ABA: Essentialism in practice

For as long as I have been part of the online Autistic community, we have spoken out against and educated on the topic of the harms of Applied Behavioural Analysis (ABA). While I could discuss the real world trauma and attitudes that proceed and preceed ABA respectively, today I’d like to take a more philosophical approach (I know, surprising right?).

It seems to me as though the existence and practice of ABA comes down to essentialism, or in more accessible terms; it comes down to the belief that people belong to specific categories with specific traits. This essentialism than has a provincialist spin put on it where by those with a predominant neurocognitive style widely apply their experiences as the “correct” experiences.

This allows for a discourse in which the Autistic person is then subject to “behavioural intervention” for “their own good”. However, the problem with behaviourism on the whole is that (and stick with me on this) Autistic behaviour is not mindless.

Behaviourists focus almost exclusively on outward expression of the self, with little to know regard for how the self experiences its world internally.

The problem with being you, is that you can only be you, you cannot experience another’s inner world, you cannot even prove another person is a sentient being. This is the entire basis of a school of thought known as solipsism. So given this solipsistic conundrum, how might one determine the inner experience of the other self, and how that defines their behaviour?

You allow them to tell you.

The problem is that the neurologically queer are seen as lacking in capacity to speak on their experiences. Remi Yergeau calls this “demi-rhetoricity” in their book Authoring Autism“. This demi-rhetoricity exists because Autistics are considered paradoxically to be either too Autistic to be able to speak on their experiences, or not Autistic enough.

So now we live in world where Autistics are subjected to behavioural interventions wherein they are invalidated and traumatised despite their outcries to stop.

A popular claim of ABA is to discuss it’s so-called evidence base. The problem with this evidence base is that pesky essentialism/provincialism problem I mentioned earlier. I’m sure a lot of Autistic people have been converted by this intervention (after all, it was literally pioneered by good ol’ Lovaas, the father of conversion therapy), but what is actually being achieved?

Yes, the Autistic person may behave in a more neurotypical manner, but fundentally they are still Autistic. The only salient difference is that now they have been tortured into hiding that which defines their experience. To quote/paraphrase Nick Walker “you can’t unqueer a queer mind, you can only make it multiply queer”.

The real world application of this snippet of neuroqueer theory is this; you can’t turn an Autistic person into a non-Autistic person, you can only force them to behave like a neurotypical, leaving you with a traumatised Autistic.

What happens when people are traumatised from a young age? Addiction, psychosis, depression, anxiety, suicidality (by the way, Autistics are much more likely to die by suicide than the general population, I wonder why that is?). The never ending list of trauma-induced outcomes is pretty endless.

We have a fundamental problem in that trying to stop ABA from being inflicted upon us is like trying to stop a cult that has become mainstream religion. Those out there proselytising will not give a second thought to inflicting violence and aggression on the dissenters. After all, how dare the neuroqueer masses voice opinions that contradict the beliefs of the neurologically typical?

As a final thought, you may currently be experiencing a great deal of pressure to enter your child into an ABA program. I promise you they will be much happier if you forego the 40 hours a week of intensive torture, and instead listen to those of us who share in the strengths and struggles of your child. We may seem different now thar we are adults, but you would be surprised how much we had in common with your child prior to adulthood.

You’d be surprised how much we still have in common now.

Published by David Gray-Hammond

David Gray-Hammond is an autistic mental health and addiction advocate living in the South East of England. He is in recovery from addiction and psychosis, as well as other complex mental health conditions. He was diagnosed as autistic seven months after achieving sobriety, and is resolved to share his experiences with the world in the hopes of being the person that he needed when he was younger.

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