Saturday, November 18, 2006

Spotting the difference

The Globe and Mail today started a series about cancer in Canada. I'm working my way through a long article, in multiple parts, called Cancer: A day in the life . The article works through one day, in increments of time, describing the lives of 60 people with cancer at that time. I'm still in the morning of this day. I'm maybe a quarter of the way through. All these people are dying, except two who seem to be doing well. There is an audio slide show about a young child with cancer, who did not survive, but will never be forgotten.

The introduction states that cancer kills 193 Canadians a day, or about 70,000 a year. Canada doesn't have a national cancer strategy, as is noted in an accompanying editorial. The words "scourge", "torment", "affliction" and "horrific" are used in this editorial. We are so used to those words being used to describe the existence of healthy autistic people.

Autism is routinely equated with cancer. Or we're told it's worse than cancer, because it doesn't kill us--if only autism were fatal, we would all be better off. The autism advocate Andrew Kavchak states that his autistic son would be better off if he had cancer. The famous behaviour analyst, Gina Green, equates autism with acute lymphocytic leukemia (ALL), and ABA-based autism interventions with treatment for this kind of malignant cancer. The only difference between autism and leukemia that Dr Green can spot is that there's "probably more known scientifically about ALL than autism" and "there are reliable, objective tests for diagnosing ALL".

Nowhere does Dr Green mention that without treatment, ALL kills people in about 3 months.

I don't think ABA advocates like Dr Green, and Mr Kavchak, and so many others who glibly use cancer analogies, really see any difference between a cancer that kills people and autistic traits and abilities. They see autistic traits and abilities as needing eradication just as much as malignant cancerous cells and tumours.

Canada is much more likely to get a national autism strategy--with the goal not of helping autistic people, but of attacking autistic traits and abilities as though they were malignant--than a national cancer strategy. Parents with autistic children who, according to their parents, are as sick as or even sicker than children dying of cancer command a lot of respect, as they speak of devastation and tragedy, of how their children are doomed, of losing a child to autism, as if an autistic child is a dead child. No one has questioned them, or their goal of having autism treated as if it were a dreaded fatal disease.

Meanwhile, 193 people are killed by cancer every day in Canada.


Green, G. (2006). Foreward. In: M. Keenan, M. Henderson, K.P. Kerr, & K. Dillenburger (Eds.), Applied Behaviour Analysis and Autism. London, UK: Jessica Kingsley.