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Misunderstood & mistreated

The banality of evil and the
pathologizing of autistic people

Evil comes from a failure to think. It defies thought for as soon as thought tries to engage itself with evil and examine the premises and principles from which it originates, it is frustrated because it finds nothing there. That is the banality of evil. — Hannah Arendt[1]Eichmann in Jerusalem | The New Yorker


An inhumane and barbaric practice is finally over

In my last article titled Averting aversion therapy, I looked into the Judge Rotenberg Educational Center’s use of the graduated electronic decelerator (GED) to deliver painful shocks—strong enough to burn flesh, as a means of “therapy”.[2]D.A. bans school electric shock devices | The New York Times[3]FDA bans electrical shock devices used on people with developmental disabilities | CNN This institution has mistreated a lot of (autistic) people; as many as 20% of the students at the JREC received these shocks at some point, and warning shocks are administered for breaking rules as simple as standing up when one’s not supposed or refusing to remove one’s jacket.[4]An electric shock therapy stops self-harm among the autistic, but at what cost? | The Washington Post

Thankfully, the FDA’s banned the use of any “electrical stimulation devices (ESDs) used for self-injurious or aggressive behavior,” such as the GED.[5]FDA takes rare step to ban electrical stimulation devices for self-injurious or aggressive behavior devices Found to Present Unreasonable and Substantial Risk of Illness or Injury | FDA

Unfortunately, autistics and other vulnerable groups have faced worse treatment. Historically, the majority have often discriminated against and abused those with atypical neurology. Autistics have suffered a legacy of condemnation that’s important to recognize.

So, what prompts people to do such harm? Autism transcends race, ethnicity, and gender: it is a foundational aspect of what makes us who we are, for it is writ in genetics and manifested in our neurology.

Many particular causes are attributed to our maltreatment. But what is the salient factor that connects the many reasons that lead to such devastating outcomes for autistics?


The banality of evil: the unholy alliance of pedagogy and industrialization

In 1963, late philosopher Hannah Arendt published her seminal work Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil. In this text, Arendt assembles a collection of her journalistic work for The New Yorker[6]Contributors: Hannah Arendt | The New Yorker where she covered the trial of Adolf Eichmann, the man in charge of the logistical operations of identifying Jews and sending them to extermination camps in a project that is infamously known as the “final solution”.[7]Adolf Eichmann | Encyclopedia Britannica

Arendt notes how throughout the trial, Eichmann showed no contempt for Jews or any of the other ethnic groups he was ordered to murder. Eichmann was primarily concerned with his social status and retaining his quality of life. To him, following orders and the apparent will of the people of Germany was a deontological task (i.e., an a priori moral imperative, deserving of praise and wholly in line with his ethical values). Ironically, Eichmann cited Immanuel Kant as an inspiration for his moral values. He even went as far as to admit that he’d kill his father had the Führer ordered it.[8]Eichmann in Jerusalem | The New Yorker

I never killed a Jew, or, for that matter, I never killed a non-Jew—I never killed any human being. I never gave an order to kill a Jew nor an order to kill a non-Jew; I just did not do it. — Adolf Eichmann.

Eichmann, like the many thousands of others who helped the German Reich, were diffusing responsibility, evidently more concerned with their status and comfort in this new society than the countless many who suffered due to his, and many complacent others’, actions.

The disregard for human welfare that captured Germany is what Arendt called the banality of evil. She argued that evil isn’t such a rarity or even necessarily purposeful; it’s not as philosophers and poets have described for centuries prior.


The devil is inside us

European medieval folklore describes fairies as covetous creatures that stole normal human children and replaced them with anthropomorphic logs or a sickly fairy child, i.e. “changelings”. Changelings look identical to the abducted child, but they’d exhibit atypical behavior, such as avoidance of physical affection, crying for no discernable reason, an inability to express emotion, or selective mutism. These are hallmarks of autism, and the description of a sudden change in an otherwise “normal” child’s behavior fits the timeline of autistic development.[9]Evidence for autism in folklore? | Archives of Disease in Childhood

So, otherwise loving mothers abandoned their changeling babies in the woods thereby returning them to the fairies (or elves, nixies, devils, etc.). While folklore indicates that these mothers were often (understandably) hesitant about taking such rash action, the local leaders ensured her that this was a child of Satan, so there wasn’t a need for any remorse. Such an action, they were told, would do the community a great service.[10]German changeling legends | University of Pittsburgh


The good, the bad, and the nuanced

Fast-forward to the 20th century, in the age of reason and great scientific discovery, two separate researchers studied autistic children. The first to closely study what would later become known as Asperger syndrome was Grunya Sukhareva, a Russian child psychiatrist who, in 1926, published a paper detailing young boys who had what she referred to as schizoid personality disorder. See the following post for more information on Grunya and other early autism researchers:

A timeline of autism classifications

Illustrated portraits of Grunya Sukhareva, Leo Kanner, and Hans Asperger.

