August 25, 2021. When New Democratic Party candidate Kemal Ahmed posted on social media about Applied Behaviour Analysis (ABA), he could not have expected the onslaught of harassing responses from members of ABA-based interest groups—nor that they would be demanding he be removed as a candidate from speaking engagements on his roster.
Ahmed, a member of Neurodivergent NDP, expressed a concern that is shared by nearly all autistic people in Canada: that families and individuals deserve other options rather than the current ABA-dominated funding model for autism services.
He tweeted: “As someone who is a neurodiverse candidate, I’m used to people speaking on my behalf, but I put my foot down when I see the $multi-billion dollar ABA lobby in action advocating to traumatize children.”
For this comment–a view Mr. Ahmed has the right to hold–members of the ABA lobby are demanding the Government stop Mr. Ahmed from speaking at upcoming events such as a panel at the Toronto District School Board and have threatened “a full court press” against the candidate for “connections with a hate group” (which is how they describe the neurodiversity movement). They also called for his removal from the party, harkening the long, racist history of blackballing and intimidating BIPOC candidates in Canadian politics. (1)
ABA: what autistic people think
Ahmed’s statement reflects the views of Neurodiverse NDP as well as both of Canada’s national autistic self-advocacy organizations (Autistics for Autistics and Autistics United Canada), which represent thousands of autistic Canadians. In fact, consistently more than 90 percent of autistic people do not support ABA, which was developed in the 1970s by some of the same people who developed gay conversion therapy, a practice banned on children in Ontario.
The founder of both ABA and “feminine boy” conversion therapy for gay and trans children, Ole Ivar Lovaas referred to autistic children as “not human” and used electroshocks to prod children into compliance according to the whims of the so-called therapists. Some of his patients, whom he “treated” with Dr. George Rekers, committed suicide.
But ABA’s use of electroshock torture is not a thing of the past. A major ABA centre in the US (the Judge Rotenberg Center) forces its autistic and intellectually disabled patients to wear shock devices that electrocute them when they “break rules,” including not smiling, not making eye contact or refusing to take off their jackets.
Despite a ban by the US FDA, the Rotenberg Center continues to use these shock devices—and is fully supported by the international association of ABA providers (ABAI), who even featured the Judge Rotenberg Center and praised its practices at its 2019, 2020 and 2021 conferences. In fact, there is no professional association of ABA providers that has ever spoken out against the use of shock torture. In our view, this endorsement makes it clear what ABA is all about—compliance at any cost.
“We are not anti-supports and neither is Kemal Ahmed, who made his stance on therapies and supports quite clear as well,” says Taryn Hamlyn of Autistics for Autistics. “We are asking for supports that are respectful and have a focus on human rights and dignity of autistic and other developmentally disabled folks.”
Harassment on social media
Although autistic Canadians from a range of regions and groups were quick to support Ahmed’s statements, the ABA lobby and its proxies reacted swiftly on social media with a barrage of inarticulate rage-tweets that, by all accounts, were exhausting to read or respond to.
Amidst the bombast from the lobby: a call to the provincial government to have Mr. Ahmed banned from speaking at an upcoming Toronto District School Board event, calls for party leader Jagmeet Singh to expel him and random exhortations for the Ontario government to censure him in this, a federal election. [……….]
The Board of Autistics for Autistics are deeply concerned that it is mostly white parents harassing a visible minority running for office and that these bullies are seeking to silence the candidate by strong-arming the government and his party. A4A’s members remember well how ABA lobbyists have harassed our members —especially our BIPOC Board leaders and members— in the past.
“Like with other areas of disability activism, autistic advocates are routinely shut down and attacked for trying to share their views,” says Kohenet Talia Johnson, a co-founder and board member of Autistics for Autistics: “It’s like there is no right for autistics to be heard if they do not follow the orthodoxy of ABA as the end-all and be-all of support for autistic people.”
Recently, Autistics for Autistics, together with Autistics United Canada, consulted with the Canadian Academy of Health Sciences on its review of federal autism policy. Among our groups’ policy recommendations: give autistic-led organizations a place at the table when the Government makes decisions about autism policy. Another recommendation: de-fund ABA.
In addition, Autistics for Autistics has met with the Ontario Provincial Government, the United Nations, the Professional Standards Authority (UK) and others about inclusion and best practices for autism policy. Our positions on housing, employment, communication rights for non-speaking autistics, education, health care access and government decision-making can be found on our Policy page, which presents clear and science-based alternatives to ABA.
“Just because a therapy has been used for a long time doesn’t mean it is a good therapy,” added co-founder Anne Borden King. “This is especially true with autism therapies like ABA, which were founded on cruelty and ignorance.”
Party support is crucial
It is now several days after the problem emerged and only two NDP ridings have publicly supported Mr. Ahmed’s right to speak at his campaign stops. Autistic Canadians are wondering: where is the rest of the party?
“The ABA industry says that without ABA, kids will fail. That is a myth that preys on caretakers and politicians to uncritically support ABA,” notes Hamlyn. “People fear being shouted down and demonized for their legitimate critiques of ABA and we can see how this is happening here.”
The federal and provincial NDP need to support the candidate’s right to speak and work without harassment from interest groups seeking to intimidate him from being active in the community. Social justice extends to everyone, including neurodivergent people.
We are waiting for action from the NDP.
(1) Media: Please contact us for citable screenshots; we do not want to platform them by posting here.