Saturday, February 24, 2007

Verbatim: Kanner's autism

This is a description of one of Leo Kanner's autistic "patients", from a follow-up study Kanner published in 1956 with his colleague Leon Eisenberg. This paper is reprinted in Kanner's 1973 book.

Jay S., now almost 15 years old, presented in the lower grades considerable difficulties to his teachers, who were exceptionally understanding and accepting. He wandered about the classroom, masturbated openly, and staged temper tantrums. He learned to conform, did phenomenally well in mathematics, was sent to an accelerated school, and is now finishing the eleventh grade with top marks. He is a peculiar child, rather obese, who spends his spare time collecting maps and postage stamps and has little more to do with people than is absolutely necessary for the maintenance of a superficial relationship. He achieved a Binet IQ of not less than 150.


Kanner, L. & Eisenberg, L. (1956/1973). Notes on the follow-up studies. In Kanner, L., Childhood Psychosis: Initial Studies and New Insights. Washington D.C.: Winston, pp 77-90.

Sunday, February 18, 2007

Autism advocates do not take autism seriously

Autism advocates trivialize autism. They do not take autism seriously. For example, compare autism advocacy to advocacy in other disability areas. Here is the Canadian Down Syndrome Society, defining Down syndrome:

Down syndrome is a naturally occurring chromosomal arrangement that has always been a part of the human condition. The occurrence of Down syndrome is universal across racial and gender lines, and it is present in approximately one in 800 births in Canada.

Down syndrome is not a disease, disorder, defect or medical condition. It is inappropriate and offensive to refer to people with Down syndrome as "afflicted with" or "suffering from" it. Down syndrome itself does not require either treatment or prevention.

Autism, like Down syndrome, is a neurodevelopmental disability. According to autism advocates, the CDSS has fallen to the siren song of DS. The failure of the CDSS to identify DS as a terminal disease and blight on society, and their failure to deny the humanity of DS people, is a destructive and deluded squandering of the lives and futures of DS children.

In the world outside of autism advocacy, CDSS takes DS seriously, and therefore considers that services for DS people should be asked for accurately, ethically, and respectfully.

I did not get involved in autism advocacy issues by choice. Autistics in Canada live daily the consequences of autism advocacy, and those consequences include being put in danger.

Having lived the consequences of autism advocacy, I wondered why autism advocates were unwilling or unable make their demands for services, whatever those services may be, accurately (with respect to the existing science), ethically, and respectfully. I also wondered why autism advocates demanded low or no standards of science and ethics for autistics, as opposed to the high standards that automatically protect and benefit themselves.

A possible, evidence-based answer to these questions is that autism advocates don't take autism seriously. They have not bothered with the hard work of slogging through primary sources, of critical thinking, of the comprehensive and impartial (in every sense) gathering of information that is the necessary foundation for ethical decisions. Autistics are just too appalling and blighted and doomed. We aren't even human. We're not worth the bother--the hassle of seriously applying recognized standards of science and ethics.

Instead, autism advocates equate autism with terminal cancer. They have wished their child had cancer instead of autism (also see this). And they have said that autism is worse than cancer because autism does not kill us. This autism advocacy staple has the purpose of spreading dread and horror of autism, of denying the worth of autistic lives, of informing Canadians that it is better to die painfully of cancer than to be autistic and alive.

Promoting autism as a degenerative disease process is also anti-scientific and unlikely to result in research leading to genuine help for autistic people. Similarly, models of autism premised on autistic brains being damaged versions of non-autistic brains have comprehensively failed (that includes Laurent Mottron's "agnosia" model). No deficit-based account of autism has (after 64 years of research) achieved any kind of consensus in the science, possibly because deficit-based accounts have so far made remarkably poor predictions.

Autism advocates consider peer-reviewed papers reporting autistic abilities (found either intentionally or accidentally) to be romanticized and dangerous nonsense, misleading and uninformative. All findings in autism research should therefore (according to autism advocates) be interpreted as deficits or not interpreted--or reported--at all. Researchers who find and investigate autistic abilities should not be funded and their foolish and dangerous work should not be published or discussed or for that matter, allowed.

