Autistic advocacy in Ontario: Highlights from 2022

The past year has been exciting, as we returned to in-person events and continue to grow, with new projects and connections across Canada!

Some highlights:

  • We raised the neurodiversity flag at Toronto City Hall, after 2 years of virtual observances. It was incredible to be together again in real life and to break bread (well, cake) and feel so welcomed by the protocols staff at Toronto City Hall. Thank you to all who attended.
  • We provided info & spoke before the Senate of Canada, together with Autistics United Canada (AUC), about the need for federal policymakers to move from a charity perspective to a rights perspective. Canadian policymakers need to begin to study best practices in disability policy and consult with autistic-led groups.
  • We continued to partner with the Centre for Independent Living Toronto (CILT) to improve vaccine access for autistic/disabled people through the Disability Vaccine Outreach Initiative, including our vaccine info webinar, social media outreach and one-to-one outreach by our amazing Vaccine Ambassadors, Gaby and Sam, to ensure access for autistic Torontonians with support needs. We are so glad that CILT included us in this important project!
  • We led the annual Disability Day of Mourning in Ontario, remembering those who were murdered by their parents/caregivers and saying: Never Again. Our members read names, gave speeches and provided support through a virtual vigil on March 2. Thank you to everyone who made this important vigil happen.
  • A4A members presented to the Ontario Association of College and University Housing Officers and to University of Waterloo about inclusion, student life and new research on autistic students in college and university. We have more invitations to present on this topic early in the new year!
  • We continued our groundbreaking Autistic Health Outreach Project, educating Canadian medical students about autistic health access needs at the University of Toronto and Queen’s University medical schools.
  • We continued to support and collaborate with Community Living Ontario to work towards ending abusive long-term care and institutional housing in our province, through the Alliance on Aging and Disability. Thank you to all partners for all their hard work on this issue, to our rep Taryn and to Shawn from Community Living for inviting us.
  • A4A was an organizing partner in the online annual Canadian national conference on the International Day for Persons with Disabilities (United Nations), which was hosted by the Alliance for Equality of Blind Canadians, streamed on Accessible Media International and featured speakers and participants from around the world.
  • We were contacted by media for stories about ABA, restraint and seclusion in schools, media portrayals of autism and other topics. It was especially awesome to be contacted by OWL magazine for their neurodiversity feature!
  • We consulted with a community coalition about the need to modify the existing Accessibility for Ontarians Act. At present, autistics are not included among the disabled groups protected by this legislation, creating a barrier when we try to seek inclusion and pursue human rights complaints.
  • We attempted to consult with the Public Health Agency of Canada about priorities in federal autism appropriations. Unfortunately, PHAC continued its pattern of devaluing autistic people’s input and time, so for the well-being of our reps we left the conversation. We will continue to connect with MPs, Senators and other federal agencies instead.
  • We continued to educate employers on inclusive supports and communication access for autistic people through our Autistic At Work presentation, and to present to mental health organizations about access and inclusion.
  • We began to plan for 2023, including launching our Neurodiversity Library with support from the Autistic Women & Nonbinary Network; joining a new, national coalition project to work for regulating legislation on restraint and seclusion in schools; taking action to promote supported independent living options for autistic and intellectually disabled people; new advocacy to protect people with epilepsy from cyber attacks; policy work, education initiatives and much more.

I feel so honoured to work with the Board and volunteers, who are the most incredible people. Any policymaker, parent, educator or organization is lucky to have access to their time, perspective and ideas. I can’t wait to see what the future brings for autistic rights in 2023.

-Anne Borden King

 

Autistics are not protected by the Accessibility for Ontarians with Disabilities Act. We should be.

A teal blue rectangle with a white maple leaf design at the left, followed by white-lettered words: "Accessibility for Ontarians with Disabilities Act"
Accessibility should be for all


On October 18, A4A rep Anne spoke before a committee preparing a review of the Accessibility for Ontarians with Disabilities Act (2005). As the legislation stands, autistic people are not listed among the disabilities covered therein. We believe autistic should be included among the disabilities covered in the AODA. This is our statement.

Intro
Autistics for Autistics is Canada’s largest autistic-led advocacy group. We are an international affiliate of the Autistic Self Advocacy Network, the largest autistic-led advocacy group in the world. We consult governments, businesses and other entities on disability accessibility for non-speaking and speaking autistics, as well as those with intellectual disabilities.

Autistic people’s human rights and accessibility needs are frequently violated in schools; at college and university; in housing; employment; healthcare; and other settings. Our community also disproportionately suffers from poverty due to segregation, access barriers, bias and other discrimination.

Add “autistic” to the AODA
The words autistic or autism are not included in the lists of disabilities protected under the legislation designed to protect the human rights of disabled Ontarians, (the Accessibility for Ontarians with Disabilities Act, or AODA).

