Sunday, February 9, 2014

On Absurdly Poor Criticism And Advocate Misconduct, Part One

On September 14, 2013, exactly a month before I started writing this post, I was contacted by a colleague who expressed an interest in changes in behavioral practice since Lovaas's original methods and models of clinical treatment.

During the resulting exchange, I attempted to explain a variety of things related to behavior analysis, ranging from how ABA is not a treatment method to the relationship between ABA and PBS (the short version is that PBS is a brand-named philosophy regarding how to go about conducting and using ABA research). I also provided her with a number of assorted articles and writings on the subject, including a piece of my own work which acted as an overview.

I ended the exchange on something of a positive note, hoping that the information would help. The positive note, however, did not last.

This is what she wrote... or, at least, the currently-published version. There has been a rather spectacularly intellectually dishonest edit in the interim. It's, to put it mildly, an extraordinarily poor critique. The arguments are, by and large, spectacularly off-base, and her abuse of my writing is glaringly obvious (if not as much so as before the edits).

That said, I should probably discuss what this means and why it's a problem before I get into a detailed critique of the piece itself.

Contrary to what some people apparently believe, saying that a critique is poor does not mean that one disagrees with its conclusions or that the critique does not deal with real problems. It is saying that the critique misidentifies the issues involved and/or argues from a position of misunderstanding or prejudice.

In this case, the author is attempting to argue that all forms of applied behavior analysis are inherently unethical -- a very, very strong conclusion, one that simply does not follow from the evidence (such as it is) and arguments (such as they are) that she presents. Saying so isn't defending ABA, and certainly isn't excusing, justifying, or apologizing for the assorted abuses with which people have valid complaints.

This is important for several reasons -- not the least of which is that poor criticism serves to distract from real issues, detracts from good criticism, and confuses issues in ways that impair efforts to reform things.

To illustrate this, let's take a very different example, one that most of us can rapidly identify, easily understand, and generally make easy sense of: one of the more disgusting things which occurs whenever news story publishes a story about a black man raping a white woman.

Rape is obviously wrong: it's a gross violation of  a woman's bodily autonomy, a dehumanizing act which can easily (and often does) destroy her life. It is very difficult to think of a worse violation of someone's personhood... and the ethnicity and skin color of perpetrator and/or victim is utterly irrelevant to this.

Unfortunately, however, some people insist on making the moral issue here about race in a variety of ways. One of the simpler (and more vile) of these is to simply state that the act was wrong because a man like that (a black man, not a rapist) has no business sexually touching a White woman.

This is an absurdly poor (and racist) criticism of rape. It is one that needs -- urgently -- to be shouted down and combated whenever it pops up.

Referring to this sort of thing as poor discussion or off-base criticism is very much not excusing the heinous criminal act to which the alleged criticism was directed. It is simple truth.

The race thing serves to distract from the real problem. To the extent to which it gets attention, it's distracting people from paying that same attention to other, more relevant, criticisms.

But... let's say that some people actually took it seriously. Let's further say that they then tried to use it as the basis for political reform efforts.

These efforts would be useless at best and harmful at worst. In fact, that particular criticism can pretty much be considered a form of rape apology in and of itself: if the rape of a white woman by a black man is only heinous because of the race difference, what's wrong about a white man raping a white woman?

More, such "reform" efforts would likely target and harm completely innocent interracial couples. In fact, such prejudices and acts have historically caused very substantial harm in the form of blatantly racist legislation and various racial prejudices for just this reason.

Obviously, this has little directly to do with the ABA article which started this discussion, but does serve to illustrate a few very important points: 1) poor criticism is rarely helpful; 2) poor criticism is often harmful, even when its conclusions may be correct... and 3) stating that an argument is poor is not the same thing as stating that its conclusion is wrong.

In Part Two of this series, I will hopefully get to precisely why the specific critique that started this is poor and unlikely to be helpful. In Part Three, I will discuss just why I'm taking such pains to lay out these problems, why a simple blog post like that has lead to me starting an extended blog-rant, just what followed from the situation, and why it's taken me so long to post all of this.

Thursday, October 31, 2013

Still Getting Vaccinated...

Just got vaccinated yet again -- and still don't feel any more autistic.

Arm's a bit sore, though.

Thursday, September 26, 2013

Still Yet Another Note on Vaccination

Just got vaccinated again -- and still don't feel any more autistic.

Not even a bit of soreness this time!

