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.
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.