Yesterday, I made a few comments on the Today Show’s Facebook page in response to this terrible news report by 9 News. Well, actually, it was in response to a friend’s prompting, because I usually avoid such contemptible media hype these days. It is just too distressing for me to pay much attention to. I had seen the trailer for the programme earlier on, but remember shoving that slithery visual-aural ribbon of drivel out of my mental sphere.
The title comment in their “Today” Facebook page read:
“19-year-old Jake was diagnosed with severe autism as a child but recovered to lead a normal life after years of experimental therapy.
This is yet another example of a tragically all too prevalent phenomenon: utter ignorance and sickening condescension in poorly researched popular media programmes, especially when they are featuring people who are different from their perception of ‘normalcy.’
What is really sad about such “remarkable recoveries” is that the Colonial Power of Neurotypicality is appaluded and reinforced, the autistic person is once more subjugated into the position of Subaltern, and ultimately left without proper empathic support to address ongoing autism-specific challenges (because they should not exist anymore, remember? CURED!) and without specific developmental support to fine hone unique cognitive and sensory systems of learning, thinking and Becoming. These “recovery” stories are, sadly, catering to the neurotypical social apetite, and nothing to do with the autistic person’s innate wellbeing.
It was painful for me to watch the sequence. The segment where the child was receiving ABA therapy – drilled into learning how to “wave bye bye” … being forced to make eye contact etc, and the thrill of the triumph (neurotypical victory!!) when the child finally acquiesced was just nauseating and very very sad. It made me angry at the same time as it broke my heart over and over again. Isn’t it amazing, this ABA success? Look, they can now make eye contact, and wave goodbye!
ABA proponents would, of course, cite their “data-based” research as proof that this methodology works. Well, the truth is, yes, it works. It is indeed a highly effective approach to achieving their goals, which are basically aimed at making cosmetic neurotypicals out of autistic individuals. It has precious little to do with finding intrinsic and unique channels of communication based on the natural eco-system of the autistic neuro-culture.
I remember the absurdity of an argument by a Ph.D scholar at a conference in Oxford, in 2013, in which she vehemently insisted that making eye contact was the absolute tenet of social communication across all human cultures, and therefore MUST be adhered to. This was a Ph.D scholar, mind you. I, of course, disagreed, and cited my research and lived experience in autism. For example, I do not need to make eye contact with you to show you I respect you, and even if I do manage to make eye contact with you, what is the point of the exercise if I do not derive anything positive or helpful from this act? Even after a professor in Japanese cultural studies pointed out to her that in Japan, making eye contact can be perceived, under certain situations, as rude, or even threatening and aggressive, this Ph.D scholar from Tunisia dug in her heels, shook her head and refused to budge on her assertion.
There are none so blind as those who will (actively refuse to) not see. And there are legions of people like that, from all walks of life and levels of intellectual activity.
Remember, it wasn’t too long ago when the medical profession was up in arms at the very suggestion that they should wash their hands before and after each operation or examination.
As for ‘success’… There are many paths to “data-based” proof of arriving at what is termed “successful outcome.” We can drill and brow beat (albeit sometimes subtle and gently executed) an individual by wearing the person’s spirit down so much that the person acquiesces, often without depth of meaning for the person, but rather merely as an act of compliance; or you can shift the paradigms increasingly empathically towards and into the innate functional system of the individuals and devise truly organic strategies to help them cope and adjust to the world at large. Just because nobody has yet done the latter in as concrete and mammoth way as ABA, does not mean that it will not be monumentally successful. In fact, I know it will. If only the neurotypicals among us would join forces in empathic neurocosmopolitan approach to designing an alternative, empathic and organic system. Are you here to help the autistic person cope with the demands of a neurotypical world and feel accepted and welcomed, knowing that the neurotypical world is happy and eager to learn from the autistic domain as much? Or is the fundamental aim merely to perform successful cosmetic surgery on what is perceived as a damaged, broken, ugly being, just so the being can look and behave more like everyone else – to satisfy the requirements of the majority?
Browbeating is of course prefered. I am not claiming that ABA therapists are physically violent or cruel, please don’t get me wrong. The ABA therapists that I have met are incredibly gentle and dedicated people. I am pointing out the flaws in the ABA approach, not its technicians. This pedagogy produces quick results. But it is a form of cultural subjugation nevertheless. It does not require empathy. And we know that empathy is an arduous Endeavour – which too few are willing to embark upon.
I could babble on and on. This topic would fill another Ph.D dissertation. I am in the final stages of completing my own, which has to do with Parallel Embodiments and autistic empathy. I don’t have the strength nor should I be too much distracted. I shall have to stop my mind from spasming over the implications embedded in this not-so-innocent television feature. Perhaps someday, an autistic Ph.D researcher will take up the issue. For now, Bunny needs to move along.
P.S. If you have the stomach for it, you could check out the post and find my comments. But a word of warning: the determined bigoted ignorance of some people’s comments may be heartbreaking.