Thursday, November 26, 2009

Why Are So Many Awesome Bloggers Named Amanda?

Seriously, it seems like a whole lot of wonderful feminist and disability-rights bloggers have that name.

There's Amanda Baggs, of course, autism/neurodiversity/anti-oppression blogger extraordinaire; she and Michelle Dawson were the first online writers I ever read, and if anybody can be said to have inspired me to do online writing, it's probably those two.

There's also Amanda Marcotte, whom I love for combining feminist blogging with atheism, skepticism and Bad-Science debunking; Amanda W. of Three Rivers Fog, whom I mostly read on FWD/Forward; Amanda Hess, who writes The Sexist; and now, most recently, I find Amanda Forest Vivian, an autistic American college student living in England, who wrote this amazing post* about an ABA school she interned at over a summer, where the staff were directed to try to stop students from stimming, or from being weird in the most harmless of ways:
...I started out thinking: wow, ABA is so cool. I've heard negative things about it from other Not Really Autistic people, but who am I to talk about what these Really Autistic kids need? They can't even talk. They might bite themselves or something. What the hell do I know about that?

And then I met Danny and the other kids in his class. High-functioning kids. Verbal kids.

Tony, who had been nonverbal a few years before, was incredibly hardworking and sweet. When he went into the school director's office and turned out the lights as a joke, I laughed, but she said, "Tony. Look at my face. How do you think that made me feel?" She stood there looking grim until he apologized.

James was stressed out and upset; one of his teachers leaned towards him, staring
fiercely into his eyes, talking with cold, strained-sounding words, the kind of voice I called "static" when I was a kid. James looked scaredly back at her, wriggling his hands around in his lap. "James," she said. "I know you're upset. But what you're doing with your hands looks silly." This boy, all the tension in him being channeled into something harmless, something she had to look under the table to see. His tension was silly. His discomfort was an inconvenience. He was eight or nine years old.

And Danny with his words. ...

Danny just liked words. When he was using his special words, the weird words he scrounged for or made up himself, he would find himself jerkily hopping across the room, speaking in a squeaky voice, his small face tense with excitement. "Presentation" was a weird word for movie, "document" was a way to talk about the letter he had typed on the computer for his parents. "I went to the barber," he said when I commented on his newly short hair, and then, with a rush of joy, "but I like to call it the hair shop!"

I like words, too. It was hard to watch Danny's teachers nudge him, sit down with him, say, "Danny, the word 'presentation' is a little weird; you need to say 'movie'." It was hard to watch the way they looked at him, pointedly, until he stilled his hopping and lowered his voice to a more standard pitch. When Danny found out my middle name is Wood, he completely tripped out on it, hammering pretend nails into my stomach and giggling, "I'm gonna build something out of you!" "Danny," a teacher said, "Don't be weird. You and Amanda were talking about names."
So from specific to general, from Danny to James and Tony, to Max and John. John's teacher made him walk, in stiff, clean steps, and if he started doing anything that looked like skipping or jumping, she grabbed his arm, said "No," forced him again and again. Max liked to move his arm in circles while he was watching TV, so he was hauled off into an office, pushed down into a chair, had mouthwash forced into his mouth until he cried. They told me they were narrowing it down, he was moving less and less. Max and John didn't talk. James and Tony didn't talk as well as I do. But I move too much, and I move wrong, especially when I was a kid, and in that school I saw what they do to kids who move wrong.
While I am not categorically anti-ABA --- I think it can be a valuable teaching tool, since it breaks down complicated tasks and skills into discrete, simple components --- that post (like this older post of Chaoticidealism's) does a great job of showing how some uses of ABA (yes, even without aversives) can be cruel and harmful.

In a Pedantic Linguistic Aside to this earlier post, I explain why I hate the common use of "learning" or "education" to describe methods that are essentially authoritarian in nature:
While the mental and behavioral adaptations people make to survive in a prison/institution environment ... might be called "learning," in the Skinnerian sense of that word, they also tend to sabotage a person's capacity for any other kind of learning. You get really good at surviving that hostile environment, but the price you pay is that you lose those parts of yourself that don't help you do that.
I think this also happens to kids in really intensive ABA programs. You lose initiative; you become afraid to try something before you've been told how to do it, because you're used to the teacher/therapist/whomever criticizing your attempts, telling you "No, that's wrong" whenever you do something that differs even a little bit from the response they're looking for.

So, I think that, since there is a significant cost to the kid who undergoes such training (in time if nothing else --- how're you supposed to have a childhood if you're in therapy for forty hours a week?), parents considering an ABA-based school or camp or other structured activity should ask themselves what their kid is likely to get out of it. Will they master important motor, executive, social, emotional or coping skills they've been having trouble picking up on their own? Will those skills help them become more independent (or, if you raise a skeptical eyebrow at the "independence" ideal, more productively interdependent)? Will your kid actually get something out of it that ze can use, or are you just hoping to make hir look more normal?

*Thank you, Sarah, for linking that post; I wouldn't have found it otherwise!


Anonymous said...

You lose initiative; you become afraid to try something before you've been told how to do it, because you're used to the teacher/therapist/whomever criticizing your attempts, telling you "No, that's wrong" whenever you do something that differs even a little bit from the response they're looking for.

Exactly! Any kind of authoritarian "educational" approach will do this. "Training" sounds like a more appropriate term, but that might smear more reasonable forms of it. "Behavior modification"?

Your cui bono? comment over at I'm Somewhere Else was spot on. (Thanks for linking to another great blog, BTW!) "Education" and "learning" should work for the benefit of the learner, or the terms make no sense as applied.

Kowalski said...

"Why Are So Many Awesome Bloggers Named Amanda?"
Ha, funny! I was wondering the same thing lately.