For example, if peer-reviewed research shows that young autistic children--those who would popularly be considered "severely autistic", "non-verbal" and "low-functioning"--communicate competently but are persistently ignored by their typical parents (Keen, 2005) and teachers (Keen et al., 2005), then this science has surrendered to the deadly siren song of autism and must be discarded.

This is even though, or rather, especially because it was demonstrated that these very young autistic children detect when their communication has failed, and make multiple efforts to repair this failure, including by using strategies considered too sophisticated for their presumed developmental level. Also (it only gets worse), earlier attempts to communicate by these autistic children were not problematic. It was only their later efforts, after earlier attempts had been ignored and the children were repeatedly forced to effortfully create repair strategies, that the children's attempts to communicate became problematic.

To avoid romanticizing autism and squandering the lives and futures of children, autism advocates have rejected this obviously unacceptable research, and instead have forcefully promoted autistics as being non-communicative and non-responsive. This advocacy has been so successful that autistics are described this way in the House of Commons. The full success of autism advocacy can also be seen when autistics are described in the House of Commons as "violent" and "self-destructive".

Autism advocates are definitely onto something here. It is true that persistently describing and treating autistic children or any other kind of children as non-sentient--as non-communicative and non-responsive--will very likely result in their behaviour becoming problematic. In fact, very few adults deal gracefully with being persistently treated as though non-sentient. So this is an impressive show of the power and influence of autism advocacy, and its consequences. But is this taking autism seriously?

Yes, autism advocacy is impressive in the area of spreading fear, dread, horror, and hatred of autism. Autism advocates have demanded that autism be seen as a horrific disease process or tumour, while simultaneously reducing autistics to collections of inadequate, inappropriate, maladaptive, repugnant, repulsive, etc., behaviours. These efforts have been successful. But promoting autistics as non-responsive and non-communicative is anti-scientific, unethical, and harmful. Associating violence with disability is no more accurate or acceptable than associating violence with race. The autism advocacy wholesale vilification of any science (now characterized as the killer rocky shore that breaks and destroys children) that fails to confirm their absolute certainties about autism is a trivialization of autism. It is the opposite of taking autism seriously.

Autism advocates also trivialize autism by promoting ABA-based autism interventions as "medically necessary" autism treatment. This contradicts basic principles of ABA, the bulk of the behaviour analytic literature in autism, and particularly the work of Ivar Lovaas and colleagues (Lovaas, 1979; Lovaas and Smith, 1988, 1989; Lovaas, 1993; Lovaas, 2002; etc.). Autism advocates also place ABA-based autism interventions high above scrutiny or criticism. If I provide factual and verifiable criticisms of the behaviour analytic literature, then (I'm told), I'm expressing "anti-ABA prejudices".

This is as absurd, as non-serious, as claiming that I have "anti-cogntive-science prejudices" and "anti-cognitive-neuroscience prejudices" because I have harshly criticized science and scientists in these areas of autism research (and continue to do so).

The autism advocacy rejection of criticism and scrutiny as "anti-ABA prejudice" places ABA outside the domain of science, which is dependent on criticism, and into the realm of ideology. Autism advocates demand that all decisions made about autistics conform to their ideology, which cannot be questioned or challenged in any way. They want the scientific and ethical standards that benefit and protect all non-autistics disregarded when it comes to legal and public policy decisions about autistics. This too is the opposite of taking autism seriously.

Autism advocates have further trivialized autism by successfully promoting grossly anti-scientific epidemiology which has the effect of denying the existence of most autistics in Canada, and therefore denying most autistics in Canada even minimal services. This demonstrates how autism advocates write off all autistics who have not undergone unlimited "medically necessary" ABA/IBI starting very early in life. So does the widely disseminated autism advocacy position that autistics who do not receive unlimited "medically necessary" ABA/IBI starting early in life need to be abused (kept in restraints, our teeth pulled) in institutions. Autism advocates have been successful in making Canadian society unsafe for any autistic who is not in an ABA program, but is this taking autism seriously?

Autism advocates have also claimed to know with certainty the adult outcomes of autistics who undergo early ABA/IBI. There is no peer-reviewed science to justify this certainty. When there is no science whatsoever to support their positions, autism advocates respond by pretending that there is. Here again are the standards of science and ethics that autism advocates believe autistics deserve, but is this taking autism seriously?