Thursday, November 1, 2012

On Autistics Speaking Day

Today is, once again, Autistics Speaking Day. Through happy coincidence, it also happens to be part of the early voting period in my state's election cycle during a major national election.

I live in Florida. Those of you familiar with practical politics here in the US should have some idea of what this means regarding the significance of my vote.

Guess what? I chose to make my voice heard in a far more significant way than a mere blog post.

It took, as it happens, about forty minutes, most of which was spent in a line. For those of you who go, I recommend bringing a book -- the paper kind -- because the legality of cell phones and the like in voting areas is... well, an issue. It's illegal to use them here; no idea about elsewhere.

And, if the person reading this happens to be a politician? Yes, people with disabilities vote.

And that means that we can vote for (or against) you.

In the end, as I said, that's far more important than a mere blog post. Today, for me, was not just Autistics Speaking Day.

It was Autistics Voting Day.

Wednesday, September 19, 2012

Yet Another Note on Vaccination.

I just got vaccinated. Again.

Still don't feel any more autistic.

I do feel a bit of soreness, though.

Sunday, July 22, 2012

On Child Abuse

One of the more annoying aspects of trying to comment on or understand legal matters, especially for someone like me who's neither a lawyer nor a legal professional, is that laws vary across jurisdictions. What is legal -- or illegal -- in one area is not necessarily legal or illegal in another.

This would be a lot less problematic if the law -- or legal research, for that matter -- was simple and/or straightforward. Simply put, it is not.

While child abuse is illegal in every state, the statutes vary. Even when they're the same or similar, the case law (or legal precedents) vary as well. In practical terms, this means that while child abuse is illegal in every state... the meaning of the term isn't the same in each.

For instance, in Michigan, the relevant definition (§ 722.622, for those of you interested in looking it up) reads:
'Child abuse' means harm or threatened harm to a child's health or welfare that occurs through nonaccidental physical or mental injury, sexual abuse, sexual exploitation, or maltreatment by a parent, a legal guardian, or any other person responsible for the child's health or welfare or by a teacher, a teacher's aide, or a member of the clergy.
Alternately, there's another definition in § 722.602:
“Child abuse” means harm or threatened harm to a child's health or welfare by a person responsible for the child's health or welfare, which harm occurs or is threatened through nonaccidental physical or mental injury; sexual abuse, which includes a violation of section 145c of the Michigan penal code, Act No. 328 of the Public Acts of 1931, being section 750.145c of the Michigan Compiled Laws.

Of course, this doesn't explain just what does (or doesn't) count as "nonaccidental" injury or "maltreatment". That's what case law is for.

I live in Florida, however, so the Florida statutes are of somewhat greater personal interest to me. This is especially true given the corollary of my residence: most of the kids I personally care about and have worked with live here, too.

Here, the statute (s. 827.03, for those of you who want to look it up -- or you can just go here) reads:

(1) “Child abuse” means:
(a) Intentional infliction of physical or mental injury upon a child;
(b) An intentional act that could reasonably be expected to result in physical or mental injury
to a child; or
(c) Active encouragement of any person to commit an act that results or could reasonably be
expected to result in physical or mental injury to a child.
A person who knowingly or willfully abuses a child without causing great bodily harm, permanent disability, or permanent disfigurement to the child commits a felony of the third degree, punishable as provided in s. 775.082, s. 775.083, or s. 775.084.
(2) “Aggravated child abuse” occurs when a person:
(a) Commits aggravated battery on a child;
(b) Willfully tortures, maliciously punishes, or willfully and unlawfully cages a child; or
(c) Knowingly or willfully abuses a child and in so doing causes great bodily harm, permanent
disability, or permanent disfigurement to the child.
A person who commits aggravated child abuse commits a felony of the first degree, punishable
as provided in s. 775.082, s. 775.083, or s. 775.084.
Frankly, I like the Florida statute far better than I do the Michigan equivalent. This is for a variety of reasons... but that's an entirely different discussion.

As always, however, there are points where the seemingly-straightforward law becomes ambiguous. For instance, what does it mean to "willfully torture" someone? Then there's the reasonableness standards which pop up throughout. Perhaps by necessity, there's a great deal of vagueness there.

One of the major purposes of case law is to clarify this vagueness. Unfortunately, however, case law is a tangled, overcomplicated mess at the best of times. I -- to be blunt -- hate having to delve into the topic.

This does not, however, mean that I am unwilling to do so. I just prefer to leave it to the professionals.

In fact, I am aware of a number of cases which impact on the definition provided above. I've actually read a couple of them in their entirety while researching a specific issue.

