Monday, October 13, 2008

Autism advocacy as public policy: an example

Canadians are voting in a general election tomorrow. All major national political parties in Canada (Conservatives, Liberals, New Democratic Party, Green Party) are autism advocacy parties. That is, they are part of the widespread effort to make the world as free of autism--of autistic people--as possible.

Three of these parties have agreed that autistics contribute nothing to society as autistics, and that ideally our existence should be prevented.

The fourth party, the Green Party, has welcomed and adopted the views of their star candidate, the ex-Liberal MP Blair Wilson. Mr Wilson's public position is that the existence of autistics is a "blight on society," a blight against which Canada must take action. And Mr Wilson's view is that only autistics who undergo ABA-based interventions starting early in life have humanity. The rest of us--most autistics in Canada--don't. We have no humanity and aren't at all human.

Without exception, the positions of Canada's major national political parties entail writing off most autistics in Canada--those of us who haven't received unlimited ABA-based interventions starting early in life. The parties differ merely as to who exactly should pay for which aspects of the fight to achieve their collective ideal: a Canada free of autistic traits and abilities, and which has no autistic people at all.

In my search for someone I could vote for, I was given a closer look at one party's position. I was generously sent an internal Liberal policy document about autism.

This document includes information about the CIHR, about collaboration with autistic-free organizations whose goal is to prevent autism. But the Liberal's autism policy document is dominated by uncritical promotion of the premise that ABA-based interventions are the only effective "medically necessary" autism treatment, without which all autistics are expensive write-offs.

The sum total of the evidence provided by the Liberals to support this premise is Lovaas (1987). In this study, autistic preschool children in the experimental group were systematically hit--and hit "hard" according to two behaviour analysts involved in this study (Leaf & McEachin, 2008). This systematic hitting of very young children was, according to the design of Lovaas (1987) and its author, a crucial aspect of the experimental group treatment. A small-N study with major problems in reporting and methodology, Lovaas (1987) is not a true experimental design, and represents the standards of behaviour analysis circa 38 years ago.

It also apparently represents the standards of science and ethics that Liberals in Canada believe autistics deserve.

The Liberals go on to make this claim:

"Currently, statistics show that 90% of afflicted individuals are placed in institutions and residential facilities, placing increasing pressure on Canada’s education and social service programs."
This isn't the first time Liberals have denigrated developmentally disabled people by using what the Canadian Down Syndrome Society calls "inappropriate" and "offensive" language. To the Liberals, autistics are "afflicted individuals" and our proper place is in institutions. The 90% figure, an autism advocacy staple, exists nowhere in the history of autism research (for a review, see Howlin, 2005), much less in the present. Instead, this fictional figure reflects the extreme autism advocacy prejudice that autistics do not belong in society--surely, at least in part because we are presumed to be a threat to others--and instead must be locked away in institutions.

The Liberal Party, like the NDP and the Greens, have fully supported the autism advocacy organization FEAT (also known as "Medicare for Autism Now!"), which promotes the view that not only must most autistics in Canada be institutionalized, we must be kept in restraints and have our teeth pulled.

The Liberals elaborate the extent of the services required by all untreated autistics:

"With treatment, it is argued that the rate of institutionalization will be greatly diminished, and the current costs of over $300,000 per untreated autistic individual per year will be dramatically reduced."
The only approach to autism promoted in this document is Lovaas-type ABA as medical treatment, which must start early in life. This leaves the majority of autistics in Canada as "untreated" more-than-$300,000-per-year drains on society.

From recently reported figures, in Ontario, it costs between $20,000 and $78,000 per year (average is $49,000) for a developmentally disabled person to stay in a group home, and ~$100,000 per year to keep a developmentally disabled person institutionalized. Even a private sector institution, the Judge Rotenberg Center in the US, with its high level of restrictive supervision and its notoriously intrusive intervention program (including the use of strong aversives), is reported to charge ~$220,000 per year per inmate, many of whom are adults, many of whom are autistics.