The autism advocacy campaign to legally mandate ABA/IBI as "medically necessary" treatment for Rett's individuals also exemplifies the standards of science and ethics autism advocates find appropriate for autistics. This demonstrates exactly how seriously they take autism and the well-being of autistic people.

Autism advocates also trivialize autism, and show off the scientific and ethical standards they are sure that autistics deserve, by creating and applying novel, untested diagnostic categories and criteria. They are so creative, they can diagnose adults and children, and describe our lives in detail, without having met us or knowing anything about us. They also claim that there are perfect predictors of outcome in autism. The purpose is to divide autism into the (apparently innate) categories of "real" and presumably "fake" autism. When I have time, I'll blog about the empirical bases and seriousness of this "autism reality".

Autism advocates further trivialize autism by responding to any criticism of their actions and statements with mockery, misrepresentation, and defamation. They consider themselves to be infallible. They are right about everything all the time. Their actions, which have consequences for all autistic Canadians at the level of law and public policy, are sacrosanct--anyone who criticizes them in any way is not only deluded, but reprehensible, pernicious, and dangerous (and in my case, a fraud, imposter, and criminal). This makes a productive, science- and ethics-based, respectful public discourse about autism impossible.

The actions of autism advocates have unsurprisingly resulted in Canada's government and major opposition parties agreeing that autistics shouldn't exist at all. Contrast the non-serious non-response of autism advocates to this political consensus that autistic lives should be prevented, with the careful and very serious actions and statements of the CDSS in response to recommendations re prenatal screening. You can see the CDSS in recent media stories here, here and here.

Autism is a disability. Here is a description of what disability means, from the Supreme Court of Canada decision in the Eldridge case:

It is an unfortunate truth that the history of disabled persons in Canada is largely one of exclusion and marginalization. Persons with disabilities have too often been excluded from the labour force, denied access to opportunities for social interaction and advancement, subjected to invidious stereotyping and relegated to institutions [...] This historical disadvantage has to a great extent been shaped and perpetuated by the notion that disability is an abnormality or flaw. As a result, disabled persons have not generally been afforded the “equal concern, respect and consideration” that s. 15(1) of the Charter demands. Instead, they have been subjected to paternalistic attitudes of pity and charity, and their entrance into the social mainstream has been conditional upon their emulation of ablebodied
[...] One consequence of these attitudes is the persistent social and economic disadvantage faced by the disabled.
[emphasis in blue is mine]

This powerful and accurate definition of disability shows that autistic people are indeed severely disabled in Canadian society. We are at a tremendous disadavantage. This description of disability was central to my intervention in Auton at the Supreme Court of Canada, where I opposed autism advocates on both the parent side and the government side. In Auton, both sides consisted entirely of autism advocates, just as both sides, parents and governments, in the current supposed conflicts re ABA-based interventions are autism advocates. Neither side was or is now interested in providing autistics with genuine assistance so we can proceed safely and succeed in society; as I've written elsewhere, they agree entirely about what autistics are worth and how we should be treated. They are not interested in taking autism seriously. They are only haggling over whose unwanted burden we are.

The disability of autism is trivialized when it is claimed that when autistics are badly treated, harmed or neglected, the problem that has to be gotten rid of is autism (meaning, the existence of autistic people). This is a hallmark of autism advocacy: to insist that we need to be abused and mutilated (kept in restraints, our teeth pulled) in institutions; to deny that autistics are sentient, existent, human or alive; to call us a blight on society; to deny us even basic standards of science and ethics; then to flourish our resulting suffering and poor outcomes as evidence that autism is appalling and must be eradicated. Is this taking autism seriously?


Keen, D. (2005). The use of non-verbal repair strategies by children with autism. Research in Developmental Disabilities, 26, 243-254.

Keen, D., Sigafoos, J. & Woodyatt, G. (2005). Teacher responses to the communicative attempts of children with autism. Journal of Developmental and Physical Disabilities, 17, 19-33.

Lovaas, O.I. (1979). Contrasting illness and behavioral models for the treatment of autistic children: A historical perspective. Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders, 9, 315-323.

Lovaas, O.I . (2002) Teaching Individuals with Developmental Delays: Basic Intervention Techniques. Austin, TX: Pro-Ed.

Lovaas, O.I., & Smith, T. (1988). Intensive behavioral treatment for young autistic children. In B.B. Lahey, and A.E. Kazdin (Eds.), Advances in Clinical Child Psychology, 11. New York: Plenum Press.

