Reflections on Autism and Humanity

Recently I’ve been digging through the copious interviews of Ole Ivar Lovaas, inventor of ABA and all around asshole. I am guilty of treating ABA reductively, reducing it to a known evil, without giving it the due theoretical consideration to bring about just how insidious it is. If there is one thing Lovaas is very good at, its bringing out the cruelty that drives ABA. In particular, a passage from Lovaas’ 1974 interview with Psychology Today has caught my attention. As always with 1970s literature on autism, it’s a brutal read, and this particular passage is fatphobic in addition to the usual child abuse that attends literature on autistic children. Please read with caution:

“Beth did really well in some ways; she learned very quickly. But she was also very self-destructive. One day I was talking with her teacher and Beth began hitting her head against the edge of a steel cabinet. She would only hit steel cabinets and she would only hit them on the edge because, you see, she wanted to draw blood. Well, I think I knew her so well, I just reacted automatically, the way I would have with my own children. I just reached over and cracked her one right on the rear. She was a big fat girl so I had an easy target. And I remember her reaction; she turned around and looked to me as if to say, ‘What the hell is going on? Is this a psychiatric clinic or isn’t it?’ And she stopped hitting herself for about 30 seconds and then, you see, she sized up the situation, laid out her strategy and then she hit herself once more. But in those 30 seconds while she was laying out her strategy, Professor Lovaas was laying out his. At first I thought, ‘God, what have I done,’ but then I noticed she had stopped hitting herself. I felt guilty, but I felt great. Then she hit herself again and I really laid it on her. You see, by then I knew she could inhibit it, and that she would inhibit it if she knew I would hit her. So I let her know that there was no question in my mind that I was going to kill her if she hit herself once more, and that was pretty much it. She hit herself a few times after that, but we had the problem licked. One of the things that this taught me was that if you treat these kids like patients, you are finished. The best thing that you can do is treat them like people (Lovaas 1974).”

Oftentimes ABA is presented as a dehumanizing project, where the autistic subject is reduced to ‘response’ and ‘reward’ much the same way that people treat their pets. In light of this, Lovaas’ response is surprising. The very abuse that is seen as dehumanizing by autistic people is an expressly humanizing project for Lovaas. He initally strikes Beth out of impulse rather than with calculated intent, and immediately becomes awash with guilt. Striking children who do wrong is something reserved for the home space, with children who are unquestionably people and thereby unquestionably respond to harm with aversion. Lovaas’ guilt has nothing to do with striking a child, but rather with striking a patient, breaking the unspoken ‘rule’ that one must only treat their patients with the utmost care and compassion.

In seeing Beth respond with aversion, he sees Beth respond the way that he would expect with his own children, something supposedly impossible for the autistic subject. In Lovaas’ mind, his abuse of Beth has brought out her humanity that autism had locked away and stolen from her. His grief transforms into euphoria, and he redoubles his efforts to bring about Beth’s humanity through as severe abuse as possible. For Lovaas, this is an obstinate commitment to Beth’s humanity, and undying faith that it can be brought about. Whether or not his treatment hurts Beth is out of the question, because there is no ‘Beth’ to hurt unless it is first coaxed out through his abuse. He acts in the name of humanization, and I think we should name his violence as such – the violence of humanizing, not dehumanizing.

Just because Lovaas acts in the name of humanizing does not mean that autistic people should take up the conceptual category of the inhuman. Rather, I think it’s more poignant for autistic people to grapple with the concept of incomplete subjectivity, of living a life that is intentionally constructed by the conditions of our world to be internally inconsistent. Remi Yergeau in Clinically Significant Disturbance: On Theorists who Theorize Theory of Mind gives us one such example of what a paradoxical autistic subjectivity might look like. They write:

“Contemporary theories about ToM now invoke and assert multiple cognitive phenomena—mentalizing, meta-cognition, mindreading (i.e., understanding others’ mental states), deducing intentionality, and expressing empathy (Boucher 2012, 229). In others words, to lack a theory of mind is not simply to lack a theory of other’s minds—it is also to lack an awareness of one’s own mind (Carruthers 1996; McGeer 2004).

