Community Partnerships: We Can’t ‘Agree to Disagree’ about ABA

Trigger warning: One hyperlink (when clicked) includes photos of abuse of autistic people. It is flagged with a TW.

As an autistic-led organization, we share space and conversation with many groups and individuals who have different perspectives than us. Often, there is much that we can learn from each other.

However, we will not share space with organizations whose belief systems are fundamentally based on dehumanizing autistic and developmentally disabled people. One of those systems is Applied Behaviour Analysis or ABA.

So when we were asked to be a community partner at the  2021 Reel Abilities Film Fest, we were at first honoured—then shocked and upset to see that an organization that supports ABA, Autism Ontario, was added as a co-sponsor. Autistics for Autistics has withdrawn its sponsorship and the two autistic speakers have withdrawn from the panel.

Reel Abilities is an important festival with quality films and they had good intentions in contacting our organizations. But like many groups, they don’t understand the degree that ABA and the medical model of autism have caused trauma, pain and death to autistic/intellectually disabled people. We would like to take this moment to educate the broader disability community about how ABA abuses and dehumanizes autistic children and adults.

ABA: Then and Now
ABA was invented by a man who also founded a form of gay conversion therapy (gay conversion therapy is illegal in Canada). O. Ivor Lovaas, the founder of ABA, was also the founder of The Feminine Boy Project, on which many current gay conversion therapies are still based. Lovaas, who is still celebrated in the ABA industry, had this to say about us: “You see, you start pretty much from scratch when you work with an autistic child. You have a person in the physical sense – they have hair, a nose and a mouth – but they are not people in the psychological sense.” [TW on following hyperlink: photos of abuse] Lovaas abused his patients, advocating harsh aversive techniques such as hitting, withholding physical touch and attention, isolation, and giving electric shock therapy in a shock room, where the floor was inlaid with metallic strips.

While it might be tempting to think of Lovaas’ treatments as a “thing of the past,” they are not. An ABA school in Massachusetts, the Judge Rotenberg Center, has been under fire from the US FDA—as well as Amnesty International—for shocking children repeatedly. At least six residents have died at the centre.  After one boy was shocked 18 times for not taking his coat off “on time”, the FDA stepped in and banned the practice in 2020 after years of issuing warning letters. However, that has not stopped the ABA industry from promoting the Judge Rotenberg Center’s shock torture “aversives”.

In fact, at the 2019, 2020 and 2021 annual conferences of the American Institute of Behaviour Analysis, the Judge Rotenberg Center was a featured presenter, including presentations on their legal battles in favour of continuing shock torture. No ABA professional association has ever spoken against the practice.

ABA in Ontario
In Ontario, autistic children are held in prone restraint, locked in closets and denied food and beloved objects as part of ABA programs. They are treated as broken versions of “normal” to be fixed rather than as human beings deserving of respect and care. Autism Ontario has never spoken against ABA; in fact, it leads ABA workshops, hosts ABA seminars and even lobbies the government for increased funding for ABA. With all of the problems with ABA–including the rather significant fact that it was debunked by the field of psychology 40 years ago–one would think that “autism” charities and societies such as Autism Ontario and Autism Canada would distance themselves from the practice of ABA. Yet both continue to endorse it.

Why? Because their organizations make money from partnerships with the ABA industry. It seems like making money is more important to them than doing what they know is right and cutting ties with the ABA industry.

There is no gray area—no “agreeing to disagree” when it comes to ABA. Its many abuses have been well-documented (see the hyperlinks here and here, for example). For this reason, more than 90 percent of autistic people polled do not support ABA.

Disability organizations and other community groups: Please learn about ABA. Ask when you seek sponsor groups whether they support ABA. Consider how triggering it is for autistic people to be asked to partner with groups that believe we are sub-human. Support autistic people by boycotting ABA organizations.

For too long, autistic people have been asked to share space with oppressive organizations to “tell our story” or act as tokens, suppressing our own pain and PTSD to do so. We’re not doing that anymore. We have our own organizations, working for human rights. It is time for the old “autism” groups to step down and make way for groups that centre human rights and autistic acceptance.

Looking Ahead
If you are a festival-goer and you have tickets to Reel Abilities, we hope you can attend and enjoy the screenings of these great films! We also hope this experience can be a learning moment for Reel Abilities and other programmers.

–The Executive Board of Autistics for Autistics, Ontario (A4A)
and Taryn Jaye, A4A member