The Autistic Self Advocacy Network strongly condemns the Association for Behavior Analysis International (ABAI) for their decision to feature the Judge Rotenberg Center (JRC) at their 2019 annual conference. The JRC is the only institution in the country to use electric shock devices for behavior modification on students with intellectual and developmental disabilities, a practice which has been classified as torture by the United Nations. ABAI’s decision to give JRC a platform at their conference reflects a continued pattern of complicity in the torture of the very population that they claim to serve. Furthermore, the JRC’s presentation at this conference specifically focuses on the merits of the electric shock device. This means that ABAI is more than complicit in the abuse taking place at the JRC: they are actively endorsing these practices.
Materials for ABAI’s 2019 annual conference describe the JRC as a “treatment/educational program that is highly positive”, alongside claims that “there is a place for ethical use of aversives.” These claims go against the findings of the United Nations, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), and the voices of survivors. ABAI claims to promote “evidence-based” treatments, but the evidence is clear: the use of electric shock devices is unethical at best, and physically and psychologically abusive at worst. ABAI cannot claim to be an ethical organization that works to meet the needs of autistic people while condoning our torture.
ABAI’s endorsement of the abuse taking place at the JRC is a symptom of longstanding problems in the field of Applied Behavioral Analysis (ABA). ABA was founded by O. Ivar Lovaas, and derived from the same principles as conversion therapy, of which he was a co-creator. Conversion therapy for LGBTQ individuals has since been condemned as a form of torture, and survivors describe conversion therapy and ABA as having similar traumatizing consequences. Yet ABAI routinely ignores the voices of autistic self-advocates who challenge the harmful methods that ABA practitioners use every day. By hiding behind the claim that ABA is “evidence-based”, ABAI continues to avoid accountability for ABA’s abusive history and current practices.
ABAI must condemn institutions like the JRC that explicitly torture autistic people. Furthermore, ABAI must examine its own history and practices that contribute to the abuse that autistic people face. Only by looking at their own ethical framework, and honestly confronting what they have enabled to happen, can ABAI begin to make amends to the autistic community. The first step to making that happen is an apology, and a commitment that ABAI will no longer associate with the JRC.
The Autistic Self Advocacy Network is a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization run by and for autistic people. ASAN was created to serve as a national grassroots disability rights organization for the autistic community run by and for autistic Americans, advocating for systems change and ensuring that the voices of autistic people are heard in policy debates and the halls of power. Our staff work to educate communities, support self-advocacy in all its forms, and improve public perceptions of autism. ASAN’s members and supporters include autistic adults and youth, cross-disability advocates, and non-autistic family members, professionals, educators, and friends.