So according to the Liberal Party of Canada, most autistics in Canada contribute nothing at all to society, in our entire lives. But beyond this, we just naturally have to be very expensively locked away into very secure--given the enormous cost--institutions (of any size) where we are constantly supervised and kept under control, apparently--given the enormous cost--by numerous round-the-clock staff. For our whole lives.

Using the currently-popularized autism prevalence figure of 1 in 150, there are ~150,000 autistic adults in Canada, and ~50,000 autistic children. Virtually all autistic adults in Canada are "untreated" (we did not receive Lovaas-type ABA starting early in life) and therefore we must, according to the Liberals, each be costing society at least $300,000 per year. That adds up to ~$45 billion per year. This is about the total amount the federal government transfered to the provinces in the 2008 federal budget. And that's just to pay for us untreated autistic adults. This doesn't include the costs of younger autistics who might also for various reasons be untreated by Lovaas-type ABA.

These extraordinary costs would be paid by the provinces. In Ontario, there are ~60,000 autistic adults. According to the Liberals, the Ontario government would be paying more than $18 billion per year, just for the costs of autistic adults. This would be about one-fifth of Ontario's total program spending.

The Liberals, however, rush in with their solution to the terrifying and appalling situation they have invented:

"It is important to note that on the flip-side, the cost of a science-based program for every child diagnosed at the age of 2 years is typically $60,000 per year, for the first three years. Some children no longer require treatment after this treatment period; some of the children may require treatment for a few more years, and then there is a minority of children who may need some level of treatment for their entire childhood, not unlike a child who may need long-term chemotherapy. However, these treatment costs typically decrease over time for the vast majority of children."
Again, by "science-based program," the Liberals are referring to Lovaas-type ABA as medical treatment. They contend that all autistic children do well in this treatment, and provided it continues if necessary until the end of childhood (where it apparently stops), Lovaas-type ABA is always successful in producing an autism-free individual.

There are no credible (in the peer-reviewed literature) sources for what the Liberals claim. Indeed, Lovaas (2003) makes the data-free claim that autistics who do not achieve "normal functioning" in ABA programs by age 7 (and the majority of autistics don't) will remain totally dependent on ABA programs for the rest of their lives.

There is no peer-reviewed paper that reports data about the adult outcomes of a controlled trial of Lovaas-type ABA (or any kind of ABA). The only follow-up into school ages follows-up the aversive-based treatment in Lovaas (1987; McEachin et al., 1993), and does not report that all autistic children in the experimental group eventually became free of autism and therefore had good outcomes. The only true experimental design (where the intended comparison between randomized groups was actually carried out) in the 47-year history of ABA-based autism intervention research, reported largely poor results in a small-N study, particularly for children with the specific diagnosis of autism (Smith, Groen & Wynn, 2000, 2001; don't forget to read the authors' errata). A recent uncontrolled trial, often falsely touted as a "replication" of Lovaas (1987), showed that the majority of children not only did not display improvement in their scores on any of the chosen outcome measures, they had significant losses in several measures (language, adapative abilities) over 4 years of intensive ABA (Sallows & Graupner, 2005). A recent community-based study showed that while preschool autistic children had widely varying individual short-term outcomes, their outcomes did not differ according to whether they did or did not receive Lovaas-type ABA (Magiati et al., 2007; see also Eaves & Ho, 2004, for similar results in a Canadian study). And so on.

With similar disregard for science and ethics, the Liberals claim that ABA-based autism interventions are just like chemotherapy. This is in concert with their false contention that ABA is a medical treatment, researched and provided by medical professionals according to medical standards. But this also demonstrates how the Liberal Party of Canada sees autism: as a cancer, that has to be gotten rid of, from individuals and society. In the Liberals' view, there is everything to be gained and nothing whatsoever to lose if public policy dictates that autism must be totally gotten rid of, just like cancer.