Lovaas, O.I., & Smith, T. (1989). A comprehensive behavior theory of autistic children: Paradigm for research and treatment. Journal of Behavior Therapy and Experimental Psychiatry, 20, 17-29.

Thursday, February 15, 2007

Autism, a blight on society

In the House of Commons late last year, Liberal MP Blair Wilson made this statement re autistic children and "medically necessary" ABA/IBI:

For the child's humanity, treatment is necessary.

Then he said:

It is time Canada took action against autism, a blight on society. We must support this bill.

To ensure that no one has any cause to wonder if this was really what Mr Wilson meant to say, Mr Wilson highlighted this statement on his website--in large, bold letters:

It is time Canada took action against autism, a blight on society. We must support this bill.

"This bill" is Prince Edward Island Liberal MP Shawn Murphy's private member's bill C-304. This bill's main purpose is to alter the Canada Health Act to single out autism as a disease for which ABA/IBI is prescribed and mandated as "medically necessary" treatment. This bill has the effect of legislating physician-equivalent status for behaviour analysts, of legislating ABA/IBI as "medically necessary" for those diagnosed with Rett's, and of legislating all autistics as not only sick but "suffering". This will be the law. But back to Mr Wilson.

According to Mr Wilson, autistics who have not had "medically necessary" ABA/IBI from very early in life--in order to stop us from blighting society--have no humanity. Most autistics in Canada have not had ABA/IBI from an early age, for many reasons, including that we are too old. We grew up before ABA/IBI was easily or at all available. There are very likely at least 150,000 autistics in Canada who have not had early and unlimited ABA/IBI. That number exceeds the entire population of Prince Edward Island, including Shawn Murphy. Mr Wilson has stated that a group of Canadians more numerous than all Prince Edward Islanders do not have humanity and are therefore not human.

When I spoke with Mr Wilson's office, these statements of Mr Wilson's were vigorously defended. They are true, I was told, because FEAT says so.

FEAT--Families for Early Autism Treatment--recently stated in the Globe and Mail that autistics who do not undergo unlimited "medically necessary" ABA/IBI starting early in life must be institutionalized by the time we reach adolescence. We must live in restraints and have our teeth pulled.

The ethicist Margaret Somerville--who was not aware of FEAT's prominent recommendations--has recently written in the Globe and Mail,

May we redesign disabled people to make them easier to care for? They used to take out all the teeth of mentally ill people so they couldn't bite their caregivers, but we are rightly appalled by that now.

But no one is appalled or even raises an eyebrow when it is recommended that most autistics in Canada (a population larger than that of Prince Edward Island, including Shawn Murphy) be abused this way. Certainly not Mr Wilson, who forcefully supports and promotes FEAT. Mr Wilson has used his full power and influence to inform Canadians that most autistics in Canada are, unlike criminals and terrorists, not even human. We have no humanity. Those who are not human have no human rights. And those who have no human rights can be grossly abused with impunity. This is an experience shared by many of us.

Other Liberal MPs have had additional ideas about how to write off autistic Canadians who they see as blighting the country.

Ruby Dhalla has stated the Liberal Party of Canada position--a position shared by the Conservative government and the NDP--that ideally there would be no autistic people at all in Canada. In order to sensationally raise alarm about a "shocking" autism "epidemic", she has also rejected the broad scientific consensus that there has been a high, stable rate of autism. Instead, she insists that in 1996 and before, there were only 1 in 10,000 autistics. She and her office have repeatedly claimed that this figure, forcefully promoted by FEAT, is true, and further, that it comes from multiple expert researchers. Her "expert" autism epidemiology, a work of pure and absurd anti-scientific fiction, has the effect of eliminating the existence of more than 150,000 autistic Canadians--more than the entire population of Prince Edward Island, including Shawn Murphy. But Ms Dhalla does not care. She is sticking to her guns. She does not want most autistics in Canada to get any services at all, or even to be acknowledged. We don't exist--because she says so.

The supposed "debate" about Shawn Murphy's bill C-304 resumed yesterday. In this "debate", Liberal MP Brian Murphy stated that autism is

no less detrimental than the diagnosis of terminal cancer

and is therefore fatal if not treated. According to Brian Murphy, most autistic people in Canada are dead. We have not had the one "medically necessary" treatment he claims with absolute certainty is the only way to save us from our terminal disease.

