What is it about ABA that is so harmful to Autistic people?
There are many things within this world that can cause controversy in minority communities. One less discussed in mainstream society, but of significant interest to the Autistic community is Applied Behaviour Analysis (ABA). Nothing sets Autistic Rights activists ready to march into battle quite like the normative violence of behaviourism.
So, what is ABA?
ABA is based on a school of psychological thought known as behaviourism. Behaviourism itself being a social science that uses observable behaviour to investigate psychological values of an organism. Behaviourism is in a lot of things that we interact with. In fact, if you own a dog, you have probably already encountered it.
ABA, then, is an applied version of this science. It uses functional analysis of an individuals behaviour to identify the function of a given behaviour with the intention of identifying target behaviours to be extinguished or reinforced.
This is done through the use of positive reinforcement (for example, rewarding a behaviour) and aversive techniques ranging from planned ignoring to the use of electric shocks. The aim of these techniques is to make an individual conform to societies normative standards of behaviour, which is why it’s relevant to Autistic individuals.
Many people state that Lovaas created it after his work on The Feminine Boy Project (Gay Conversion Therapy), which utilises the same techniques. Technically, this is true, although it would be more accurate to say that Lovaas took a technique that already existed and made it much more sadistic. Behavioural Analysis was, in fact, seen as early as 1947 within the context of animal behaviourism in Arkansas.
Lovaas was famously known for stating that Autistic people looked like humans, but were more akin to something sub-human that needed to be constructed into an acceptable form. It is unsurprising then that much of his work on ABA was informed by the sadistic practice of Gay Conversion Therapy.
Back to the point
History aside, ABA is a harmful practice, and it’s particularly offensive when we consider its use among neurodivergent people.
Our current society is built from the bottom up. The economic policies and cultural practices in many parts of the world are built on a foundation of colonialism. This has led to a prominent neoliberal attitude that individuals should be self-reliant producers of profit that adhere to certain standards of behaviour. These standards can be considered the basis of normativity, although more specifically we need to talk about neuronormativity.
What is so dangerous about neuronormativity is that it requires us to embody our neurology and experience of the world in very specific ways. Any deviation from a perception of ‘normality’ is seen as abberant and in need of correction. It has significant links to other forms of oppression, such as white supremacy and queerphobia.
How does this relate to ABA?
The purpose of ABA is to assimilate an individual into these neuronormative performances of behaviour. It does not take regard to whether this performance is comfortable for the individual, and it takes little account of the damage that the process of forced assimilation can have on a person.
Autistic people are monotropic. We have minds that prefer singular, hyperfocused attention tunnels. Our cognitive resources preferentially assign themselves to one thing at a time, building inertia that can make rapid transition between points of focus a traumatic experience.
This presents an issue when we consider that a neuronormative approach to the world is designed for a polytropic mind that can assign its cognitive resources across multiple streams of focus simultaneously without building too much inertia. ABA encourages Autistic people to live polytropically.
Why is this a problem?
Autistic people who are forced to behave and live polytropically are at risk of a phenomenon called monotropic split. This is caused because a monotropic mind can not regulate its attentional resources across multiple streams. Monotropic split can ultimately lead to a range of mental health concerns and even suicidality.
ABA creates this issue for many of the Autistic people who go through it.
This is why I view ABA as a tool of normative violence. It is an aggressive tool of forced assimilation that does not care for the harm it does. Many ABA practitioners will claim that ABA is no longer harmful, but while its goals remain to force conformity, it will create this issue of monotropic split.
In order to create happy and healthy Autistic people, we need to support them to be as independent as possible in the world while living in a way that is comfortable for them. This means allowing Autistic people to be interest-led, and to regulate their senses and emotions naturally rather than hide their struggles for the comfort of others.
I am not a fool. ABA won’t be ended overnight. It is a billion dollar industry that uses lobbying and misinformation to maintain its hold over stakeholders. In the short run, we have to focus on harm reduction efforts, which can range from supporting survivors to sewing the seeds of dissent amongst its practitioners.
We can not and will not stop speaking out against it. Slowly but surely, we can shift the power imbalance. However, we have to recognise that while the foundation of colonialism exists, practices like ABA will remain an issue for those who do not adhere to the cult of normality.
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