear their Mask more tightly and more often, even in their own homes when nobody would think less of them for exhibiting autistic behaviour.
But the longer you Mask, the more susceptible you are to low self-esteem and mental unwellness. By internalizing that what you naturally are is sinful, bothersome, and a burden to the people around you, you wish harm on yourself. Autistics who naturalize their own Mask, and wear it too often, are more prone to developing addiction, self-harm behaviours, suicidal thoughts, and to attempt suicide. People who did not know that they were autistic also report that having naturalized their Mask lead to these harmful experiences.
Autism Acceptance means normalizing autistic behaviour in society. It means a guarantee that autistic people will not be considered lesser than a neurotypical person or lesser than an autistic who exhibits atypical behaviours less frequently. It means working towards a society where we will not need to mask to keep ourselves safe, and disenfranchising therapy programs that incentivize masking.
Other select essays:
Christopher Whelan is an autistic social worker living and working in his home community of Fort McMurray, Alberta, Canada. Christopher is a founder of Neurodiversity YMM and Autistics United Fort McMurray – Cree, Dene, Dane-zaa, & Métis Territory. After months of consultation with autistic self-advocates, Christopher published The 95 Theses of Neurodiversity in April 2020. You can read more of his work on his blog, AutisticRights.net.
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