Because autistic people are not included as a group in AODA legislation, we are not able to effectively utilize the legislation when seeking redress for human rights violations.

It is false to claim one can imply “autistic” under the umbrella of intellectual disability in the AODA. There are thousands of autistic people with significant disability, whose IQ is over 70. If the autistic person has an IQ over 70, AODA rights legislation is not seen to apply to them because autistics are omitted from protection under it.

Conclusion
Autistic people are sometimes told that parent groups can speak for us. But of course the viewpoint of a disabled person is different than the experience of their parents. Parents should not be speaking as the sole representatives of “autism,” nor as architects of AODA legislation. Nothing about us without us.

We at Autistics for Autistics would like to meaningfully consult on this policy to make sure our community is included. We were not included in past consultations. We want “Autistic” listed as a condition, directly, in the AODA.

Thank you.

Black, Indigenous & People of Colour are disproportionately targeted on social media: White allies need to step up to their responsibility

Yesterday, a blue-check Twitter account (Erin Biba) noticed a tweet from our account criticizing conspiracy theories about the CDC along with other health disinformation. While our tweets were describing a real problem, Biba labeled A4A as “right wing” in a series of quote tweets where she encouraged A4A’s donors not to donate. She also shared our email address with her 65,000 followers.

Within minutes, scores of Biba’s followers were swarming A4A’s account, as they’ve swarmed other accounts and relentlessly trolled individuals as a sort of group-bonding activity. (You can learn more about this phenomenon here.)

While most tweets were directed towards our organization that night, one of Biba’s followers directly doxed an A4A member, targeting a person of colour (a member of A4A who is not even a Twitter mod). Biba’s follower told the person they were going to screenshot and share the person’s identity with all of Twitter, then did so against their wishes. Despite outreach, Biba’s follower kept the tweet up and wrote disparaging comments, harkening the racist rhetoric of calling non-white people who speak to power “uppity”.

Sadly, acts like this are a regular occurrence on Twitter. In fact, racism is perpetuated against Black, Indigenous and People of Colour so often on social media that it has become normalized.

White people often refuse to acknowledge the racism in acts like this. Their ignorance and refusal to act is in itself a form of racism. BIPOC are continually disappointed and hurt when white friends and colleagues ignore racism or “shy away” from calling out other whites for their actions.

Whites have to do better at allyship. BIPOC endure daily acts of racism–yet how often do their white colleagues and friends really have their back, or take even a nominal risk of feeling uncomfortable for a bit, to support BIPOC?

First steps to doing better can include reaching out to the person who was harassed–not just to say quietly “that sucked,” but to ask the person “How can I help?” Here are some other ways to help when a person has been doxed or personally harassed:

  1. Report the doxer/harasser to the social media platform—and to authorities where applicable
  2. Confront the doxer/harasser on social media (including confront-and-block)
  3. LISTEN to the victim. Don’t weigh in with abstractions or comparisons. Just listen.
  4. Follow, learn from and share content by BIPOC accounts. Decentre yourself and share their content instead of your musings or selfies all the time!
  5. If you make a mistake that offends or harms, don’t make excuses. Say you’re sorry and learn from it.
  6. If you’re part of the autistic community, learn about the work of the Autistic People of Color Fund here.

There are no excuses for Biba or her followers to harass and dox our little group. There are no excuses for Biba’s follower to personally dox one of our members, a racialized and multiply marginalized person. White people need to do better to ally with BIPOC to stop harassment and racism, online and offline. The platforms need to do better, too.

Thanks to all our members who were supportive this week.

 

 

 

“Canadian autism policy needs to move from a charity perspective to a rights perspective”: Autistic-led groups present before the Canadian Senate

In March 2022, A4A member Anne Borden King delivered a speech before the Canadian Senate on the need for a paradigm shift in federal autism policy. Vivian Ly of Autistics United Canada also presented. Both speeches were followed by discussion with Senators.

See/hear Anne’s speech here
Read the transcript of the full hearing here (starts about 3 pages in)

Anne says: “The Senators were so engaged, thoughtful and respectful of us both and the proceedings. I’m looking forward to seeing what may come of these hearings.”

Speech Text

Good afternoon, esteemed members of the Canadian Senate. It is an honour to be here with you.

I’m Anne Borden King. I’m here representing Autistics for Autistics. We’re a national autistic-led advocacy group. We formed in 2018 because we realized that, in Canada, it is mostly non-autistic people who have been leading the autism policy discussion—policy about us, without us.

For decades, the Government of Canada has granted hundreds of millions in sole-source contracts to autism agencies with no RFPs, no competition, no follow-up, no assessment. The cheques get cut and everyone attends the charity gala, or claps when they break ground on a new segregated “home” for autistic men… on the edge of town. Did you know that more than 90 percent of Canadian federal housing funding in this sector still goes to segregated group homes? Even though in the US, it’s been shown that a different model, supported independent living is better for everyone.