The above statements represent the major achievements of autism advocacy in Canada. Autistics have officially been declared diseased, a blight on society, subhuman, actually and ideally non-existent, and dead. The organizations and individuals applauded for representing us demand that we be institutionalized, be kept in restraints, and be permanently mutilated if we don't sufficiently become normal. Not one of our federal parties, not one Canadian MP or Senator, has expressed even a whisper of protest against any of this.

Canada is officially a country which hates autism, and therefore hates the existence of autistic people. No fact will be permitted to get in the way of this hideous and irrational hatred. No genuine debate about autism, no genuine assistance for autistic Canadians, can emerge from this gratuitous, dangerous and unopposed outpouring of denigration and dehumanization.

Saturday, February 03, 2007

Entirely different due to ABA

While it's going to look like I'm singling out two specific parents, that isn't the purpose. They are just two of the many available examples of what I want to illustrate. There are many more similar examples--not only reported in the media, but also in the science, where the observers are not parents but behaviour analysts and cognitive scientists.

The first parent is the Conservative MP Mike Lake, who has talked about his brilliant autistic son in the media and in the House of Commons. The first I read about Mr Lake's son Jaden (who, at age 11, communicates via keyboard) was in a National Post story. Here is Mr Lake describing Jaden at about age 2yrs:

We could tell he was a smart kid, in terms of numbers and the way he played with letter toys. But he would sit in a corner and play and you could not get his attention at all. We wondered if he was deaf, but if you went into a different room and put Winnie the Pooh on television, he'd hear it.

It looks like Jaden has taught himself both some degree of numeracy and some degree of literacy--all by age 2. As is characteristic of autistics, he does not orient to stimuli in typical ways, and is attracted to the kinds of information from which he learns well.

In the House of Commons, Mr Lake elaborates on Jaden's extraordinary abilities, evident from a very early age:

Between 18 months and 2 years old Jaden started doing some pretty amazing things. Like just about every kid his age, he had one of those foam alphabets that fit inside a foam frame. One day on a whim Debi took the frame away and left him with just a jumbled pile of letters. Jaden proceeded to put the letters in order just as fast as we would do it the very first time.

Then to our amazement, a friend of ours mixed up the letters in a pile and put out the letter Z. Jaden, without missing a beat, put the letters in reverse order Z, Y, X, W, V and so on just as fast as he had done forward.

This shows that Jaden has learned a great deal from his environment, that he is responsive to this environment, and that he responds to the actions of others (his way of communicating and playing). But Mr Lake again sees problems:

As amazing as things like this were, during his second year we started to notice some other things that caused us some concern regarding Jaden's development. He was extremely content playing on his own with little or no interest in playing with other kids or interacting with adults. His speech was not really developing beyond the first initial few sounds and he was very focused on patterns, often spending an inordinate amount of time lining up his videos or stacking cups in perfect order. He paid little attention when we tried to talk to him or play with him. We would have thought he had a hearing impairment except for the fact that if he heard a video he liked start up in another room at very low volume, he would instantly stop what he was doing and go to watch it.

So what is the solution? This is Mr Lake describing Jaden's ABA program in the National Post:

The first thing they did was sit Jaden at a table and put a spoon in front of him and ask him to hand them the spoon. They would do that six hours a day, for days and weeks. The next stage, they would put a spoon and a fork down and go through the whole process again. It is very tedious and intensive. But his pediatrician said that he is entirely different due to ABA. He's now one of the most amazing kids -- he will look you in the eye and he will understand you when you ask him to do something.

The second example, where ABA is also said to have changed everything, is from Autism Vox. Here is the first part of the first comment on a post about ABA and recovery:

My daughter has made great strides with ABA therapy as well. I mean I don’t think there’s any question of the effectiveness of it for enabling autistic children to learn. Every single thing she knows, she learned from ABA. This is fact. Except for the things that seem to be her gifts. She spelled words with refrigerator magnets long before ABA therapy. She plays the piano almost in spite of ABA therapy. She taught herself to read without the use of ABA therapy. Adding and subtracting. She was obsessed with numbers and sequences of numbers before ABA.

