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THE WORD IS OUT ABOUT AUTISM
Canada in the Era of Autism Advocacy
A brief to the
Senate Standing Committee
on Social Affairs, Science, and Technology
on June 21, 2005
I’m a diagnosed autistic and a researcher affiliated with Laurent Mottron, MD/PhD’s autism research group here in Montreal. Dr Mottron is a University of Montreal Professor of Psychiatry, a CIHR-funded researcher, and the director of a busy autism clinic. I also work with the highly respected American experimental psychologist Morton Ann Gernsbacher, PhD, who recently was voted President Elect of the American Psychological Society. I’m interested in many areas in autism, including cognition, ethics, epidemiology, human rights, behaviour interventions, self-injury, and self-care.
I run an atypical organization called No Autistics Allowed, to which many autistics and non-autistics contribute.
In addition, I’ve done a lot of legal work, including successfully intervening in Auton at the Supreme Court of Canada, where I was the only intervener who opposed the unscientific and unethical positions taken by both sides, as well as the only intervener mentioned in the Court’s decision. More recently, I became the first person to have an autism-related complaint referred to the Canadian Human Rights Tribunal for a hearing.
At the same time, I set a different kind of precedent by losing three cases at the Quebec Human Rights Commission. Here it was ruled three times that autistic people are in fact a plague, and that describing us this way is not only not harmful to us, but is truly beneficial, and a sign that non-autistics with good intentions are helping us. Indeed, autistics should be grateful to have such dedicated advocates raising public awareness of our plague-like nature on our behalf.
The legal situation of autistics in Canada is unique. For no other group have the rights guaranteed for all other Canadians been so thoroughly obliterated. This situation is the direct consequence of the ongoing era of autism advocacy. Finding a jurisdiction which is still able to consider us as human beings with human rights verges on the impossible. You have rights imbuing you with worth and dignity and protecting you from being demeaned and coerced, but autistic Canadians do not. Those who call themselves autism advocates, some of whom this Committee has heard from, have successfully argued that for autistics, there should only be one right, the right to what these advocates advertise as "effective" autism treatment. In the course of arguing for this one right, autism advocacy groups, such as FEAT groups and autism societies, have argued that autistics inherently have no possibility of dignity, integrity, health, liberty, worth, learning, security, etc, or even of life itself. In short, we are inherently too defective to have Charter rights.
For example, FEAT Ontario argued at the Supreme Court of Canada that autistics are less than half living—and they have insisted that autistics belong not in families or in society, but in institutions. Autistics have been portrayed by autism advocates in the most dire and horrific terms. We destroy ourselves, our families, and the economy, and there are promises that we will shortly ruin the entire country so long as we are not expensively fixed. And our continued existence, as ourselves, as autistics, is held to be an affront to the whole idea of Canada.
At the same time, autism advocates claim that this impending national catastrophe can be averted, if there is unlimited funding for ABA(Applied Behavior Analysis)-based intensive interventions, Lovaas-type or otherwise, for all autistics of all ages. It should not surprise you that the premise of these comprehensive interventions, designed to occupy most of the waking hours of an autistic, is that autistics inherently lack humanity and personhood. As human beings, we are write-offs. Autistic abilities and traits are assumed to be non-existent, or destructive, useless and wrong. There is everything to gain, and nothing to lose, if our lives are dedicated to striving every minute to be normal, that is non-autistic. The goal of this kind of intervention, Ivar Lovaas has repeatedly written, is to build a person where none exists.
The nature of the treatment itself, along with the way it has been demanded by autism advocates in the healthcare system and elsewhere, has resulted in autistics having a less-than-human status in Canada. Governments and opposition parties, federal and provincial, have utterly failed in their duty to recognize autistics as human beings with rights, interests, and worth. To the contrary, politicians of all stripes have expediently heaped creative insults on their autistic constituents, while the current federal government boasts about opulent funding for preventing our existence altogether. Provincial human rights commissions have similarly failed to accord autistics any worth whatsoever. Ontario’s human rights commission told me that autism is cancer—another prominent idea promoted by autism advocates—and that my only right as an autistic is to get rid of my autism.
When I expressed dismay that the Ontario Ombudsman had, among many other insults to disabled people, persistently associated violence with disability, I was informed by this Ombudsman’s office that autistic people are indeed violent. I had previously thought that associating violence with disability was no different from or more acceptable than associating violence with race—but the word is out about autism, and I was put firmly in my place.
A few words about these hearings.
