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BBC Documentaries Next Week on the History and Prejudice against the Disabled

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Thu, 14/01/2021 - 10:19pm in

Next week the Beeb is showing two programmes, one on the history of disabled people and the other on the prejudice, discrimination and cruelty they experience. The first of these programmes is Silenced: The Hidden Story of Disabled Britain, on BBC 2 on Tuesday, 19th January 2021, at 9.00 pm. The blurb for it on page 88 of the Radio Times runs

Writer, actor and presenter Cerrie Burnell tells the story of how disabled people have had to fight back following more than 100 years of being shut out of society, denied basic human rights and treated with fear and prejudice. The former CBeebies host, who was born without the lower part of her right arm, discovers how modern attitudes to disabled people were formed in Victorian Britain’s workhouses, and hears stories from the brave pioneers who have changed the lives of those affected forever.

There’s a bit more about the programme by Alison Graham on page 86:

Cerrie Burnell, who was born without the lower part of her right arm, reads from a newspaper story about parents’ complaints when she became a CBeebies presenter in 2009. She was, apparently, “scaring children” and will always be remembered as “the woman with one arm”.

Burnell carries that quiet anger throughout this powerful film looking at society’s treatment of disabled people throughout history.

It’s a litany of casual cruelty, misguided “kindness” and downright wickedness, as men, women and children were put, out of sight and often for decades, in institutions.

The following day, Wednesday 20th January 2021, there’s Targeted: the Truth about Disability Hate Crime, on the same channel, BBC 2, also at 9.00 pm. The blurb for this in the Radio Times on page 98. runs

Testimony from a handful of the nation’s 14 million disabled people reveals just how tough it is to live with a disability in 21st century Britain. Among those telling their stories are Hannah, a young mixed-race woman who has cerebral palsy and is clear about the fact that it is her disability, not her skin colour, that provokes discrimination. Andrea, who has dwarfism, says she is routinely treated with contempt and reveals how she was left with a fractured skull and being kicked in the head. Dan, who has autism and just wants to fit in, finds himself a social outcast and now suffers from severe depression having fallen prey to random violent attacks.

Radio 4 has also been running a ten part series on the history of the disabled for several weeks now, Disability: A New History. The 5th instalment, which is on next Sunday, 17th January 2021 at 2.45 pm, is entitled ‘Finding a Voice’. The blurb for it says

‘Peter White highlights the work of William Hay, an 18th-century MP born with spinal curvature.’

I’m mentioning these programmes, especially that on hate crime, because the Tories and New Labour have both been determined to demonise disabled people and find ways to throw them off benefits. The work capability examinations, devised in conjunction with American insurance fraudster Unum, are based on the assumption that a particular percentage of claims for disability are fake and that those making the claim are malingering. This has seen jobcentres falsify the evidence given by claimants in order to fulfil the number of claimants they are required to deny benefits. As for the violence experienced by the disabled, a friend of mine told me he had been abused several times while out with his wife, who had to use a wheelchair. He blamed one of the characters on Little Britain for the rise in prejudice. This was the disabled character, who gets up from his wheelchair to run around when his carer leaves him. I’m no fan of Little Britain, but I think a far greater cause of prejudice and hostility is the Tory. This consistently vilifies the disabled and other benefit claimants as scroungers and malingers, to the extent that the British public think 27 per cent of all claims for benefit are fraudulent, while the true figure is less than one per cent. Mike over at Vox Political has put up very many posts covering this topic, as well as the numerous deaths of people with severe disabilities, who were wrongfully and grotesquely thrown off the benefits they needed to survive. I hope this will also be covered in the documentaries. But as it’s the Beeb, it probably won’t.

Trailer for HBO Series on Heaven’s Gate Suicide Cult

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Wed, 13/01/2021 - 5:26am in

The ’90s were a decade marred by the mass deaths of cult members. There was the Order of the Solar Temple, the horrific immolation of the Branch Davidians in their conflict with the FBI and Heaven’s Gate. HBO Max started screening a documentary series about the latter on December 3rd last year. I found this trailer for it on YouTube. Although it’s just over 2 minutes long, it shows the cult’s main beliefs and the background to the tragedy.

The cult was led by a man and woman, here identified as ‘Do’ and ‘Ti’. They died wearing badges announcing that they were an ‘away team’, and believed that after they left their bodies, they would ascend to become aliens of a superior species and take their seats in a spacecraft in or following a visiting comment. Several of the men had been castrated. Their bodies were discovered covered in purple sheets.

The blurb for the series on its YouTube page gives a bit more information. It says

“Heaven’s Gate: The Cult of Cults” is a thorough examination of the infamous UFO cult through the eyes of its former members and loved ones. What started in 1975 with the disappearance of 20 people from a small town in Oregon ended in 1997 with the largest suicide on US soil and changed the face of modern new age religion forever. This four-part docuseries uses never-before-seen footage and first-person accounts to explore the infamous UFO cult that shocked the nation with their out-of-this-world beliefs.

“Heaven’s Gate: The Cult of Cults” is a Max Original produced by CNN and Campfire. Directed and executive produced by Clay Tweel (“Gleason”), the docuseries is also executive produced by Campfire CEO Ross Dinerstein (“The Innocent Man”) and Shannon Riggs, with Chris Bannon, Eric Spiegelman, Peter Clowney and Erik Diehn executive producing for the digital media company Stitcher (“Heaven’s Gate” podcast, “Sold in America” podcast).

Heaven’s Gate: The Cult of Cults | Official Trailer | HBO Max – YouTube

The Fortean Times did a piece about the cult. As the TV series’ blurb says, the two cult leaders had been knocking around the UFO world for years. I can’t remember their real names, except that they had a couple of nicknames. Apart from ‘Do’ and ‘Ti’, they were also called ‘Him’ and ‘Her’. I think their message had started off claiming that they end was nigh, but that the Space Brothers were coming to help us. It’s a message shared by several UFO religions and Contactees. In the 1950s a Chicago psychic had claimed she had received similar messages telepathically from alien telling her that the world was going to end, but she was to assemble as many followers as she could. These would then be saved by the aliens, who would take them aboard their spacecraft. The psychic and her followers duly assembled on the date of the predicted arrival of the aliens, but the world didn’t end and the aliens didn’t show up. The group had, however, been joined by a group of sociologists from Chicago University, who were studying them. They were particularly interested in how the cult’s members continued to believe in its central message even after it had failed to come true. One of the sociologist’s published a book about it, entitled, When Prophecy Fails, which I think is now a classic of academic studies on UFOs and their believers. The psychic’s group differed from Heaven’s Gate in that none of them, I believe, committed suicide.

The aliens in which Heaven’s Gate believed were bald and asexual, and look very much like one of the stereotypes of UFO aliens taken from SF ‘B’ movies. The bald heads and large craniums show that the aliens are super-intelligent. It ultimately comes from a 19th century evolutionary theory, which held that as humanity evolved, the brain would expand at the expense of the body, and the sensual aspects of humanity would similarly wither. As a result, humans would become smaller, with larger heads and brains. The ultimate endpoint of this evolution are H.G. Wells’ Martians from The War of the Worlds. Astronomers at the time believed that Mars was an older world than Earth, and so Wells’ Martians are similarly far more advanced in their evolution than terrestrial humanity. They consist of large heads with tentacles. As their brains have expanded, their digestive systems have atrophied so that they feed by injecting themselves with blood.