The Liberals go on to confirm how much money would be saved if autistic children all undergo Lovaas-type ABA as a medical treatment:

"By implementing ABA/IBI therapy into the category of insurable health services, provinces and territories will save approximately $240,000 per autistic individual per year, with a declining cost scale associated with successful treatment outcomes."
This Liberal Party autism policy document is so distant from accuracy, from recognized standards of science and ethics, that it's difficult to respond to (where do you start?). And indeed, I've been informed by Liberals, numerous times, that any criticism of the views of autism they widely disseminate is outrageous and unwelcome--how dare I. This is another hallmark of autism advocacy: any scrutiny or criticism of claims made about how autistics should be regarded and treated--any hint of standards of science and ethics--is seen as reprehensible, and is responded to by personal attacks. Autism advocacy as public policy is above science and ethics, above scrutiny and criticism.

My purpose isn't to single out the Liberals. I'm using their document as just one example of what autism advocacy is and what autism advocacy does. I suggest that if the other major political parties in Canada have produced internal autism documents or backgrounders, these too would be filled with policies and positions based on similar extreme falsehoods and stereotypes. These too would display abysmal standards of science and ethics. All of Canada's major political parties are autism advocacy parties displaying and promoting popular autism advocacy standards, values, methods and goals.

If you're not an autism advocate, if you want a place in Canadian society for autistics, if you support full equality and participation and recognized standards for autistics, if you believe autistics deserve better--there's no one to vote for.


Eaves, L.C., & Ho, H.H. (2004). The very early identification of autism: outcome to age 4 1/2-5. Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders, 34, 367-378.

Howlin, P. (2005). Outcomes in autism spectrum disorders. In F.R. Volkmar, R. Paul, A. Klin & D. Cohen (Eds), Handbook of Autism and Pervasive Developmental Disorders. Hoboken, NJ: Wiley.

Leaf, R. & McEachin, J. (2008). The UCLA Young Autism Project. In R. Leaf, J. McEachin & M. Taubman (Eds.), Sense and nonsense in the behavioral treatment of autism: It has to be said. New York: DRL.

Lovaas, O.I. (1987). Behavioral treatment and normal educational and intellectual functioning in young autistic children. Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology, 55, 3-9.

Lovaas, O.I . (2003) Teaching Individuals with Developmental Delays: Basic Intervention Techniques. Austin, TX: Pro-Ed.

Magiati, I., Charman, T., & Howlin, P. (2007). A two-year prospective follow-up study of community-based early intensive behavioural intervention and specialist nursery provision for children with autism spectrum disorders. Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry, 48, 803-812.

McEachin, J.J., Smith, T., & Lovaas, O.I. (1993). Long-term outcome for children with autism who received early intensive behavioral treatment. American Journal on Mental Retardation, 97, 359-72.

Sallows, G.O., & Graupner, T.D. (2005). Intensive behavioral treatment for children with autism: Four year outcome and predictors. American Journal on Mental Retardation, 110, 417-438.

Smith, T., Groen, A.D., & Wynn, J.W. (2000, 2001). Randomized trial of intensive early intervention for children with pervasive developmental disorder. American Journal on Mental Retardation, 105, 269-85. Erratum in American Journal on Mental Retardation, 105, 508. Erratum in American Journal on Mental Retardation, 106, 208.

Friday, October 03, 2008

Another autistic victory

"... the Tribunal finds that the complaint filed by Ms. Dawson against Canada Post is substantiated and that the Respondent has contravened sections 7 and 14 of the Act."
That's from paragraph 248 of a decision just released by the Canadian Human Rights Tribunal, in the first ever autism-related case referred to this Tribunal for a hearing.

You can find this decision here in html and here in pdf.

In some ways it's a very strange decision, with a stupefying number of just huge factual errors in it. Due to my own incompetence in representing myself (and in just generally functioning throughout the extensive hearings) and for other reasons, including the enormous factual errors made by the Tribunal, I lost some aspects of this case. But to my own astonishment, I won other aspects. Indeed the aspects I won are those most important to me, and also those which I was firmly discouraged from pursuing by the Canadian Human Rights Commission (which was a party to this case, representing the public interest).