Senator Kirby has, in these hearings, misrepresented and mocked the polite request by an autistic person that autism be portrayed accurately in these hearings. What an absurd request, he is on the record as saying. How strange, how nearly offensive it is for a person who is autistic to point out that misrepresenting, sensationalizing, and demonizing autistics is harmful to us. This is on the heels of this entire Committee’s decision to highlight and distribute, among other misleading and harmful views of autism, a statement by an Autism Society Canada board member that autism is worse than cancer, because autism isn’t fatal. As with my cases presented to the Quebec Human Rights Commission, in which I objected to the existence of autistics being called a plague, I was informed that portraying autism as more dreadful than cancer was helpful to autistics, if I would only understand. This Committee seems sure that promoting fear, dread, and hatred of autism and autistic people will help us.
I should not have to explain why we are not helped by hate speech and other gross violations and denials of our rights.
advocates have had nothing good to say about autistics
in these hearings, I’m providing a short list of some
autistic characteristics found in the scientific
literature. Most of these findings are published in
peer-reviewed scholarly journals; one is in press;
many of them have been replicated; a few of them were
presented at recent major research conferences and
have not yet been published:
In this list, which isn’t comprehensive, I haven’t included superior abilities in specific intelligence tests. Neither have I added in the great susceptibility of autistics to develop savant abilities, and our extraordinary ability to learn well in ways non-autistics do not learn well. These are also in the science. In the case of learning, it is Dr Lovaas who so routinely observed autistic learning, which he admits happens in the absence of either teaching or reinforcement, that he had to invent a name for this phenomenon. However, he continued to deny this was real learning, because it is not how normal people learn. And he deployed the full undeniable power of ABA to extinguish this learning, including extinguishing savant abilities or genius behaviours, which he considered abnormal and unwanted.
Autistics should not have to justify our existence by providing a list of strengths which may then result, if we are lucky, in our being authorized to live. But we are most reliably defined by our strengths, our innate autistic strengths, which exist in all autistics regardless of how our level of functioning is judged. As with all innate characteristics, like left-handedness and homosexuality, removing autistic strengths is very hard work. This is one reason ABA programs are so expensive and arduous. Our tenacious and intractable strengths get in the way of any attempt to make us resemble normal people.
Unless I have time to make recommendations, I’ll finish with a short exploration of the recent Wynberg decision. In Wynberg, parents took on the Ontario government over funding for ABA for school-aged autistic children.
As a result of this decision—which, in the words of Mary Eberts, is "the law of the land"—children who are in ABA programs have human dignity; they have Charter rights. However, this decision also states that autistics who are not fully engaged striving to be normal via ABA programs do not have dignity. Autistics are ruled to be unable to learn in any other way, or towards any other goal, or to have any other possibilities. Either we strive to be normal through ABA, or we lack human dignity and worth, are not welcome to participate in society, and are judged not to have what it takes for "membership in the human community."
I have exactly the characteristics now enshrined in "the law of the land" as useless and maladaptive and wrong; and I lack many of the skills now legally defined as qualifications for human dignity and "membership in the human community."
On one hand, you should not be surprised that autism advocates roundly applauded this decision, which has the effect of requiring disadvantaged groups to qualify for Charter rights, and indeed for humanity itself, by sufficiently becoming normal—which in this case means non-autistic. On the other hand, you should be very surprised that those same autism advocates who insist that autism is cancer, and that ABA is medically necessary treatment that must be provided in the healthcare system, declared Wynberg a wonderful victory. But Wynberg, like the similarly celebrated Bettencourt decision, entirely denies that autism is a healthcare issue and that ABA is a medical treatment. Indeed, all the experts for both sides in Wynberg—and as is typical in these supposedly adversarial procedures, both sides provided only evidence supporting ABA—agreed that ABA is not medical in nature, and is not at all a medical treatment. The successful lawyers for the parents in the earlier Bettencourt case stated that the key to this victory was their position that autism is not a health issue at all.
Decisions made about the nature and needs of autistics in Canada are inevitably made according to the nature and needs of people who are not autistic. There is no consideration of who autistics might be and what we might need. Either we are horribly sick or we aren’t, depending on what non-autistics need. Autism advocates claiming to represent us characterize us as devastating burdens, and cannot contemplate that we need anything except to become non-autistic. They have no concept of autistics succeeding as autistic people. They have shown no interest in actually helping autistics, in obtaining for us the respect, acceptance and assistance we need in order to succeed as autistics.
Wynberg also documented that children in ABA programs learn that autism is a very bad thing. They learn that it is important not only that they themselves get rid of every bit of their autism, but that every bit of autism in all people must be gotten rid of. These children are lavishly reinforced for all incremental progress towards the ideal of being normal, and are discouraged, ignored, and shunned for in any way being autistic. Having learned intensively, through most of their waking hours for many years, that being autistic is wrong, many of these children—as reported by autism advocates and in cases like Bettencourt—"disintegrate", become distressed and out of control, and cannot function at all when there is any reduction of the reinforcement they are dependent on.