It’s because their supposed aliens were asexual that some of the men in the group had travelled to Mexico to be castrated. It’s also been suggested that it may also have been because the group’s male leader was gay. If he was, and the group’s rejection of gender and sexuality stemmed from his failure to come to terms with his sexuality, then it’s a powerful argument for the acceptance of homosexuality. It’s far better for a gay person to be comfortable with their sexuality than to feel such shame and confusion that they mutilate themselves. This aspect of the Heaven’s Gate ideology also seems to me to be similar to the reason for some families referring their children for treatment as transgender. Opponents of the contemporary transgender movement have claimed that the majority of children referred to clinics like the Tavistock Clinic come from extremely homophobic backgrounds. They’ve argued that they’re seen as transgender by their parents, who have convinced the children of this, because it’s the only way the parents can cope with the child’s sexuality. They can’t accept that their son or daughter is gay, and prefer to believe that they have instead been born in the wrong body. Gay critics of the trans movement and their allies thus see the transitioning of such vulnerable children as a form of gay conversion therapy. That’s certainly how Iran views it. Homosexuality is illegal there, carrying the death penalty. However, gender reassignment surgery is paid for by the state. I got the impression that Iranians gays were offered the choice between death and having a sex change.

The cult’s description of themselves as an ‘Away Team’ was taken from the Star Trek series, Star Trek: The Next Generation and Deep Space 9 then on television. The ‘Away Team’ were what had been called in the Original Series the ‘landing party’ – the group that would beam down from the Enterprise to explore that episode’s planet. One of the cult’s members and victims was the brother of actress Nichelle Nichols, who played Lieutenant Uhura in the Original Series and subsequent films.

Their belief that the world was about to be visited by an alien spaceship was the unfortunate consequence of a misidentification of a known star by a pair of German amateur astronomers. They had been out looking for a comet that was due to come close to Earth. They found it, but with it was an object they couldn’t find on their star maps. They therefore went on the web to inquire what it might be, and the myth developed that it was some kind of alien spacecraft many times bigger than Earth, which was following said comet. Of course, it was no such thing. It was a star that didn’t appear on the maps the pair were using because it was too dim to be visible to the naked eye. It was, however, bright enough for them to see it using binoculars. The Cult’s leaders took the appearance of this supposed alien spacecraft to be the spaceship they had long expected to take them all to a higher plane with tragic consequences. Although the world was shocked by this disaster and the cult’s apparently weird beliefs, folklorist Jan Harold Brunvand pointed out that their idea of being taken to heaven in a ship actually came from a strand of American Christianity. There have been a number of hymns written describing Christian believers going to heaven in just such a vessel.

The trailer for the series also says that the cult’s members were intelligent and came from good families. I don’t doubt this. I’ve heard that members of new religious movements are often of above average intelligence. Perhaps it’s because such people are more intellectually curious and less satisfied with conventional religion. However, it also seems, at least according to the Fortean Times article, that many of the cult’s members also had problems functioning independently. They apparently were always contacting somebody to help them solve ordinary, every day problems like how to peel an apple correctly. I wonder if they suffered from a psychological or neurological condition like autism, which left them unable to cope with ordinary life and so vulnerable to being dominated by a charismatic personality with a message that appeared to solve all their problems.

The series looks like a fascinating insight into one of the decade’s apocalyptic, extreme religions with its roots in the UFO milieu. However, the series will be over by now, and if it was on HBO Max, it’s doubtful that very many people will have seen it. But perhaps it’ll be repeated sometime on one of the more popular TV channels. And I hope that events and the landscape of religious and paranormal belief have changed in the meantime, so that there will never be another tragedy like it.

I Don’t Want You to ‘Believe’ Me. I Want You to Listen.

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Sat, 05/12/2020 - 4:49am in

Tags 

autism, philosophy

I fear that the more I tell you, the less you will understand who I am.

Sargon of Gasbag on Black Lives Matter’s Material for Schools’ Day of Action

I’m no doubt going too far in some people’s eyes by reblogging this. After all, this is Carl Benjamin, aka Sargon of Akkad, the Sage of Swindon and the man who broke UKIP. Sargon’s a true-blue Libertarian Tory. He supports Boris Johnson’s Tories, Donald Trump and was formerly a member of UKIP. He passionately supports Brexit, capitalism and doesn’t believe that the Tories are privatising the NHS on the grounds that he thinks no-one would buy it. Although he is anti-racist and has debate the Alt Right, his own nationalist views are so extreme that he himself has been accused of racism. He has very conservative views on women and gender. When he was adopted by the Kippers as one of their candidates in a Euro election a few years ago, it became a national scandal. There were protests against him when he tried speaking in Bristol and Cornwall. People threw milkshakes and buckets of fish over him, and he was banned from a local restaurant here in Bristol. There were letters of protest against his candidacy from the other Kippers. The Gloucestershire branch dissolved itself in disgust, and a very large proportion of the party’s membership resigned.

I don’t share his political views and strongly disagree with him about Brexit. It’s destroying Britain. As is Johnson’s free trade Thatcherism. And the NHS is most definitely being privatised.

But I’m reblogging his post about the materials Black Lives Matter had put together for a proposed day of action in schools this summer because I believe that while he misses the point and is wrong about many of the issues BLM raise with their teaching materials, there are others that he is right to tackle and criticise.

Someone leaked the school syllabus Black Lives Matter had put together onto the web, and Sargon makes it clear that it’s a full-one attempt to indoctrinate children. He then goes on to critique some of BLM’s proposals one by one.

He begins with BLM’s call for a week of action in schools. This declares itself to be a national uprising that affirms the lives of Black students, teaches and families. This week centres classroom lessons on structural racism, intersectional Black identities, Black history and anti-racism through the thirteen guiding principles of the Black Lives Matter movement.

Sargon declares that this is an attempt to indoctrinate children with a one-sided view of history, politics and moral philosophy without their parents’ presence or even knowledge, in order to turn them into activists. Sargon naturally states that this not something he would like them to do to his children.

He then goes through Black Lives Matters’ Guiding Principles. They are

Restorative Justice: We intentionally build and nurture a beloved community that is bonded together through a peaceful struggle that is restorative, not depleting. This strikes Sargon as like a cult, like some of those he read about a while ago, where they interrogated each other in order to form a tightly-knit community in which they were emotionally connected in a weird and unfriendly way.

Diversity: We respect and acknowledge differences and commonality. Sargon doesn’t comment on this, but this seems to be the standard attitude now being taught in schools and promoted as the norm throughout society.

Empathy: We practice empathy. We engage comrades with intent to learn about and connect with their contexts.

Loving Engagement: We embody and practice justice, liberation and peace in our engagements with one another.

Queer Affirming: We foster a queer-affirming network. When we gather, we do so with the intention of freeing ourselves from the tight grip of heteronormative thinking or rather, the belief that all in the world are heterosexual unless s/he or they express otherwise. Sargon doesn’t comment on this either, but at one level it’s also unremarkable. Schools have also come under pressure to tackle homophobia and promote gay tolerance and equality. There are problems with this when it comes to what is age appropriate. Homophobia is certainly not confined to the Black community, but it does seem to be particularly strong there. A few years ago back in the 1990s BBC Radio 4 broadcast a documentary, The Roots of Intolerance, in which the Black British gay presenter went across Britain and the Caribbean seeking to understand where the deep hatred of gays in Black society came from. This was a particular issue at the time, as there was a spate of extremely homophobic songs emerging from Black artists. That controversy has now died down somewhat, but I don’t believe the situation has altered in the past 25+ years. I disagree with this part of BLM’s manifesto because the attack on heteronormativity is too extreme and should not be taught and encouraged.