Having said that, she had no language before ABA, no eye contact, no social skills, absolutely ignored everyone and everything. This is really amazing though. My mother has a small dog. She babysat for Jodi for the first two years of her life. She started a not so good ABA home program in my mother’s house where she spent the day. This dog never meant a thing to her. After ABA therapy, when we go to my mother’s house she’s afraid of the dog. It’s weird. It’s almost like before ABA that dog didn’t even exist. I know this is subjective, but prior to ABA she seemed much less engaged in the world. Much less is an understatement. She seemed like she wasn’t even there and when something was thrust upon her like someone saying hello up close that she couldn’t avoid, she’d cover her ears.

ABA changed all those things in 1 year.

This is how I responded on Autism Vox:

An autistic who teaches herself (it looks like, very early) to read and spell–has “no language” and totally ignores everything?

And she doesn’t just teach herself to read and spell, but plays the piano (in spite of ABA–because ABA won’t allow her to learn how she learns well), teaches herself to add and subtract, etc?

And this girl is oblivious? And since when does written language mean “no language”? And how does a girl who is totally oblivious (according to the above, “She seemed like she wasn’t even there”–the usual description of us as not really existing because we orient atypically to stimuli) teach herself how to read and spell, etc.?

Even when autistics demonstrate clearly that there are ways in which we learn extraordinarily well (including learning language), because the way we learn is atypical, this is written off as “she wasn’t even there” and “she had no language before ABA”. Therefore, she has to be completely altered by ABA programs, in order to persuade her entourage that she is “there” and that she can learn.

My view is that ABA “works” when autistic children are totally written off (“not there”, oblivious, “no language”, etc). In this case, at least ABA will demonstrate to parents that their child exists and can learn–by giving the child “right” non-autistic behaviours, and eliminating “wrong” autistic behaviours. This is even though the “wrong” autistic behaviours previously resulted in extraordinarly learning by this child. This is even though the child learns with much greater difficulty in ABA, and in a much more limited way, than she would if provided with the materials and opportunities to learn how she has amply demonstrated she learns best. But even though this use of ABA “works” (see above–after ABA, the parents notice that the child is present and sentient, and then they credit all progress to ABA), this is fundamentally unethical. A child should not be put in a program to compromise her learning (how she learned to read, spell, do arithmetic, play the piano, etc.) in order to deal with parents who, against all evidence, decide she is oblivious because she is not like them.

It is some kind of tribute to autism advocacy (Mr Lake read "Let Me Hear Your Voice"--a book which describes autistics as being non-sentient, inhuman, and dead--just before Jaden was officially diagnosed) that so many parents view their autistic children the way the parents above did.

I was asked once if there were circumstances in which I might consider that ABA programs really should be used with autistic kids. I gave examples where autistic children are described as, and assumed to be, non-sentient. When autistics are described and treated as non-sentient, this is now routinely praised by autism advocates as "autism reality", as being a true representation of how devastating it is to have an autistic child.

Being considered non-sentient can be dangerous for any child. Autistic adults also routinely get described and treated as non-sentient (this has happened to me), and this is definitely dangerous for us.

If ABA programs result in parents altering their views to see their child as sentient, aware and able to learn, then the child's situation may not be as bad as it had been. But as I wrote above, this is not an ethically acceptable solution. The ethical course of action is to train parents to recognize that their child is sentient, responsive (to the environment, to other people), capable of learning (though not necessarily in typical ways), and communicative (ditto). Parents can then be trained to respond to their child's communication and learning. Interventions which train parents to be responsive (rather than "directive" and "intrusive") to their autistic children have demonstrated their success in several published peer-reviewed papers, including a randomized controlled trial (Aldred et al., 2004).

But we live in a world where autism advocates deny that this kind of science even exists. Also, we live in a world where autism advocates use their power and influence to disseminate the "facts" that autistics can't communicate, learn or even be sentient outside of ABA programs. So is it better for an autistic child to be in an ABA program than to be treated as though non-sentient (unaware, unresponsive, incapable of learning, unable to communicate, etc.)? Why should this "choice" be imposed on anyone?

(Edit: And some parents whose autistic children receive optimal ABA services still continue to view these children as non-sentient and doomed, and are applauded by autism advocates for expressing these "autism reality" views in the mass media.)


