A Siren’s Song of ALF
Alf, like the Naiads Harold Doherty refers to, is a mythical creature. Alf was born initially as a fundraising slogan on a coffee cup or some such on autistics.org and there he remained until a rookie reporter for the Times wrote a rousing if hastily researched piece on autistic advocacy citing Aspies for Freedom and the ‘Autistic Liberation Front’ (Alf). Harold found the article. The thing is, Alf, properly speaking doesn’t exist. The article, however, sparked one of those tangential forays familiar to spectrumites everywhere and Alf became flesh so to speak as a joke too good to pass up.  As is fitting with the lofty aims of the enterprise (think Che Guevara), Alf was conceived in the superhero mould. The fact that few of the participants had access to suitable costumes was brushed aside as mere quibbling. The result is, I think, impressive thanks to the Photoshop expertise of the resident legal eagle on Autadvo, Anne.
I don’t see Alf as a nymph in reverse drag. He’s a stocky character, balding, a slight paunch and a belligerent attitude. He’s not the sort who would bother with vocals on the Med. Far more likely, one would think, that if the occasion were sufficiently provocative, Alf would stride up in his workingman’s boots and deliver a kick where it might do the most good. This lot comes under the heading of serious provocation:
“ Those who oppose any effort to treat, educate or heaven forbid change an autistic child for the better. Do not listen to the siren’s call”. Or…..
“ Parents who seek to help their OWN children, not the ND’ers themselves but their own children, through attempts at cures are vilified by the ND movement. And….
“ They [the sirens] will not help teach him/her to speak and read and brush his/her teeth.”
It’s hard to know where to start. “Cure” is something that implies that there was a biological something to be got over. We don’t as yet have a biological anything that points to the aetiology of autism and therefore an unequivocal path of intervention. We do know that there are a lot of autistic children who were apparently ‘cured’ with a variety of different treatments including biomedical interventions, chelation and
I think there is a case to be made that taking the ‘medically necessary’ path to clamouring for funding for interventions for autism may have been tremendously short sighted. It’s just too easy to shoot holes in the argument and that’s without getting into the demonisation of the entire spectrum to up the pity factor as far as possible, which has some interesting consequences - like wrecking your child’s future in advance, so why did they bother in the first place.
The argument for ‘treatment’ is better than cure but again, no one that I know of is against treatment per se. The whys and the wherefores however, might be up for debate. Though why that should incense Harold is mystifying. Surely if he’s pushing the position that his ABA should be mandatory, note, not optional, then he’s going to get a debate, like it or not. Best to start here with the things that Harold is convinced that some people don’t want autistics to learn, like to speak, to read and brush their teeth. It a pretty good list on the whole because it covers most of the situations, where to put it bluntly
Dr Morton Ann Gernsbacher of the
The other consideration with language remediation is the proliferation of Verbal Behaviour (VB) programs. The application of behaviour analysis principles to the acquisition of language has no empirical support in the literature as Mark Sundberg pointed out as recently as 2005. The manufactured jargon of it was tackled rather nicely by Noam Chomsky in 1959. Here’s what he had to say about the mand in light of behaviour analytic logic:
“a speaker will not respond properly to the mand Your money or your life (38) unless he has a past history of being killed.”
Why a rational human being would choose
“With the consistent and enthusiastic support of Alex’s teacher assistant and parents, Alex entered Grade 1 at Gulf Shore in September 1993, with the ability to use all of the following means of communication—sign language, gestures, Canon Communicator, picture communication symbols, infrequent vocalizations and an immerging ability to print words”
The second skill that Harold insists that folks don’t want autistics to learn is how to read. His irony meter must be broken. I’m hyperlexic myself and this idiosyncrasy is apparently as common as dirt on the spectrum. Not mind you that the level of reading skill is at the same level of comprehension. No, it is not but I suspect that too much is made of the disparity to protect those normal folks out there. Hyperlexia aside, which is nothing more than an enhanced ability to spot patterns, there are many issues here. What do you do with spectrumites for whom language is a foreign language? One might argue that breaking language tasks down into small bits might be of benefit, but there are two problems with this approach. Primarily, there is no evidence whatsoever that this is the case for autistics, and I might add somewhat forcefully that
This bit by bit approach to tasks is I think an artefact. The Skinner box for training rats and pigeons and the minimalist environments for training humans that
The third factor in Harold’s list of things that some folks would not like autistics to learn is cleaning their teeth. This skill one could postulate as the exemplar of a whole range of similar skills and the sort of thing for which
It should be clear by now that I don’t have much of an opinion of
There are others, particularly of the sort that are generally unavoidable when therapy is used as a substitute for education. Note, the therapy may be utterly necessary, but the necessity does not mitigate the effects, though a lot of parents like to put a gloss on it. A couple of my favourite glossy bits are as follows.