Transgender Affirming: We are self-reflexive and do the work required to dismantle cisgender privilege and uplift Black trans folk, especially Black trans women, who continue to be disproportionately impacted by trans-antagonistic violence. We particularly make space for transgender brothers and sisters to participate and lead. Sargon states that if he caught a school teaching his children this, he would take them out. He even says he’d send them to a Catholic school – and he was a militant atheist. This radical stance is aimed particularly at the Black community, but seems to be part of the general trend throughout American and British society. Trans activists are campaigning for this to be taught in schools. Again there are problems with what is age appropriate, and also the indoctrination of the vulnerable. Some children are being taught by the medically unqualified that they are transgender, while in fact they may simply be mentally ill. There is particular concern that those convinced that they are transgender may be simply autistic. Girls are being particularly affected, and so some opponents of the radical trans movement feel that it is an anti-feminist ideology.

Unapologetically Black: We are unapologetically Black in our positioning. In affirming that Black Lives Matter we do not need to qualify our position to love and desire freedom and justice for ourselves is a prerequisite for wanting the same for others. Sargon makes the point that this also validates the idea that White lives matter as well. In fairness, Black Lives Matter has never said that they didn’t, although some of their members, like Sasha Johnson, almost certainly don’t believe they do. But Sargon also argues that their statement about being unapologetically Black means that their opponents can also argue that they are unapologetically White. Their stance legitimates White nationalism. The only way they can combat this is by adopting Robin Di Angelo’s tactic of stating ‘it’s rules for me but not for thee’.

Black Women: We build a space that affirms Black women and is free of sexism, misogyny and environments in which men are centred. Sargon doesn’t mention it, but this seems to be just another approach Black Lives Matter shares with other radical groups and which reflects the anti-sexism campaigns in general society.

Black Families: We make our spaces family-friendly and enable parents to fully participate with their children. We dismantle the patriarchal practice that requires mothers to work double shifts so they can mother in private even as they participate in public justice work. This confuses Sargon as he says that he thought patriarchy wanted women in the home, barefoot and pregnant. But I think he’s failed to reaslise that this section appears to written for those poorer families, where the absence of a father means that the children aren’t supported by the second income that is now required to support a family. This situation is particularly acute among the Black community, but certainly isn’t unique to it. It is also found among the White poor.

Black Villages: We disrupt the western prescribed nuclear family structure requirement by supporting each other as extended families and villages that collectively care for one another, especially our children to the degree that mothers, parents and children are comfortable. Sargon states that this is a fantasy world.

He has a point in that it appears to be a racialised view, that idealises the African model of communal childcare. For example, in many traditional African cultures the women of the village also breastfeed each other’s children. And then there’s that supposed African proverb about it taking a village to raise a child. But no-one has ever been able to find such a saying in traditional African lore.

However, there is a general principle here that is perfectly acceptable. When my parents were settling down to raise us, they had the support of relatives and neighbours. People at that time did look out for each other, giving poorer friends items they had no longer use for, doing each others’ shopping and looking after each other’s children in sickness and emergencies. That hasn’t completely vanished, but it was done much more than is now common. That sense of community has been damaged by the extreme individualism that is atomising society.

Globalism: We see ourselves as part of a global Black family and we are aware of the different ways we are impacted or privileged as Black people who exist in different parts of the world. This seems to follow the pattern of much Black activism. Black civil rights campaigners have seen the struggle of western Blacks as part of a general, global struggle of Black nations for independence from White domination since at least W.E.B. DuBois, who moved to Ghana after it gained independence.

Intergenerational: We cultivate an intergenerational and communal network free from ageism. We believe that all people, regardless of age, show up with the capacity to lead and learn. Sargon believes that this erases children, but thinks this is good for the kind of people this would attract. This is wrong. The statement simply means they value older people. Again, it’s in line with the general, mainstream attack on ageism.

Collective Value: We are guided by the fact that all Black Lives Matter regardless of actual or perceived sexual identity, gender identity, gender expression, economic status, ability, disability religious beliefs or disbeliefs, immigration status or location. This, Sargon declares, is the endpoint of the radical left’s thinking in race. Or it could be an attempt to create a united Black community with its own sense of pride in order to combat some of the real issues plaguing the Black community, like drugs and Black on Black violence.

Sargon on BLM’s ‘Talking to Young Children

Sargon then moves on to the section about Talking to Young Children about the Guiding Principles of the Black Lives Matter Movement. Sargon states that this section uses phraseology, that could only be by people who don’t have children. He then singles out the sections on ‘diversity’, ‘globalism’ and ‘transgender-affirming’. The last says that ‘everyone get to choose their own gender through listening to their heart and mind. Everyone gets to choose whether they are a girl or a boy or both or neither or something else, and no-one gets to choose for them’. Which Sargon sarcastically warns will leave children rather confused. And I believe that is one of the dangers of adopting such a radical stance when it comes to gender identity. I don’t doubt that some people do feel that they are in the wrong body, and that after very careful thought and medical advice they should be able to transition. But this is something rather more complicated than saying people choose their own gender identity.

‘Collective value’ – Sargon thinks this is the same as individual value.

‘Unapologetically Black’. This section states that there are lots of different kinds of people and one way that we are different is through the colour of our skin.’ Sargon believes that this highlights the issue of race, and will turn children into a generation of racists. The section goes on ‘It’s important to makes sure that all people are treated fairly, and that’s why we, and lots of other people all over the country and the world, are part of the Black Lives Matter movement.’ This tells children that they are going to be a race warrior for the Black Lives Matter movement. But this section also connects with what the movement was saying in their thirteen principles about also valuing people from other races, but that it had to start with Black people’s own first. It therefore does not mean that they necessary disparage other races.

Plans for Week of Action

He then goes on to critique their plans for a week of action, which is a week of activism. This is simply to train children how to be activists. The programme includes sections like ‘Show Solidarity’, ‘Post on Social Media’, ‘Teach a Lesson’, ‘Attend an Event’, create things. He believes this document is real, because it has too many graphics to be otherwise. He points out the contradiction between their statement that they embody and practice justice, liberation and peace in their engagements with each other with a raised fist, a representation of violence.

The materials also include abstracted posters that can be used. Sargon believes that the consistency of the messages shows that this was planned in a central committee. He then goes on to discuss their suggestions for what should be taught at elementary school. Which includes youth activism. The plans for their week of action include ‘Day 1 kick-off: using your voice for a cause; Day 2: past and present youth activism’; guiding questions like ‘what is a cause?’, ‘what does it mean to use your voice for a cause? ‘, ‘why is it important to stand up for what you believe in?’, ‘what are the different ways we can create change?’, ‘home issues and the home community’, a project day. Sargon criticises this on the grounds that they are training children who are unable to think critically about what they are being taught, nor do they know any of the facts of the matter behind it. Sargon does not assume that they will give them a fully informed picture either. He calls it indoctrination.