While I don’t have
time to challenge all the unscientific autism
statistics which have been rampant in these hearings,
any objective examination of the extravagant claims
made here by autism advocates will demolish any notion
that these advocates are at all concerned with
science, research, ethics, or evidence. Critical
thinking is required. For example, anyone proposing
that there is an explosion or epidemic or otherwise
staggering increase in the prevalence of autism is
doing so without a scientific leg to stand on. You
should notice that every attempt is being made by
autism advocates to make everyone terrified of autism
and autistic people, and you should notice that there
is no factual or ethical foundation for this
relentless campaign of fear and intolerance. You
should notice that autism advocates, with the full
co-operation of people like yourselves, are working
very hard to ensure that autistics will never receive
the help we very much need in order to succeed as
autistic people. Unless you reconsider, you are
standing alongside autism advocates in ensuring that
Canadians will never find out what autistics can
achieve in a society where it is okay to be autistic.
A SAMPLE OF RECOMMENDATIONS
For this Committee:
1. That this Committee, and the Senate as a whole, apologize to autistic Canadians, for using your power and resources to promote and distribute false and pejorative information about autistics which is likely to be damaging and dangerous to us.
2. Further, that this Committee include this apology in your final report arising from these hearings, and that this final report should exclude all false, pejorative, damaging, and dangerous portrayals of autism and of autistic people.
3. That the above-mentioned final report make it clear that autism is not a mental illness; that autism is receiving a great deal of attention due to the efforts of autism advocates; and that this attention, because it arises from factually false and ethically indefensible portrayals of autistic people, has harmed and damaged us.
4. That the same
report acknowledge that autistics, like non-autistics,
can suffer from mental illnesses; but that autistics,
due to living in a society which demeans and
disrespects us and accords us no rights, have specific
problems with situational depression, self-hate, lack
of any sense of worth, and suicidal ideation or
suicide. This is not in any way due to being autistic,
but due to constant messages from our society and its
leaders that we are worthless, wrong, and an appalling
burden on everyone. Because these messages are not
merely rhetoric, but policy which is implemented by
governments and government-funded organizations,
autistics also have basic survival problems. If and
when these problems are resolved such that we can
proceed safely in society and obtain assistance and
defend our rights as necessary, our other apparent
problems are likely to diminish. Our current
powerlessness to have any influence on any of the
decisions, great and small, made about ourselves as
autistics must also be mentioned as a factor impinging
on our mental and physical health.
For autistics in Canada:
1. That autistics receive the assistance, acceptance, and respect we require in order to succeed as autistics in Canadian society.
2. That guidelines be put in place re informing a parent of a diagnosis of autism, such that it is held to be unethical to present this news as devastating, or as a tragedy or disappointment, or to assert that the diagnosed child is in any way doomed or will need to be institutionalized.
3. That an accurate, unbiased, comprehensive resource for autism information be established, in response to autism organizations being dominated by autism advocates promoting one specific view of autism and autism treatment; such a source would precisely debunk false notions, for example, that autistics are unable to learn or to communicate except via ABA-based programs, or that 90% of autistics who do not get ABA are institutionalized..
4. That all areas of science, including cognitive work concerning the nature of autistic differences, rather than only behaviour science, or science regarding autism interventions or treatments, be taken into account when public policy decisions are made about autism; and that a wide variety of autistics, including those not expediently handpicked for this purpose by organizations consisting overwhelmingly of non-autistics, be fully and constantly consulted and advised about all such decisions.
5. That free legal services be available to autonomous autistic individuals, in order to enable us to establish then defend our rights, to maintain our autonomy, to intervene in any and all cases in which decisions are made about autism; and to challenge those who freely incite fear, dread, and hatred of autistic people; this would include challenges to governments and political parties, human rights commissions, and other government and government-funded organizations.
6. That the importance of autism-specific and instantly available crisis intervention be recognized, including legal intervention if necessary, so that sporadic difficulties, including basic survival problems, inevitably experienced by all autistics interacting with a largely hostile society, do not have permanent negative consequences for us, such as loss of our freedom and forced medication; further, that this kind of intervention take priority in funding over many other popular but unproven programs, including social skills training.
7. That no government funding or recognition be given to autism organizations, Canadian or otherwise, which for whatever reason have no meaningful and significant participation of autistics in all decision-making processes; and that Canadian governments and governmental organizations will not communicate or cooperate with such organizations, including funding bodies, for any reason.8. That parliament in a non-partisan way must uphold the value and humanity of autistic Canadians; and the value and contributions of our inherent differences to society; and our essential role in all decisions made about our treatment, our worth, our nature, and our rights in Canada.
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Wynberg v. Ontario, 2005 CanLII 8749 (ON S.C.)
|© Michelle Dawson 2005 | Published June 22, 2005|
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