This is a parent’s view of
From the same parent: “Jason also spends about thirty minutes of the two-hour session leading the activities by selecting what he wants to do most.” The parent earlier informed us that the activities are selected by the therapist, which is just fine but this then becomes a really lousy example of promoting self-actualisation.
Harold talks about changing ‘an autistic child for the better’, a prospect that concerns me not at all, since it’s practically impossible to change anybody, though it would be interesting to speculate what exactly he means by that. This sort of rationale reminds me of Douglas Adams line: “If you try and take a cat apart to see how it works, the first thing you have on your hands is a non-working cat “ - ditto for autistic child. What is it about the child that should be changed? Is there some measure of ‘normal’ available for comparison, because let’s face it - “normal isn’t necessarily wonderful” . Here’s a normal mother, a perfectly nice and loving parent I might add talking about her clever autistic daughter.
“Every single thing she knows, she learned from
Her critical thinking skills may be normal but I wouldn’t want anyone else to learn them.
What is truly baffling about this paragraph is the complete disregard for a lot of learning –Why? And the substitution of
“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.”
Imagine the outcry there would be if this philosophy was applied to the educational system. Autistic kids get a different standard and there are, I suspect, one large and a multitude of little reasons for that. The major reason is that what the autistic child does not do and what Mr Lake referred to specifically is ‘look you in the eye’. In other words there is no automatic emotional response or acknowledgement of the parent in a way that the parent would interpret as such. Every
So there it is. I am not ant-ABA, which smacks of blind opinion with nothing much in the way of foundation, so much as very critical of it. Something that completely escapes the zealots and idealogues like Harold, is that things don’t change unless there’s a concerted push. So a therapy like
As for the ‘canard’ of doing nothing, I’m fairly amazed that Harold threw that one into the ether. But that’s a lawyer for you. If you don’t have the facts, play the person. It usually obfuscates the issues for a while. But this is not a court of law with a memory span limited to the case in question. Not at all a good strategy as we know from experience, with a great tendency to backfire.
1. Poor Harold. I doubt that he’s capable of understanding that lots of folks might find the concept of a liberation front, with all the sequelae of power plays, prosetylising, slogans and propaganda, faintly ridiculous. But then he hasn’t had the benefit of DKM’s wisdom. Here’s David K March on a very similar concept – Aspergia.
“From what I can see, this "Aspergia" thing has a 350-degree
blind-spot. It's self-absorbed, self-indulgent, and reckless in its potential effects for those of us who have no choice but to function in NT society. I don't want to be "represented" by these people any more than I want to be "represented" by Dr. Skulldug Fraudulini, Psy.D.”
Frankly, if there were such a thing as an Autism Liberation Front, it’s not likely that I’d be among the membership.
Editorial note: The link to the pic of the ALF was removed temporarily until I checked that it would be OK to provide a link. It is in the public domain.
2. There is no person alive who could be said to be an ND’er, unless you happen to believe in multiple personalities, which I don’t. A single person cannot be neurodiverse.
3. This is worth a post all on its own. I was thunderstruck, appalled, amazed and a whole lot of other adverbs to find just how unqualified
4. Amanda Baggs of the blog ballastexistenz said to me once that this was important for her, so I would guess that it is important for a lot of autistic folks though maybe not everyone of them and maybe not for every task. I’d like to go back in history and unearth Tolman, who made the very important distinction between learning and performance.
5. Consider the reports of parents about their children falling apart without their
6. Dinah Murray’s line.