Postmodernism and Afro Futurism in High School

Moving on to the material for high school, he says that this is where it gets really good. Like ‘Afrofuturism’ and ‘Postmodern Principles’. Sargon asks rhetorically whether he wants a group of radical race warriors, who consider everything about our society racist, to indoctrinate his children into a postmodern education? He says ‘No’, and adds that it’s only because he doesn’t want his child to come out of school believing that the world around him into which he’s been born and raised is evil and that he has to do everything in his power to tear it down. And that he himself, as a White person, is going to be part of the problem. And that every Black person he meets is some kind of inferior species, that needs his help and guidance to be saved. He doesn’t agree with that kind of worldview at all, nor with postmodernism as the kind of lens to view things with.

Sargon is absolutely right about Postmodernism. I extensively criticised it earlier when this blog was centred on Christian Apologetics. Postmodernism and cultural relativism are entirely inadequate as the basis for morality because of their rejection of the idea that it is objective. This was also the attitude of the Italian Fascists and Nazis. Mussolini took over Nietzsche’s idea that there was no objective morality, and the Nazis believed that morality and philosophical values differed from nation to nation according to race and ethnicity. Hence the Nazis’ insistence on Aryan science, maths and other racist nonsense. But the idea of racial and gender equality, for example, demands an objective morality that applies to all humans and is universally valid. Postmodernism, despite its pretensions to do this, actually doesn’t support such universal and objective values.

He believes this comes out in the section on Afro Futurism. This begins with a section on ‘Utopia’, which defines it as ‘an imagined place where everything is perfect, and asks the reader to define their utopia.’ It asks people to dream about their perfect place, a consistent theme throughout the documents. It asks the students what problems they could solve with their superpowers and what they would look like in this imaginary world. Sargon responds with ‘Who cares? You live in the real world’ and points out that they have limited resources at hand and limited options. So they should stop talking about an imaginary freedom of the will, as if the will is something separate to the physical world and gets to decide everything for it. He doesn’t want them thinking about superpowers, but asking how they can get good grades, how can they get a good job, how can they be healthy and stable, how can they raise children of their own, how can they form a family and be a healthy person.

This is a fair criticism. From what I can see, Afro Futurism simply means Black science fiction and particularly the imagining of Black advanced technological societies, like Wakanda in the film Black Panther, based on the Marvel comic books. There’s nothing wrong with such dreams, but schools should be teaching more immediate and achievable goals and aspirations to their students.

High School Materials

From this he moves on to the high school section, where there is more interesting stuff. Like ‘the BLM High School: the Black Panther Party’; ‘Social Justice Mathematics Materials’; ‘Black Lives Matter Haiti’, ‘Chicago Race Riots’, all of which Sargon describes as full-on Black Lives Matter propaganda. Sargon states that this doesn’t mean that they’ll get the opportunity to pump this out, but the fact that they’ve prepared it shows that there is time, money and materials behind it and it will get somewhere.

Then on to their reading materials. These include the Black Panther’s Apologia. This is the Panther’s 10 point programme, which were:

  1. We want freedom. We want the power to determine the destiny of our Black and oppressed communities.
  2. We want full employment for our people. They believed that the federal government had the responsibility and obligation to give everyone either a job or a guaranteed income. Sargon shows his libertarianism here by saying that it shows that they believed that they were the serfs of the state. This part of their manifesto is certainly radical. If you read it, it says that if businessmen are not willing to provide employment, the technology and means of production should be taken away from them and placed in the hands of the people, so that they can do so. It’s certainly a communist demand. But at the time this was written, in Britain the social democratic post-war consensus was still governing British politics. This meant that the government believed it had the responsibility to create full employment. This was through a mixed economy and state economic planning. Attlee only nationalised a very small number of industries, and so it did not necessarily mean that the state would employ everyone, only that it would help create the economic framework for everyone to be able to get a job. As for a guaranteed income, this could just mean proper unemployment benefit. This was part of the minimum welfare provision set up by Roosevelt’s New Deal, but I don’t know how far it extended. Like the British unemployment benefit before the creation of the welfare state, it may have only reached certain sections of the working class. In which case the Panther’s demands are entirely reasonable.
  3. We want an end to the robbery by the capitalists of our Black and oppressed communities. Sargon questions this by stating that if they believe the state is robbing them, why do they want it to provide them with a job, as they wouldn’t be free. This section goes back to the old promise of 40 acres and two mules. Sargon asks what they would do with this if they were dumped in the middle of the Midwest. They wouldn’t be able to take care of two mules. He knows he wouldn’t know what to do with them, and that they wouldn’t know either. Again, if you actually look at what they’re proposing, they also say they would accept the monetary equivalent. They’re talking about reparations for slavery, and for the slaughter of 50 million Black people they believe America has committed worldwide.
  4. We want decent housing, fit for human beings.
  5. We want decent education for our people. This also includes the statement that it should expose the true nature of decadent American society. They want to be taught the true history of their people and role in present-day society. Which looks like the origin of Black History Month.
  6. We want completely free healthcare. Sargon reads this out, but makes no comment. But it’s a reasonable request, and is behind the NHS in Britain, now under attack from the same forces of capitalism that the Panthers saw as oppressing Black Americans.
  7. We want an end to police brutality and murder of Black people, and all other people of colour, all oppressed people inside the United States. From what little I know of the Black Panthers, it was the casual police killing of Blacks that provoked the rise of the Panthers in the first place. They believed the only way they could protect Black people was to take up guns and shoot back. Hence Sasha Johnson’s bizarre fantasy of setting up a Black militia here in the UK, despite this country’s rather different history.
  8. We want an immediate end to all wars of aggression. This was obviously written during the Vietnam War, but it’s still applicable now.
  9. We want freedom for all Black and oppressed people. Sargon skips over this, omitting that it’s about freeing people in jail, and that they also want trial by a jury of peers for everyone charged with so-called crimes under the country’s laws. This is a central cornerstone of western justice.
  10. We want bread, housing, education, justice, peace. Sargon declares that these are flights of fantasy that sound like radical communist agitation, and for the Black Panthers, a militant, murderous party. Certainly the Panthers do seem from this to have been very radical left, and influenced by communism. But the demand for decent housing, full employment and free healthcare could be solved simply through a social democratic mixed economy welfare state. Horrifyingly radical to Americans, but the norm in Britain at the time.

Social Justice Maths

Sargon goes on to other topics, which he thinks are very weird. Like materials for social justice mathematics, a copy of Oakland police statistics for 1st July 2013, and Stanford university’s big study of racial disparites, and the stats for New York police’s stop and frisk.

Sargon’s Concluding Criticisms

Then there’s the Teaching Tolerance Guide, subtitled ‘Discussing Race, Racism and other Difficult Topics with Other Students’. There are also videos. Sargon once again describes it as a social justice package – which is quite correct – and states that the same talking points are repeated over and over again throughout it. He states that it is to present a one-sided narrative on all these points in order to construct the belief that American and other societies are uniquely evil, encouraging children to go into flights of fantasy about what might be, instead of being pragmatic, responsible and trying to build a better world one step at a time.

