I have seen several autistic people come out in support of ABA. Not nearly as many that are against it – but some. I have seen some autistic ABA professionals, not many, but some, that swear by ABA. Some of these pro-ABA autistic folks are big names in the community. Here’s my stance –
Those people have a voice. That voice is allowed to be heard. I won’t use terms like internalized ableism in this post, because in my idea it’s a loaded term, and one that people get their backs up hearing. What I will give you however, is observations about the people I’ve met who are pro-ABA and autistic, and the trends that come up when speaking to them.
Autistic people who are pro-ABA very often view themselves (and other autistic people) as disordered. They may use words such as “fixing”, “overcoming”, or “improving” their autism symptoms. Does this mean ABA didn’t “help” them? Not necessarily. They could have learned valuable skills – but those skills still could have been learned without the added message that they were disordered. Furthermore, an autistic person who views their autism as a disorder, while that is their choice, will more likely view ABA as a “solution” to their autism, meaning that they are more likely to view ABA as positive, if their original goal was to “appear less autistic”.
Autistic people who are pro-ABA often use functioning labels, or label others as “severely” autistic. The use of functioning labels is dehumanizing and doesn’t say anything concrete about the person or their needs. It makes assumptions on what the person can understand, feel, and experience based on outside observations of things such as obvious stimming, or the ability (or lack of) to engage in verbal speech.
The autistic people who are pro-ABA very often base their opinion on one or two good experiences. In Canada, there is a very small group of autistic people that are regularly featured on ABA panels, especially as autistic representation is being pushed for . Those autistic people are used as a “gotcha” when many of us speak up about the issues with the ABA industry. As in – “but look! So and so says ABA is good, so all of you must be lying!” The autistic people I’ve met and spoken to that are pro-ABA say “I/my child has had a good experience with ABA, that’s why I advocate for it”. And that may be true, but ABA’s problems lie at the systemic level – in how ABA therapists are trained, how very little education is needed about autism in order to work as an RBT, how ABA as an industry prevents funding from moving on to other therapies or approaches, and how often even the most well-meaning BCBAs don’t see what is going on when the RBTs are the ones who are carrying out the intervention plan.
Autistic folks who are in support of ABA have every right to be in support of it. They should be listened to and heard, but not at the expense of autistic folks trying to bring light to the field’s harms. Furthermore, I urge us all to consider that an autistic person in support of ABA may be in an environment where they were praised for overcoming autism, praised or otherwise rewarded for speaking positively about ABA, or be placed in a position of power over other autistics because they are “pro-ABA”. Pro-ABA autistics are often shut out of autistic circles, which isn’t right. However, ABA professionals and other non-autistic people with money in the ABA industry will use the isolation that the pro-ABA autistic person faces to their advantage, oftentimes using anti-autistic rhetoric and common arguments such as “Self-identification of autism takes away from REAL autism”, ” those autistic people are angry, you don’t want to be like them”, or other similar arguments, that then place the ABA-positive autistic person as highly regarded in “autism community” circles. The pro-ABA autistic person feels seen and valued, and so continue to stay in those circles. Can we blame them?
All of this to say – Pro-ABA autistics exist, but the tokenization of them for the ABA industry’s benefit needs to stop. The argument I so often hear is “autistic people are not a monolith”, which… of course. Nothing can ever be a monolith. Non-autistic people aren’t monoliths either. However, there are trends. There are power imbalances. There is a history behind why people stand for or against something. There are internal biases. And to not examine these reasons is harmful.
So… yes, I know about Autistics who are in favor of ABA. The difference is, I look a little deeper.