We’re hopeful, today, that this new framework will bring a policy shift that keeps up with the changes in the rest of the world. Our Government needs to pivot from a charity perspective to a rights perspective.

Autistic people, like other disabled people, have rights. In fact, our rights are enshrined in the United Nations Convention on the Rights of People With Disabilities. In Chile, the Congress has just approved article 26 to its new Constitution which states and I quote “The State recognizes neurodiversity and neurodivergent people, their right to autonomy and self-determination.” end quote.

In the US, autistic-led groups are directly in dialogue with the Biden administration as part of its disability policy team. The Inter-Agency Autism Coordinating Committee (IACC) is a diverse and rigorous group, comprised of federal and public members including members of autistic-led groups.

Meanwhile in Canada, autistic people are not even included in federal disability rights legislation. Autism is in a policy silo. So far, Canadian policy hasn’t been about solving our problems…it’s been framing autistic people as if we are the problem.

In the current draft of the Framework, autism is called an “impairing disorder” with “challenges” to employment and housing. Our first request is that these euphemisms be dropped and the words disability and access barriers be the replacements. Schools, workplaces and housing have the responsibility to change the environment to meet the needs of disabled people, including autistic people.

Our Access to Information requests revealed that over the past decade, none of the projects overseen by P.H.A.C. were RFP’d. I’d give the example of the 10 million dollar website that was not put out to tender but rather given to an autism-related company that is now doing even more assessments because its traffic is so low. There are many other examples of this kind of inefficient use of funds.

So our second request is that the Framework require a competitive funding environment, assess the ROI for projects and require those RFPs.

Our third request is that you add to the Framework that the Government needs to independently collect data.

I’m glad to see a line item on data, item 2c, but it is dangerously vague. Current policy is based on biased and unreliable data provide by lobby groups. I would point to the interest group CASDA’s 2018 national quote “needs survey,” where only 2.4 percent of the survey participants were even autistic. 2.4 percent. With respect, this kind of data should not inform policy. Nor should industry white papers be considered an “evidence base” of “best practices”.  In contrast, consider the US government’s independent data collection via the IACC and the work of the UK standards council in independently evaluating the claims of the ABA industry, for example.

Like all disabled people, autistic Canadians should have a right to access–to communication such as AAC; to inclusive schools and workplaces; to health care; and housing in the community.

In conclusion, we would ask that the Framework include language that enshrines these rights. Think of the Chilean Constitution, acknowledging neurodiverse people’s rights. Think of our government’s approach to other disabilities and apply it to this document. We need rigorous policy that’s focused on quality of life. It’s time for a paradigm shift.

Thank you.

 

Election 2022: Ontario NDP’s autism disinformation campaign

Image 1. Source: Chris Bonello, online survey of 11,000+, including 7,491 autistics, published 2022

From a leaked memo by the Ontario NDP leadership to its candidates, May 2022:

“We fully support ABA and IBI therapies for people that choose that. We know there’s a small group that opposes them. We use person-first language and say ‘people with autism,’ we do not use the word ‘autistic.’ We know there are people who disagree with that; the majority of people with autism and their families prefer person-first language.” [emphasis added]

It is election season in Ontario–and according to the above memo and others, Ontario’s New Democratic Party is strong-arming its candidates to spread disinformation about ABA, a controversial autism therapy developed by a creator of a popular gay conversion therapy.

Quick fact checks: Despite the NDP’s claim that only “a small group” opposes ABA, a recent survey of more than 7,000 autistic people found that less than 4 percent of autistic people support ABA. (See Image 1, above.) And although the NDP claims “a majority” prefer the term person with autism, a full 91 percent of autistics polled use the term “autistic” to describe themselves. (See Image 2, below.)

Ontario’s NDP: In the pocket of the ABA lobby

The NDP is misrepresenting our community not because their leadership is ignorant about autistic people. Rather, the NDP’s autism talking points are part of a calculated disinformation campaign that seeks to re-establish ABA dominance in provincial autism funding.

In one of several memos leaked to us by fed-up party members, NDP’s executive team instructed candidates to advocate for the removal of all funding caps on ABA and to claim that such a dangerous policy would be preferred by “people with autism.” Here the NDP is trying (and failing) to discredit autistic groups through rhetoric–criticizing our community’s preferred ways of referring to ourselves to make autistic adults seem like “outsiders” in the policy discussion.

The NDP’s executive team also told candidates to claim that “important developmental windows closed for thousands of children” when the current Government put reasonable funding caps on ABA centres in order to newly allow funding for AAC, speech therapy and occupational therapy–choices that Ontario families overwhelmingly wanted. According to the NDP talking points, the only way to help kids is through a service monopoly by the ABA industry.