Setting aside the astounding factual errors about the specifics of the case, as I believe they should be set aside, and setting aside my own personal situation, as I believe should also be set aside, this decision is entirely good for autistics in Canada. It is unprecedented in establishing under a human rights law in Canada that autistics--as autistic people, and regardless of what kinds of interventions we may or may not have received--are human beings with human rights.

Here is an excerpt:

[242] Be this as it may, the Tribunal finds it disturbing for the future of autistic people that they be seen because of their condition to pose a threat to the safety of others and some form of nuisance in the workplace. An employer has a duty to ensure not only that all employees work in a safe environment but also that ill perceptions about an employee's condition due to poor or inadequate information about his disability lead other employees to have negative and ill-founded perceptions about him.

[243] An autistic person should expect that his workplace be free of any misperception or misconception about his condition. It goes to the right of autistic individuals to be treated equally, with dignity and respect, free of any discrimination or harassment related to their condition. In this respect, in a society where human rights are paramount, an employer has the duty to dispel such misconception or misperception about such individuals.

[244] This duty stems from the Canadian Human Rights Act and the need to get rid of any discriminatory behavior in the workplace as well as in society in general. It is worth reminding employers as well as society as a whole that the purpose of the Canadian Human Rights Act, as stated in section 2 of the Act, is to give effect to the principle that all individuals should have an opportunity equal with other individuals to make for themselves the lives that they are able and wish to have and to have their needs accommodated, consistent with their duties and obligations as members of society, without being hindered in or prevented from doing so by discriminatory practices based on race, national or ethnic origin, colour, religion, age, sex, sexual orientation, marital status, family status, disability or conviction for an offence for which a pardon has been granted.

[245] Autistic people, if they want to be able to accomplish themselves in a workplace or in society, need to be reassured that everything possible short of undue hardship will be done in order to ensure that misperceptions and misconceptions about their condition are properly handled by their employer, so that co-workers have a proper understanding of their condition and are not inclined to discriminate against them or harass them.

[246] To discriminate on the basis of somebody's physical appearance or social behavior might be one of the cruelest forms of discrimination. Here, Ms. Dawson was seen or perceived, at one point in her career at Canada Post, to be a threat to her co-workers because she had self-injured in the past, not because she had assaulted colleagues. She was later on perceived as a form of nuisance because she insisted on obtaining rational responses to her queries and never backed down. The fact of the matter is that Ms. Dawson was, until her diagnosis became officially known to Canada Post in 1999, seen as an excellent employee.

[247] The Tribunal is of the opinion, in view of the evidence, that the Respondent needs to review its policies in relation to discrimination and harassment and put in place educational programs that will sensitize its employees as well as management to the needs of disabled individuals in the workplace, notably autistic individuals, so that individuals such as Ms. Dawson will not have to suffer from a lack of knowledge and understanding of their condition. In this respect, given the Canadian Human Rights Commission's expertise in these matters, the latter can surely provide assistance, which should be welcomed, to the Respondent.
What I was dreading most was the same thing I had dreaded in Auton at the Supreme Court of Canada: a decision that would harm autistics, would make our lives even more difficult, would further limit our possibilities, would make it less likely that we would ever be given the opportunity to demonstrate our ability to contribute to society as autistic people. But this Tribunal decision, for all its faults with respect to the facts of the specific case, is instead a step in the right direction. It's a step towards human rights for autistics in Canada, and towards all the possibilities human beings have, when we are regarded and treated as equals, and can proceed in society as fully human beings with human rights and dignity.

As one autistic person, I did the best I could (with many thanks to those who helped along the way). And I didn't win every aspect of this specific--and very difficult and exhausting--case. But for all autistic people, this Canadian Human Rights Tribunal decision is a one hundred percent victory.

[Note: for clarity, the title "Another autistic victory" alludes to a 2005 article I wrote called "An autistic victory," about the Auton Supreme Court of Canada decision.]