Sargon says that this should be resisted at all costs. If you’re a parent, you should enquire at your local school if they have any Black Lives Matter teaching materials that they will be teaching your children and request a copy of them. And if they don’t, you should kick up a stink, threaten to pull your child out and tell other parents to do so, because this is racial indoctrination. He even says that you could send the other parents this video to show what these materials look like.

He then ends the video by plugging his merchandising, based on Orwell’s statement that in a time of universal deceit, telling the truth is a revolutionary act. And with Black Lives Matter we have entered that time of deceit. Our societies are not evil. They are good societies. Black Lives Matter is a malign cult, which he believes has spread through our societies because they are good, decent and people do not want to be racist. This is partly right. Black Lives Matter exists because society does treat Black people unfairly, but it has spread because people do not want to be racist as the mixed race crowds of their protests show. He believes it has spread through a postmodernist education establishment with a deconstructionist agenda which says that if things are looked at in a certain way, White societies are uniquely evil when they aren’t.

Here’s Sargon’s video.

The materials Sargon analyses and critiques in this video seem to show that in many ways Black Lives Matter is unremarkable. It has much in common with other left-wing movements demanding racial and gender equality and promoting gay and now trans rights. It also seems to follow much previous Black activism in connecting the deprivation of Blacks in the west with White western imperialism and colonialism. I don’t dispute either that its view that Blacks are particularly disadvantaged in America is due to institutional racism, as certainly legislation has been used to disqualify Blacks from opportunities, jobs and services, including welfare provision, that has been reserved for Whites.

This is not the whole story, however, and such a view should not be taught in school. What is appropriate as voluntary community activism becomes dangerous indoctrination when taught in the classroom. The idealisation of the Black Panthers is a particular problem. While much of their demands were reasonable and entirely justified, they were a violent paramilitary terrorist organisation. It’s intoxication with the Panthers and their violence that has inspired Sasha Johnson to style herself as a Black Panther and try to set up her own, similar Black paramilitary organisation.

I also share Sargon’s objections to teaching children that western society is uniquely evil and persecutes Blacks, who always require particular assistance. And that Whites are responsible for this, and somehow intrinsically racist unless taught otherwise. This is only part of the story, and the reality can be far more complex.

Despite its careful wording about tolerance and diversity, the materials for BLM’s proposed day of action would only create more racial hostility, division and resentment. They should definitely not be taught in schools.

Autism and Behaviorism

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Wed, 22/01/2020 - 6:15am in

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autism
January 21, 2020

Autism and Behaviorism
New Research Adds to an Already Compelling Case Against ABA

By Alfie Kohn

When a common practice isn’t necessary or useful even under presumably optimal conditions, it’s time to question whether that practice makes sense at all. For example, if teachers don’t need to give grades even in high school (and if eliminating grades clearly benefits their students), how can we justify grading younger children? If research shows there’s little or no benefit to assigning homework even in math, which is the discipline that proponents assume makes the clearest case for its value, why would we keep assigning it in other subjects?

And if it turns out that, contrary to widespread assumptions, behavior modification techniques aren’t supported by solid data even when used with autistic kids, why would we persist in manipulating anyone with positive reinforcement? A rigorous new meta-analysis utterly debunks the claim that applied behavior analysis (ABA) therapy is the only intervention for children with autism that’s “evidence-based.” In fact, it raises serious questions about whether ABA merits that description at all.

Before exploring the new report, let’s take a minute to consider what we know about rewards and positive reinforcement more generally. In 2018, I reviewed two decades of recent research for the 25th-anniversary edition of my book Punished by Rewards. These studies strongly confirm the original findings: Carrots, like sticks, are not merely ineffective over the long haul but often actively counterproductive — at work, at school, and at home — and these negative effects are found across ages, genders, and cultural settings. As a rule, the more you reward people for doing something, the more they tend to lose interest in whatever they had to do to get the reward. And they often end up being less successful at a task they’re completing than are people who weren’t offered any reward for doing it. (Even more damaging, according to the research, is an arrangement where people are offered a reward for doing something well.)

In the face of such evidence, which has been accumulating for about half a century, the last refuge of behaviorists has been to claim that rewards must be used on people with special needs and challenges. Heavy-handed controlling tactics, and rewards in particular, are most pervasively applied to children who carry a label that sets them apart. They are often subjected to a relentless regimen of Skinnerian manipulation, complete with elaborate charts, point systems, and reinforcement schedules. Even teachers and clinicians who would hesitate to treat other children that way assume it’s justified, or even necessary, to do so with, well, you know, those kids.

But that claim has always been hard to defend based on research. Even older studies showed, for example, that (a) teachers act in a more controlling way with children who are thought to have a learning disability than they do with other students, (b) moral objections aside, the use of control almost always backfires, (c) children identified as learning disabled are just as intrinsically motivated to learn as their peers are in the early grades, but (d) they soon come to be “more dependent on external sources of evaluation” such as rewards and praise, “whereas regular students [feel more] capable of making decisions on their own.” (I’m quoting here from a study in the Journal of Clinical Child Psychology). Much the same is true of children whose diagnosis would now be ADHD.1 In fact, regardless of whether we’re talking about kids with emotional issues, problems with learning or attention, intellectual disabilities, or behavior challenges, offering rewards (including praise) for doing what the adult wants can sometimes buy temporary compliance, but rarely does the intended effect generalize to other situations. And not uncommonly it is actually worse than doing nothing.

However, like economists with their axiomatic commitment to using incentives to change people’s behavior, “behavior analysts” have set up an unfalsifiable belief system: When behavioral manipulation fails, the blame is placed on the specific reinforcement protocol being used or on the adult who implemented it or on the child — never on behaviorism itself. The underpinnings of that ideology include: a focus only on observable behaviors that can be quantified, a reduction of wholes to parts, the assumption that everything people do can be explained as a quest for reinforcement, and the creation of methods for selectively reinforcing whichever behaviors are preferred by the person with the power. Behaviorists ignore, or actively dismiss, subjective experience — the perceptions, needs, values, and complex motives of the human beings who engage in behaviors.

The late Herb Lovett used to say that there are only two problems with “special education” in America: It’s not special and it sure as hell isn’t education. The field continues to be marinated in behaviorist assumptions and practices despite the fact that numerous resources for teachers, therapists, and parents offer alternatives to behavior control.2  These alternatives are based on a commitment to care and to understand. By “care,” I mean that our relationship with the child is what matters most. He or she is not a passive object to be manipulated but a subject, a center of experience, a person with agency, with needs and rights. And by “understand,” I mean that we have an obligation to look beneath the behavior, in part by imaginatively trying to adopt that person’s point of view, attempting to understand the whys rather than just tabulating the frequency of the whats. As Norm Kunc and Emma Van der Klift urged us in their Credo for Support: “Be still and listen. What you define as inappropriate may be my attempt to communicate with you in the only way I can….[or] the only way I can exert some control over my life….Do not work on me. Work with me.”

*

But autism! Now we’re talking potentially about a much more serious set of challenges: a child who can’t communicate the way other children do and doesn’t seem to understand boundaries, who is exquisitely sensitive to (or, conversely, in constant need of) sensory stimulation, who may explode when there’s even a slight deviation from rigid routines, who engages in repetitive behaviors and might even be at risk of injuring himself or those around him. All of this is unsettling at best, and often downright frightening, for a neurotypical adult.