“Some children’s developmental potential is slipping away,” the NDP document claims, stating that caps on ABA therapy hours could mean: “opportunity [for children] to develop the ability communicate how they feel, or to stop self-harming behaviour, will be lost forever.” The industry’s persuasive technique goes back to the rhetoric of ABA’s founder, O Ivor Lovaas, a master manipulator who claimed in 1974 that children would have to be chained to beds unless he tortured them with “aversives” that including electroshocking, slapping and denying food and water to them. 

The ABA lobby in Ontario

At first glance, it is surprising that the NDP, a typically progressive party, supports ABA and IBI (the intensive form of ABA). Many centres are operated by private equity firms selling privately-managed “care” at an exorbitant cost. These segregated settings are known for human rights violations against the most vulnerable: developmentally disabled children, many of whom are Black, Indigenous and children of colour. ABA and IBI centres fall within a spectrum of private-equity brokered partnerships that include overcrowded, violent group homes and the disease-and-neglect-ridden long term care facilities that are the shame of our province.

But money talks. In Ontario, the IBI/ABA industry is a powerful interest group that has used its persuasive powers (including a contract with the Bay Street lobbying firm Pathway Group) to sell MPPs on the pork-barrel benefits of supporting IBI/ABA centres–which segregate autistic and intellectually disabled children from their peers–in their districts. The Ontario NDP’s vested interests are reflected in its talking points, which for years have shown stalwart support for cutting funds to occupational therapy, AAC and speech therapy in favour of an ABA monopoly in our province.

The ABA industry claims itself to be the “only evidence-based” way to help autistic children. That claim is patently false and deeply offensive. Autistic children deserve kindness and acceptance–not cruel behaviourist pseudoscience.

Autistic advocates: Fighting for policy reform

In Ontario, autistic and/or developmentally disabled children and their families were the victims of the ABA monopoly for years. In fact, from 2003 until 2018, ABA was the only publicly-funded autism therapy in Ontario, with parents paying out of pocket for speech and occupational therapies, as well as AAC systems for non-speakers and newer approaches like relational development therapy (RDI). Both the Liberals and the NDP supported the continued de-funding of these choices, forcing families to pay tens of thousands of dollars out of pocket for proven supports and therapies.

Autistic individuals and groups have met with Ontario NDP representatives over the years and provided clear documentation supporting AAC, speech and occupational therapies, as well as documentation that ABA is not an evidence-based approach. There is also a party group (Neurodivergent NDP) with autistic members. The NDP’s embattled Disability Coalition also has neurodivergent members.

Some in these groups have faced harassment by the ABA lobby; others have reported being treated unfairly by provincial NDP leadership. Many of our members have expressed that although they support the NDP’s views on other issues, they cannot in good conscience vote for a party that collaborates with the ABA industry and remains so unwelcoming to autistic voices.

When autistic people have shared our concerns about autism policy with NDP representatives, we’ve often had to listen to statements like “most children want ABA,” “you can only speak about adults’ rights.”

As systems thinkers, we know these messages are attempts by the party to regain control of the autism policy narrative. The NDP has chosen to ignore the broader conversations in policy circles on neurodiversity, equity and consultation–but they do so at their own peril. The fact is the neurodiversity movement now has a place in policy–and we’re here to stay.

Change is coming–despite the ABA lobby

In 2018 and 2019, our organization met with every provincial party at Queen’s Park. We were invited by a Liberal MPP, Michael Coteau, to attend the reading of Bill 160, which called for an end to abusive restraints and seclusion in Ontario schools (a crucial bill, currently stalled, that NDP has not supported). We also met with Green Party leader Mike Schreiner, who was supportive and inquisitive about our autism policy ideas. We met with Progressive Conservative MPPs to talk about broadening the scope of autism services to allow more choice. The Government delivered a more equitable autism services program—despite the NDP opposing it.

While other provincial parties are broadening their visions of autism policy, the Ontario NDP has decided to fall back on an old playbook, describing ABA as a saviour to families and portraying the neurodiversity movement (which is worldwide) as if it were a small cadre of local cranks. But the truth will prevail. Party members are never as loyal as their leadership would like—and they grow weary of being ordered to lie. There is neither peace nor unity in the Ontario NDP, nor is there transparency. This does not bode well for the party in the upcoming election.

Image 2

Source: Chris Bonello, online survey of 11,000+, including 7,491 autistics, published 2022

 

Note: Autistics for Autistics is a non-partisan group. We work with individual politicians in the interest of human rights for autistic children and adults. Likewise, we also speak out against any politician or party that opposes disability rights and equitable services for autistic people.