Recently I took the AU course PSYC478: Autism Spectrum Disorder. As the mom of a little guy with autism, I thought this would be a great course for me to learn more about my son’s disability. While my tutor was excellent, I was dismayed to find that my course materials were riddled with ableist language, sentiments that devalued people with autism, and heavily promoted a highly controversial form of therapy.
First, I took issue with the repeated use of the term “high-functioning autism” throughout the text. Many people in the autism community have expressed that this kind of labeling is harmful. When an autistic person is labeled as “high-functioning” it can minimize their—very real and difficult—struggles; while labeling a person as “low-functioning” is insulting, could make them feel embarrassed or powerless, and dismisses their strengths. People labeled as “low-functioning” can still be extremely intelligent, creative, funny, wonderful people—something that this label does not imply. This is not to mention the connection to the Nazi regime’s “euthanasia” campaign against people with disabilities (which I have also written about). A more accurate, kind, and inclusive way to communicate the abilities of someone with ASD would be to refer to their level of support needs—as in, they have high, moderate, or low support needs.
Second, the text heavily promoted ABA therapy—a highly controversial form of therapy that many people in the autism community find abusive and traumatizing. ABA therapy asserts that children should be in therapy 20 to 40 hours per week. 40 hours per week is the equivalent of a full-time job. While I understand that there is research supporting that children can make significant gains in this time, I wonder how this would affect their mental health? Might some of these children grow up to feel like they spent their entire childhood “working”? How do the results of ABA therapy compare to less intense, gentler, or more incidental teaching/therapy styles? These are some of the questions that I would have loved for PSYC478 to address.
Furthermore, the videos of ABA “training” that were required for the course made me severely uncomfortable—in my opinion, these therapists look like they are training dogs, not teaching innocent, vulnerable children. I would not allow a therapist or teacher to treat either of my children that way. This is not to mention the story mentioned in Unit 10, about a little boy named Cooper being physically restrained at a table for “table time” while he screamed and tried to get away. This practice is supposed to facilitate play skills—but how is a child supposed to learn (or play, for that matter!) if they are experiencing that level of distress? Did Cooper actually learn to calm himself at the table, or did he just shut down?
Third, the author refers to autistic children and their “healthy” siblings on page 200. My son is not unhealthy. He is neurodivergent. His sister is not the “healthy” sibling. She is neurotypical. Using “healthy” and “unhealthy” as a descriptor further insinuates that there is something wrong with the autistic person, or perhaps there is something that parents could have done to change the diagnosis.
Finally, no where in the text or course commentary were the voices of people with autism represented. It is baffling that AU would feel that it is appropriate to talk about a group of people without including them in the conversation. I think that it is important to note that Indigenous voices have been represented in every Indigenous Studies course I have taken (which is wonderful!)—but why aren’t the same provisions made for people with disabilities? Do they not also deserve the chance to speak for themselves?
I love going to AU—I would never have been able to get my degree without it. While I don’t want to show my amazing school in a bad light, I also think it is incredibly important for institutions to be held accountable when they miss the mark. I would hate to think of a student who had little or no lived experience with autism, or perhaps a parent of a newly-diagnosed child, taking this course and leaving with an inaccurate, outdated, and frankly—negative perception of what autism is. Language is extremely important when spreading awareness and advocating for people with disabilities.
I am sure AU should be able to find a new textbook to be used for this course that presents a more balanced view of autism and incorporates the voices of people on the spectrum. If this is not possible, perhaps a more thorough course commentary that addresses these issues, or directing students to outside resources is in order. I believe AU has a responsibility to remedy this situation, not only for the students who are paying to receive an education, but for everyone in the autism community.
I’d forgotten about this article from issue 3106, way back at the middle of February, until a reader brought it up. I was very glad they did, as my understanding is that this article spurred some changes and a re-examination of some courses at AU. And any article which can lead to improvements at the university level absolutely deserves to be included as the Best of the Voice.