Enter ABA: an intensive training regimen consisting of an elaborate system of rewards to make children comply with external directives, to memorize and engage in very specific behaviors. An expert promises to train the child to make eye contact or point at an object on command, to stop fluttering his hands or rocking — in short, to make him act like a normal kid. ABA is the accepted, expected, even mandated system for dealing with autistic children.

One California teacher, new to special education, observed that “almost all school programs for students with severe autism are based on ABA. Alternative programs are difficult to find and parents may not know of their existence.” So she agreed to learn how to do it — and was quickly appalled. Her account of how ABA silenced the kids’ voices and violated their dignity, how she kept feeling she was “torturing” them, illustrates what it means to bring fresh eyes to a situation that everyone around you has come to accept and rationalize.

But even more compelling is the testimony of young people who understand the reality of this approach better than anyone because they’ve been on the receiving end of it. It is nothing short of stunning to learn just how widely and intensely ABA is loathed by autistic adults who are able to describe their experience with it. Frankly, I’m embarrassed that, until about a year ago, I was completely unaware of all the websites, articles, scholarly essays, blog posts, Facebook pages, and Twitter groups featuring the voices of autistic men and women, all overwhelmingly critical of ABA and eloquent in describing the trauma that is its primary legacy.

How is it possible that their voices have not transformed the entire discussion? Suppose you participated in implementing a widely used strategy for dealing with homelessness, only to learn that the most outspoken critics of that intervention were homeless people. Would that not stop you in your tracks? What would it say about you if it didn’t? And yet the consistent, emphatic objections of autistic people don’t seem to trouble ABA practitioners at all. Indeed, one critical analysis of ethics in this field notes that “autistics have been excluded from all committees, panels, boards, etc., charged with developing, directing, and assessing ABA research and treatment programs.”

So why are autistic people so opposed? For many, the underlying assumption that they have a disease that needs to be cured is misconceived and offensive. Resistance to this premise led to the founding of the Autistic Self-Advocacy Network and has been described in such mainstream periodicals as Salon, the Atlantic, and the New York Times. From the last of those three articles: “Autism has traditionally been seen as a shell from which a normal child might one day emerge. But some advocates contend that autism is an integral part of their identities, much more like a skin than a shell, and not one they care to shed. The effort to cure autism, they say, is not like curing cancer, but like the efforts of a previous age to cure left-handedness.” Or like curing homosexuality: In the autism community, ABA is often compared to gay conversion therapy.3 Many argue that its goal is to force these children to stop being who they are.

While this objection presumably would apply to any method used to “cure” people of autism, ABA is uniquely repugnant. Here’s why:

* It’s dehumanizing and infantilizing. Should we really be surprised that people chafe at spending hour after hour being promised the equivalent of a doggie biscuit for jumping through hoops? (Actually, one professional dog trainer rejects the comparison. After investigating ABA, she exclaimed, “I would never treat a dog like that!”)

* It ignores internal realities. According to B. F. Skinner4 and his followers, all organisms, including humans, are just “repertoires of behaviors” that can be fully explained by “environmental contingencies.” ABA is rooted in an ideology that proudly stays on the surface, committed to reinforcing whatever behaviors the people who control the reinforcements endorse and extinguishing those they don’t. This focus on behavior — on that which can be seen and quantified — isn’t just problematic theoretically (reflecting a truncated understanding of human psychology) and ethically; it also fails from a practical perspective, as has been demonstrated repeatedly. If you train an autistic kid to stop rocking or squealing or flapping his hands, you have done exactly nothing to address what elicited that self-regulating or self-stimulating behavior and its emotional significance to him. Kids need to feel safe; ABA just eliminates the (unusual) ways he tries to attain that safety — for example, by elaborately praising him for “quiet hands.”

* It undermines intrinsic motivation. Rewards fail to help people (of any age) develop an underlying commitment to whatever value or action is being reinforced. Worse, they actively impede the development of intrinsic interest. Thus, several studies have shown that when children are rewarded or praised for doing something nice for someone else, they are likely to be less generous in the future as a result. Students who are led to focus on getting good grades become less interested in the learning itself. Employees who are promised bonuses for meeting certain criteria come to find their work less satisfying. These findings are disturbing in their own right, and they also help to explain a related discovery: People are often less successful at tasks for which they have been led to expect a reward. This is true partly because they resent being controlled and partly because the task has been reframed as a tedious prerequisite to getting a goodie.

In a therapeutic context, the fact that rewards don’t promote, and may undermine, an interest in doing x often means x won’t be generalized to other situations. As one writer explained, “A child may learn to make eye contact in response to ‘How are you?’ and to reply, ‘Fine, how are you?’ But such rote memorization does not give the child the intuition to know when a stranger is to be greeted warmly and when to be avoided, and it does not enable him to meet his grandmother with greater warmth than the grocer.”5  Behaviorists insist this can be solved by fiddling with the reinforcement protocol — the type or size of the rewards, the schedule on which they’re meted out, or the specificity or difficulty of the target behavior. But decades of research, along with real-life experience, suggest that the problem inheres in the whole idea of extrinsic inducements.

* It’s all about compliance. The problem with PBIS, a Skinnerian school-based program, isn’t just its manipulative and ultimately ineffective technique but its basic objective. The reason for its failure to help students become critical thinkers or members of a caring community isn’t that its implementation is flawed. It’s that PBIS and similar programs aren’t trying to promote those qualities. Their goal is to make students do what they’re told. By the same token (so to speak), ABA does not exist to do what’s best for the children themselves, to meet their needs and honor their preferences. Its goal is to extinguish behaviors that make the people around them uncomfortable. What’s candidly called “compliance training” — often preceded by the adjective “errorless” — is an integral feature of ABA. If a child cries or resists doing what she’s told, the trainer is told to persist lest her “inappropriate” behavior be inadvertently reinforced.

If their theory collapses the richness of human experience into measurable behaviors, and if their practice relies on objectifying children, is it really surprising that the widespread antipathy for ABA expressed by people who have had it done to them doesn’t seem to faze its practitioners and proponents one bit? Behaviorists see only behaviors. The experience of those to whom they’re doing things is, if you’ll excuse the expression, outside the spectrum of what they’ve been trained to detect and address.6

* It creates dependence. If you devote tens of hours each week to exhaustively and exhaustingly teaching a small child that he gets a reward when he suppresses his own preferences and does exactly what he’s told, you have grievously compromised that child’s nascent sense of autonomy. The more you control him — even with the sugar-coated control of positive reinforcement — the more he may come to rely on being controlled. This is why many autistic people view ABA as not only distasteful but dangerous. A peer-reviewed report in the Journal of Cogent Psychology discussed the inappropriateness of using ABA on children with low verbal skills given the likelihood that they will be left with lifelong passivity and, in particular, “prompt dependence” — that is, an inability to initiate activities after having been trained to wait for a nudge or command.  [[UPDATE: An essay published in a prominent bioethics journal in March 2020 offers a careful analysis of ABA’s ethical status, concluding that it “violates the principles of justice and nonmaleficence [the obligation to avoid doing harm] and, most critically, infringes on the autonomy of children and (when pursued aggressively) of parents as well.”]]