Aldred, C., Green, J., & Adams, C. (2004). A new social communication intervention for children with autism: pilot randomised controlled treatment study suggesting effectiveness. Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry, 45, 1420-1430.

Thursday, February 01, 2007

Not even human

Autism again figures prominently in this month's APS Presidential Column by Morton Ann Gernsbacher, "On Not Being Human" (which I strongly recommend be read in its entirety). She asks,

Do we all agree that all humans are indeed, human?

And points out historical examples where the humanity of humans has been denied, including:

The anonymous tract, Disputatio Nova Contra Mulieres, Qua Probatur Eas Homines Non Esse (A New Argument Against Women, in Which it Is Demonstrated That They Are not Human Beings), first published in 1595, was reprinted prolifically during the 17th and 18th centuries.


In the 1860s, British anthropologists espoused that Blacks were an inferior species, more comparable to apes than to Caucasians, and therefore well suited for slavery.


At the Nuremberg Trial, one SS general explained his allegiance to genocide by the simple contention that “Jews are not even human.”

Dr Gernsbacher then shows that assertions that some humans aren't human are not confined to the past. She supplies an example of a statement made by a language researcher at a conference not so many years ago:

“Oh, I’ve seen children with Williams syndrome. They don’t count. They’re not even human. They must belong to some other species entirely.”

As Dr Gernsbacher points out, these spoken words did not make it into print. This contrasts with the situation in autism. Autistics have been prominently denied human status in accolade-laden books and in prominent peer-reviewed papers:

For example, in a recent New York Times “notable book of the year,” an internationally acclaimed psychological scientist segregated autistic people from other humans and placed them “together with robots and chimpanzees.”

Dr Gernsbacher has not named this acclaimed cognitive scientist, but he is instantly recognizable as Steven Pinker. She also provides this quote:

“it’s as if they [autistic people] do not understand or are missing a core aspect of what it is to be human”

Without peeking at the references, I have no trouble instantly attributing this one to Bryna Siegel, who has been an expert witness for the government side in more than one Canadian ABA legal battle (e.g., Wynberg and Hewko).

Dr Gernsbacher goes on to explore of the work of Micheal Tomasello (again, not named, but unmistakable), who published two major target articles in the journal Behavioral and Brain Sciences, in 1993 then in 2005. Dr Tomasello has authored many other articles as well as a highly praised and influential book, which have in common his contention that autistics, like apes, lack the essential features defining humans as human. Here is how Dr Gernsbacher describes the 2005 BBS article:

In a more recent scholarly article, also written with the aim of delineating “the crucial difference between human cognition and that of other species,” autistic people were again segregated from other humans and placed with great apes. After acknowledging that the empirical literature demonstrates that “great apes and children with autism are clearly not blind to all aspects of intentional action,” the authors raised the bar (“understanding the intentional actions and perceptions of others is not by itself sufficient to produce humanlike social and cultural activities”), and continued to pound home their belief that autistic children do not “engage socially and culturally with others in the ways that human children do”; they do not “interact with other persons in the species-typical manner.” Their social behavior is just not human.

What Dr Gernsbacher does not point out is that the examples she provides are not exceptional. There is a list of famous scientists, currently prominent in various disciplines, who have in various ways denied that autistics are human (or even alive). In addition to Steven Pinker, Michael Tomasello, and Bryna Siegel, this list would include Peter Hobson, Fred Volkmar, Thomas Insel, V.S. Ramachandran, Ivar Lovaas, and Paul Bloom.

Dr Gernsbacher concludes:

Why are humans dehumanized? According to Morton Deutsch, this year’s APS James McKeen Cattell award recipient, humans are dehumanized when they are perceived as a threat. What threat do humans with Williams syndrome and autistic humans pose to psychological scientists? A threat to the universality of the scientists’ theories, a threat to the scientists’ ability to accept human diversity?

Last fall, a Duquesne University sophomore violated his Catholic university’s code of conduct by posting on Facebook his opinion that homosexual behavior was “subhuman.” Shouldn’t psychological scientists be held to an equally high code of conduct? In addition to being required to remove his offensive comment from the Web, the Duquesne sophomore had to write a 10-page essay on respect for human dignity. I wish some psychological scientists would at least read, if not write, a similar essay.