Two scientists are best known for being the first to describe Asperger syndrome. The first was Hans Asperger, the Austrian physician whose name has been attributed to the eponymous diagnosis. The second was Leo Kanner, the head of child psychiatry at Johns Hopkins University. Both were studying autistic children concurrently, though Kanner is credited with discovering autism after publishing his seminal work, Autistic Disturbances of Affective Contact, in 1943.[11]The autism history project | University of Oregon However, some argue that Kanner copied Asperger’s research after acquiring Georg Frankl, Asperger’s chief diagnostician, in 1938.[12]Kanner, Asperger, and Frankl: A third man at the genesis of the autism diagnosis | William & Mary[13]Leo Kanner, Hans Asperger, and the discovery of autism | The Lancet

The two founding fathers of autism had varying opinions on the outlook for autistics. While Kanner viewed his subjects through a pathological lens, Asperger referred to many of his autistic subjects affectionately as his “little professors”.[14]NeuroTribes: The legacy of autism and the future of neurodiversity (Steve Silberman, 2015)

Autistic children can see things and events around them from a new point of view, which often shows surprising maturity. This ability, which remains throughout life, can in favorable cases lead to exceptional achievements that others may never attain. Abstraction ability, for instance, is a prerequisite for scientific endeavor. Indeed, we find numerous autistic individuals among distinguished scientists. – Hans Asperger[15]NeuroTribes: The legacy of autism and the future of neurodiversity (Steve Silberman, 2015)

But to say that Asperger was a great example of neurodiverse acceptance is to ignore the hand he had in killing and experimenting with disabled and mentally ill children. Meanwhile, Kanner helped some 200 Jewish clinicians and scientists escape from Nazi Germany, one of whom was Georg Frankl.[16]Famed doctor Hans Asperger helped with Nazi child euthanasia, notes reveal | Live Science Yet, professionally, Kanner would go on to pathologize autism as a psychological scourge resulting from cold, detached, and neurotic parents—primarily mothers—who would be known as “refrigerator mothers”.

While Asperger saw high-functioning autism as relatively common and existing on a continuum, it was Kanner who saved his colleagues while Asperger saw to the death of many innocent children. Yet Kanner was obstinate about changing his refrigerator mother theory despite competing evidence.[17]NeuroTribes: The legacy of autism and the future of neurodiversity (Steve Silberman, 2015) And if it hadn’t been for people like Lorna Wing and Judith Gould, proper insight into autism may have been further delayed, with mothers shouldering the blame.

An illustrated portrait of Lorna Wing.

Kanner and Asperger exemplify the complexity of evil. Both, for selfish reasons, did wrongdoings in their own right, and the work of Kanner and those before him led to extraordinary suffering, albeit in different contexts.

The originator of modern applied behavior analysis (ABA), Ole Ivar Lovaas, sought to save autistic children from a life of permanent institutionalization in dirty, cramped asylums. Before Kanner’s publication, these children were known as “imbeciles”, “idiots”, or sufferers of “childhood schizophrenia”, all of which would lead to a swift removal from school and a life-sentence in an asylum.[18]NeuroTribes: The legacy of autism and the future of neurodiversity (Steve Silberman, 2015)

Making matters worse, Kanner’s idea of an exceedingly rare and spectrum-less autism stuck. As a way to “help” these young, eccentric children, Lovaas employed abusive methods of behavioral modification.

Lovaas stressed the significance of reducing certain autistic behaviors, like stimming. To accomplish this end, Lovaas, in his laboratory at UCLA, used aversives to train the children. And clinics throughout the United States started to emulate his tactics of using painful or negative stimuli to discourage certain behaviors. Some examples include forcing an autistic child to hug his or her parent despite pleas to stop. Other times, clinicians slapped the child, administered electric shocks (like those administered by the JREC’s GED), or poured hot sauce on their tongues and lips.[19]NeuroTribes: The legacy of autism and the future of neurodiversity (Steve Silberman, 2015)[20]After a troubled past, autistic home reopens | LA Times

Lovaas and his adherents believe that through behavioral modification they could end (or at least greatly reduce) autistic children from a life in an asylum. Today, ABA is the most popular treatment available to autistics, although rewards are favored over aversives. Still, ABA, in principle, is controversial.[21]The controversy over autism’s most common therapy | Spectrum News