* It communicates conditional acceptance. What defines a reward isn’t just its desirability — the chance to play with a favorite toy, go to the playground, watch a video — but the fact that it’s offered contingently. What someone finds enjoyable has been turned into a lever with which to control the child. (As one critic puts it, “ABA therapists are trained to find out what your child loves the most and hold it [for] ransom.”) Now the child must earn the right to do what gives her pleasure by obeying the adult — and that right can be snatched away at any time. (The latter reminds us of the punitive underbelly of “positive reinforcement”; every carrot contains a stick.)

But there’s also a deeper and more disturbing kind of conditionality at work here, particularly when affection and attention are treated not as something that all kids should receive but as additional goodies to be dangled and withdrawn.7  With endless “Good job!”s and other expressions of enthusiasm offered only conditionally — You must submit to my will in order to get a big smile, a thumbs up, a high-five — ABA by its very nature makes care transactional and leads children to infer that they’re worthwhile only when they do what is demanded of them. This message is toxic regardless of whether it succeeds at (temporarily) buying the desired behavior. And to the extent it teaches autistic children that they must suppress or mask their impulses in order to pass as “normal,” it can create both shame and anxiety. One suggestive, though not definitive, investigation found that children with autism were significantly more likely to display posttraumatic stress symptoms if they had been treated with ABA.

*

To any of these concerns — and all others, for that matter — proponents have a single prepared response, which could be paraphrased as follows: “ABA, and ABA alone, is evidence-based. You may not like it, but it works. The only alternative for a low-functioning autistic child is institutionalization or a terrible life.”8  This is not only what parents are told; it is the comeback to all concerns that might be raised by a trainer: “When I finally began voicing my doubts to the people I worked with, the most common defense I heard was that ABA is a scientific, evidence-based practice, and that we need to rely on scientific studies more than [on] anecdotal evidence from Autistic people themselves.”

And from another trainer:

[I asked,] “Why does he have to have quiet hands? He’s not hurting anyone.” “Why can’t we just find out what’s bothering him and help him find a solution?” “Why do we need to track that he knows 1000 words when he obviously knows way more than that?” Every time I would question their methods or their reasoning, my questions would be answered with some variation of, “This is the only evidence-based treatment for autism. It’s the only way they can learn.”

The uncomfortable irony is that we are apparently supposed to accept such appeals to “evidence” on faith. I have written elsewhere about how research cited in the field of education sometimes doesn’t stand up to close examination. This is particularly true of traditional practices rooted in behaviorism — not only ABA and similar interventions for children with special needs but also highly scripted direct instruction of discrete facts and skills in early childhood (and beyond) and explicit phonics-based strategies for teaching reading.9  You might assume that those who use the phrase “evidence-based practice” (EBP) are offering a testable claim, asserting that the practices in question are supported by good data. In reality, the phrase is more of an all-purpose honorific, wielded to silence dissent, intimidate critics, and imply that anyone who criticizes what they’re doing is rejecting science itself.10  It’s reminiscent of the way a religious leader might declare that what we’ve been told to do is “God’s will”: End of discussion.

Moreover — and it took me awhile to catch on to this — behaviorists often use “EBP” just as a shorthand for the practices they like, in contrast to the (progressive or humanistic) approaches they revile. It doesn’t matter if the evidence is actually weak or ambiguous or even if it points in the other direction. They’ll always come up with some reason to dismiss those inconvenient findings because their method is “evidence-based” by definition. (On social media and elsewhere, you can get a glimpse of how modern behaviorism resembles a religious cult — closer to Scientology than to science — with adherents circling the wagons, trading ad hominem attacks on their critics, and testing out defensive strategies to employ when, for example, people with autism speak out about how ABA has harmed them. Or when scholarship shows just how weak the empirical case for ABA really is.)

Which brings us back to that new research review. The work of eleven authors — including, interestingly, an ABA therapist — representing the University of Texas, Boston College, Vanderbilt, and Mount Holyoke, it was published in January 2020 in Psychological Bulletin (PB), a prestigious social science journal that specializes in lengthy integrative research reviews. The article is not a polemic. It does not consider, and appears not even to be informed by, any of the broader objections to ABA that are raised by autistic people or that I’ve raised here. It confines itself to describing peer-reviewed research. The authors cast a wide net, looking for every English-language study in the last half-century that compared an intervention group with a control group in treating children up to age 8 who had been diagnosed with Autism Spectrum Disorder. This yielded 1,615 separate results from 150 reports representing 6,240 participants.

The most striking finding in this research review is how few high-quality assessments of “the primary approach used in clinical practice” — that is, ABA — have ever been conducted. In fact, the great majority of ABA studies were so poorly designed that they didn’t merit inclusion in this review. Rather than comparing the results of different treatments for groups of children, behaviorist journals commonly publish single-subject studies, in which one child is assessed before and after treatment. (This method was invented by behaviorists back when their behavior-shaping efforts were limited to lab rats.) You don’t have to be a trained data analyst to see the serious limitations of this method in terms of the results’ lack of generalizability. For the authors of the PB review, these limitations were so glaring that it didn’t even make sense for them to bother with the results of single-subject studies. Yet those dubious results are the primary basis for behaviorists’ claims that ABA is “evidence-based.”

Have there been any group-design studies of ABA? Yes, and the reviewers looked at them carefully. Three findings stand out. First, the best way to conclude with any confidence that different outcomes are due to an intervention and not to pre-existing differences between the members of the groups is to randomly assign subjects to either the treatment condition or the control group. But so few ABA studies did this that it was impossible for the reviewers to calculate an effect size for any outcome.

Second, more than three out of five of the ABA studies judged its effectiveness based on what was reported by a parent or teacher — another serious methodological flaw. “Parents and teachers are virtually always aware of the extent and nature of a child’s participation in an intervention study,” the reviewers explained. “Moreover, they are likely to be personally invested in the outcome.” This experimental design routinely makes treatments appear more effective than they really are — to the point that, according to earlier research, some caregivers will happily report that the training was successful even when the child didn’t even get the training.

Third, the reviewers pointed out that many autism studies rely on very specific outcome measures. It’s a lot easier to claim success at producing “context-bound” behaviors — those that show up only in a particular setting — and those “that reflect what was directly addressed in the intervention” (“proximal outcomes”). This is related to the generalization problem I mentioned earlier: Even when ABA seems to work, it often succeeds only at getting a kid to do one specific thing or do it in one specific environment.

This is not the first time that researchers have revealed just how flimsy the record of support is for ABA. In 2010, the What Works Clearinghouse of the U.S. Department of Education tracked down 58 studies of ABA, of which exactly one met its standards for methodological adequacy (and a second met them “with reservations”). The more comprehensive PB review, containing another decade’s worth of studies, just makes the “evidence-based” claim about ABA even more difficult to defend.

And, unlike the “What Works” report of ABA research, the new review also evaluates several other types of intervention. It found that solid evidence supports other approaches, notably those that are not only different from, but virtually the polar opposite of, ABA. The mere existence of such approaches — and the fact that they’ve been carefully evaluated — will surprise anyone who has bought the behaviorists’ party line: It’s our method or you’re out of luck. But, yes, there are indeed programs and facilities whose premise is that kids with autism are people with whom to develop a relationship, not bundles of behaviors to be reinforced or extinguished. One with a particularly strong theoretical base and clinical track record is DIR/Floortime, developed by the late child psychiatrist Stanley Greenspan, whose priority was “to avoid focusing only on changing the behavior.” The DIR model emphasizes emotional development, individual differences, and trusting relationships. Whereas ABA is about doing things to autistic children, DIR is about working with them. (For more details, see this book, this article, and this website.11)

The comprehensive new PB review concludes by pronouncing two types of intervention “promising” — and ABA was not one of them. (In fact, the reviewers urged insurance companies to consider covering these two data-backed models.) One is a hybrid called Naturalistic Developmental Behavioral Interventions, and the other is DIR/Floortime. Incidentally, almost four out of every five studies of the latter used a random-assignment methodology, so not only was the evidence in its favor impressive, but the quality of that evidence was high.