And so, I am writing this essay, presumably unaware of my reader and my(non)self (Yergeau 2013).”

Yergeau brings about the way that the very idea of a theory of mind brings about the inability to have awareness of one’s own mind, and thereby no ability to engage in self reflection despite engaging in self-reflection in the very act of coming to this conclusion. Here the imposition of theory of mind, an internally consistent concept for non-autistic people, renders autistic life wholly paradoxical. The very project of self-knowledge unravels, and the autistic subject is locked into endless existentializing.

My suspicion is that autism’s paradoxes go much further than this. I’m not convinced that theory of mind, or any other fundamental lack that is ascribed to autistic people, is any more sensible to autism researchers than it is to autistic people. To provide an empirical basis for this claim extends beyond the scope of this essay – it’d become way way too long – but my suspicions are as follows. I believe that the economy of autism research is fueled by cure and sustained by fascination. That is, the vast majority of autism researchers want to be the person to ‘cure’ autism, to tie their name to pharmaceuticals, therapeutic practices or aspects of hospital protocol. However, the economy of autism research is currently sustained by non-profits that will soon vanish and dwindle upon the discovery of the non-existent cure for for autism. The cure for autism is illusory is by design – the economy of autism research would collapse if it were ever found. The easiest way to resolve these tensions is for autism researchers to constantly redefine autism in the form of new and new paradoxes. This draws in new researchers who are fascinated by autism’s many paradoxes, which provides each individual researcher a new paradox to resolve that would cure autism, and structures the field of autism research as a whole as a boundless sea of paradox upon paradox. All of autism’s paradoxes can never be resolved, and more and more will spring up as the economy of autism research keeps progressing forward. And these paradoxes are irreconcilable with each other, creating meta-paradoxes which demand attention before unraveling individual paradoxes. I’m not even sure theory of mind is a self-consistent concept between all of its different uses at this point.

Assuming that this is true, this means that autism is already inconsistent with itself before even before thinking about its imposition onto autistic people. These inconsistencies only become further ingrained as they hide inside the nestle of existential paradoxes that occur when autistic people try to reconcile the imposed logics of autism with their own subjectivity. Autistic people have become an unassailable network of paradoxes, a network that extends beyond existential paradox. Autistic being goes beyond being predicated on non-being – autism is such a conceptually incomplete concept that one cannot make distinctions between being and non-being in any meaningful way. It is not even that the autistic being is more elusive than a rock’s being, it is rather that autistic subjectivity has not even entering the space from which we can intelligibly make sense of the concept of being/non-being. This runs contrary to Yergeau’s assertion that “autistic being is predicated on non-being”, and thus diverges from the tact that they take in their essay (Yergeau 2013). What Lovaas is doing with ABA is not making the autistic subject human, nor implying that they are inhuman. Rather it is completing the autistic subjectivity, from which humanity supposedly flows forth. Which is not to say that humanity isn’t troubled in other ways for autistic people! Let’s not shut down that avenue of critique. I just don’t think Lovaas is perpetrating that particular form of violence in this passage.

Oftentimes I feel that there is a large swath of autistic violence that we are unable to talk about, either amongst ourselves or to non-autistic people. It is my hope that by looking at the ways in which the autistic subjectivity is incomplete and the accompanying violence of humanization that we might generate new ways to talk about such violence. It is very likely that people are already doing this work- if you know anyone please let me know, I would like to read their work! As for me, I am just starting this project, and will be writing about it on here as I continue my studies in my scraps of free time.

Works Cited:

Lovaas, Ole Ivar. 1974. “‘After you hit a child, you can’t just get up and leave him; you are hooked to that kid.'” Interviewed by Paul Chance. Psychology Today, January 1974. Web.

Yergeau, Remi. 2013. “Clinically Significant Disturbance: On Theorists who Theorize Theory of Mind.” Disability Studies Quarterly 33, No. 4 (2013).

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