The efficacy of modern (non-aversive) ABA is a hotly debated topic. This is partly due to the diversity of ABA regimens available and the fundamental goals of ABA.[22]The Controversy Around ABA | Child Mind Institute[23]Evidence of increased PTSD symptoms in autistics exposed to applied behavior analysis | Advanced in Autism[24]Why I went from loving ABA practices to hating them | Psych Central


Autism hears no, sees no, Speaks no evil

Founded in 2005 by Suzanne and Bob Wright, Autism Speaks is the most controversial (and largest) autism awareness organization. Many autism, neurodiversity, and disability rights advocates view Autism Speaks as a hate group for their history of fearmongering, excluding autistic voices, and disproportionate funding for genetic cures for autism rather than provide for autistics and their families.[25]Why Autism Speaks doesn’t speak for me | Forbes[26]ASAN-AAC statement on Autism Speaks’ DC “policy summit” | ASAN

The Wrights portray autism as a scourge that steals children, leaving only a shell of a person in its wake. This message is eerily similar to medieval folklore about changelings. The lasting shame of the refrigerator mother archetype empowered Autism Speaks’ narrative of autism a ruthless disease that works “faster than pediatric AIDS, cancer, and diabetes combined.”

Autism Speaks dominated the conversation on autism in media, and the organization’s message was pervasive. They knew the power of fear as a motivation for action, and the Wrights were on a crusade. Of course, nothing came of their attempts to cure autism; and many advocates hope they never succeed on that end.

Autism Speaks represents the culmination of centuries of discrimination and fear of the unknown. They leave their doors closed to autistic voices and try to use their massive amounts of donor capital to drown out the competing voices. Yet, despite these efforts, advocates of neurodiversity (a term coined by Judy Singer) is gaining mainstream support.


What the future holds

Throughout history, autism has been met with fear.

In the interest of keeping the community—especially children—safe and healthy, people abused, isolated, or even killed autistic people. Individuals like Asperger, Kanner, and Lovaas elucidate how the pursuit of ostensibly good causes lead to terrible deeds. None of these individuals are monsters, yet they all promoted cruelty they believed helped humanity. Of course, the prestige of identifying and potentially curing autistic children played a large part in their decision-making as well.

The culmination of this cruelty in the name of progress is the banality of evil.

The trouble with Eichmann was precisely that so many were like him, and that the many were neither perverted nor sadistic, that they were, and still are, terribly and terrifyingly normal.

From the viewpoint of our legal institutions and our moral standards of judgment, this normality was much more terrifying than all the atrocities put together. — Hannah Arendt[27]Eichmann in Jerusalem | The New Yorker

References

1, 8, 27Eichmann in Jerusalem | The New Yorker
2D.A. bans school electric shock devices | The New York Times
3FDA bans electrical shock devices used on people with developmental disabilities | CNN
4An electric shock therapy stops self-harm among the autistic, but at what cost? | The Washington Post
5FDA takes rare step to ban electrical stimulation devices for self-injurious or aggressive behavior devices Found to Present Unreasonable and Substantial Risk of Illness or Injury | FDA
6Contributors: Hannah Arendt | The New Yorker
7Adolf Eichmann | Encyclopedia Britannica
9Evidence for autism in folklore? | Archives of Disease in Childhood
10German changeling legends | University of Pittsburgh
11The autism history project | University of Oregon
12Kanner, Asperger, and Frankl: A third man at the genesis of the autism diagnosis | William & Mary
13Leo Kanner, Hans Asperger, and the discovery of autism | The Lancet
14, 15, 17, 18, 19NeuroTribes: The legacy of autism and the future of neurodiversity (Steve Silberman, 2015)
16Famed doctor Hans Asperger helped with Nazi child euthanasia, notes reveal | Live Science
20After a troubled past, autistic home reopens | LA Times
21The controversy over autism’s most common therapy | Spectrum News
22The Controversy Around ABA | Child Mind Institute
23Evidence of increased PTSD symptoms in autistics exposed to applied behavior analysis | Advanced in Autism
24Why I went from loving ABA practices to hating them | Psych Central
25Why Autism Speaks doesn’t speak for me | Forbes
26ASAN-AAC statement on Autism Speaks’ DC “policy summit” | ASAN

Adolf Eichmann, Applied behavior analysis (ABA), Autism Speaks, Aversion therapy, Evil, Hannah Arendt, History, Immanuel Kant, Journalism, Judy Singer, Misunderstanding, Neurodiversity, Pedagogy, Philosophy, Refrigerator mother theory, Stigma

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