It appears, then, that these other approaches have a claim to being “evidence-based” that is stronger than ABA’s. But there’s a larger issue here to keep in mind, particularly when considering behavioral interventions. Whenever a strategy (in any domain) is said to “work” or be “effective,” it’s always worth asking how those words are being used. Many criteria for measuring effectiveness in autism studies — even rigorously conducted studies — are based on changing surface behaviors. In a blog post titled “Behaviour Modification Therapy Does Work,” Michelle Swan, an autistic writer from Australia, argues, “When the child becomes quieter, more compliant, the therapy is deemed to have been ‘successful’…[because it] has worn the child down to a point where the child has shut down because they believe there is no longer any point expressing their desires, needs or distress. This is called ‘improved behaviour.'”

Finally, consider the anguish of a writer named Maxfield Sparrow as he expands on this point:

What looks like progress is happening at the expense of the child’s sense of self, comfort, feelings of safety, ability to love who they are, stress levels, and more. The outward appearance is of improvement, but with classic ABA therapy, that outward improvement is married to a dramatic increase in internal anxiety and suffering….I was once an Autistic child and I can tell you that being pushed repeatedly to the point of tears with zero sense of personal power, and knowing that the only way to get the repeated torment to end was to comply with everything that was asked of me, no matter how painful, no matter how uneasy it made me feel, no matter how unreasonable the request seemed, knowing that I had no way out of a repeat of the torment again and again for what felt like it would be the rest of my life, was traumatizing to such a degree that I still carry emotional scars decades later. It doesn’t matter whether the perpetrator is a therapist, a teacher, a parent, or an age-peer: bullying is bullying.

And now we know that it isn’t even evidence-based bullying.

 

NOTES

1. In one early experiment, rewards used to motivate hyperactive children led them to respond more impulsively. In another, rewards either had a negative effect on performance from the beginning or else they had beneficial effects that disappeared as soon as the rewards stopped coming. In a third study, with children who had short attention spans but were not hyperactive, the use of rewards failed to improve reaction times as the experimenters had predicted; rather, they caused children to make more mistakes. Citations for these studies as well as those referenced in the preceding paragraph can be found in Punished by Rewards.

2. Among them: a terrific book by Lovett himself called Learning to Listen: Positive Approaches and People with Difficult Behavior; The Explosive Child and several subsequent books by Ross Greene; When Slow Is Fast Enough by Joan Goodman; and Engaging Troubling Students: A Constructivist Approach by Scot E. Danforth and Terry Jo Smith.

3. This is actually more than an analogy. The creator of ABA, O. Ivar Lovaas, also used operant conditioning (including painful punishments described euphemistically as “aversion therapy”) to stamp out “pronounced feminine behaviors in a male child” in an effort to prevent homosexuality. In a study featuring a single subject — which, as I’ll explain later, is not unusual for what qualifies as research in the Journal of Applied Behavior Analysis and similar publications — Lovaas and a colleague proudly reported that “follow-up data three years after the treatment began suggests that the boy’s sex-typed behaviors have become normalized.” He was now “indistinguishable from any other boy,” which is just the sort of language Lovaas used to describe the objective of using ABA on autistic children: The point is to normalize them. (Incidentally, while a causal connection is impossible to demonstrate, their successfully defeminized subject later committed suicide.)

4. Lovaas was a student of Sidney Bijou, who was, in turn, a student of Skinner’s.

5. Another example, from the Atlantic article: A child may “approach friendly people on the street and say, ‘Hello, what’s your name?’ as he’s been taught, but not wait around for the answer, because he really doesn’t understand why he’s saying it.”

6. In a provocative blog post titled “I Abused Children for a Living,” a former ABA trainer writes: “Sensory overload? Executive function or sensory-motor difficulties? Exhausted from 40 hours of child labor [that is, the full-time ABA training regimen typically recommended for young children]? Different style of communication work better for you? Upset about being treated like a circus animal? Not my problem, kiddo. I’m here to lure you with candy and manipulate you into doing my bidding, no questions asked.”

7. I’ve written about this sort of conditionality in two books: Unconditional Parenting and The Myth of the Spoiled Child.

8. Over the years I’ve noticed that whenever a practice or school of thought is criticized, supporters frequently respond not by considering the merits of the criticism but by asserting that the critic must have encountered an inferior version, the implication being that there’s no reason to question the approach itself. It is true that multiple versions of ABA exist, and presumably individual practitioners with varying levels of expertise advertise their services using the same (insurance-approved) label. Nevertheless, as far as I can tell, all of the concerns I have raised here apply to the core principles of ABA itself as it is supposed to be practiced.

I’ve already quoted two practitioners who began to entertain doubts about what they were instructed to do. Now consider the reflections of a third: At first, she recalls, when she encountered criticism, she “would try to find anything about the author’s experience of ABA that was different than mine. I assured myself that the ABA I was doing wasn’t the same because we weren’t using aversives, or because we had options for reinforcement that the authors didn’t, or because some of the kids made so much progress, or because I really cared about the kids.” Only gradually did she come to realize the problem really was inherent to ABA: “Extinguishing stim [repetitive movements or sounds that are used as self-calming strategies in an overstimulating environment], coercing eye contact, teaching neurotypical play skills were part of ABA. Forcing compliance was part of ABA….I finally couldn’t defend myself anymore. ABA was wrong, and I had to get out….I’m lucky that I was able to just walk away from it. But there are still far too many Autistic kids who can’t leave, no matter how much they want to.”

9. I did a deep dive into the research on this topic two decades ago and discovered just how little support actually existed for claims about the effectiveness of explicit phonics instruction. (See this excerpt from my book The Schools Our Children Deserve, particularly the section called “The Hard Evidence.”) Similarly, a review of the data just published in 2020 in Educational Psychology Review concludes, among other things, that “a careful review of the National Reading Panel findings shows that the benefits of systematic phonics for reading text, spelling, and comprehension are weak and short-lived, with reduced or no benefits for low-achieving poor readers beyond grade 1.”  It offers a serendipitous complement to the new Psychological Bulletin article about ABA that I’m about to discuss: two powerful, parallel exercises in debunking behaviorist practice published almost simultaneously.

10. There are indeed people who reject science, of course — from climate-change deniers to anti-vaxxers. But behaviorism represents a reductive, experience-denying caricature of science that is still trapped in the century-old ideology of logical positivism. It gives real science a bad name.

11. Of course there are a number of other models, schools, and programs for children with autism that I haven’t mentioned here because of space limitations and/or the fact that I haven’t investigated them. Also, one can find plenty of humanistic, practical advice online that steers clear of behavior control, such as this discussion of how parents might deal with meltdowns and aggression.

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