The first of these, Nicholson v. State, was decided by the Florida's Supreme Court in 1992. I will not bother detailing the circumstances of the case (they're extraordinarily disgusting, and listed in the decision I linked anyway), and the reasoning of the decision depends on a definition which has since been removed from the statute. That said, the court ruled that "willful torture" under the statute explicitly included acts of omission -- such as failure to provide food -- provided they were committed with the willful intent to cause unnecessary or unjustifiable pain or suffering.

The case also continues to be cited as precedent by other cases despite the statutory  change.

The second of these, Cox v. State, was decided by the Second District Court of Appeal in 2009. A couple of the more relevant passages:
Aggravated child abuse is largely determined on a case-by-case basis rather than with bright-line rules as to what conduct does and does not constitute aggravated child abuse.  Herbert v. State, 526 So.2d 709, 712 (Fla. 4th DCA 1988).   This flexibility is critical to allow for consideration of such factors as the age of the victim, the frequency of prohibited conduct, and other circumstances relevant to a particular case.   It is clear, however, that “the first-degree felony of aggravated child abuse [is] preserved for truly aggravated circumstances.”

However, this court has held that aggravated child abuse for malicious punishment is reserved for “cases involving parental discipline that results in great bodily harm or permanent disabilities and disfigurements or that demonstrates actual malice on the part of the parent and not merely a momentary anger or frustration.”  McDonald, 785 So.2d at 646

I leave further case-law research to the legal scholars... who are, frankly, generally far better at it than I am.

I bring all of this up because of the latest inane fad "treatment" for autism -- the bleach enema.

Giving your child an enema is very definitely an intentional act -- it's rather difficult to unintentionally take a bag and shove fluid up your child's posterior. In the case of bleach enemas, it also could reasonably be expected to result in physical or mental injury.

This means that, under section (b) of the definition above, the act of giving a child a bleach enema constitutes child abuse under Florida law.

Or, at least, that's my reading of the matter. As I noted before, I'm neither a lawyer nor a judge, so people don't -- and shouldn't -- particularly care about my opinion in legal matters. Anyone who has a different interpretation is more than welcome to elaborate on it or discuss it in the comments.

Does it, however, constitute aggravated child abuse? That's a thornier question, and the ultimate goal of my legal research. If the process includes aggravated battery, or actually causes "causes great bodily harm, permanent disability, or permanent disfigurement," then I believe it would.

If it doesn't? Maybe. It depends on the legal meaning of "willful torture" in this context, and that's fuzzy enough. I suppose it could easily depend on the lawyers involved.

You'll note that I'm including a lot of statements like "I believe" and "I suppose" here. I pretty much have to. There are reasons why I hate legal research. These are the sort of points which lawyers have been known to debate endlessly in courtrooms, and legal textbooks often take multiple chapters to answer them in the most circuitous and tentative ways imaginable.

In any case, the more interesting part of the definition is part (c). According to this, even actively encouraging people to commit child abuse constitutes child abuse in and of itself. I would argue that promoting bleach enemas as an autism treatment qualifies.

On top of all of this, we have Florida's mandated reporter statute. Without getting into the details, it requires people who know of or suspect child abuse to report it to a Florida abuse hotline (1-800-96-ABUSE). This requirement is (on the statutory level) taken quite seriously -- failing to make a report when required to do so is a third degree felony. Making a false report is also a criminal act (also a third-degree felony), but people acting in good faith are immune from prosecution.

What all of this means is that -- at least according to my own reading of the statute -- anyone who has reason to suspect that a child is being "treated" with bleach is legally required to call the hotline.

Whether the laws will actually be enforced in practice is an entirely different matter... and, frankly, one that I'm in no mood to discuss.

In large part, this mood goes back to the beginning of this blog post, where I noted that things vary by jurisdiction: I did not choose Michigan's laws as an example by random chance.

As I write this, I am looking at a letter, from the Michigan Department of Human Services, written on official letterhead... whose contents boil down to a statement that, under the Michigan Child Protection Law, repeatedly giving your child bleach enemas in the name of autism "treatment" does not qualify as child abuse.

Go figure.

Saturday, June 2, 2012

On Things That Won't "Cure" Autism

One of the tendencies of the assorted parents' groups which I find most annoying is the tendency for many of them to promote an attitude of desperation towards autism -- and, with it, the idea that a parent should try anything and everything which could help their child "recover". In practicality, of course, this means anything or everything that someone somewhere claims will help.

The fact that people get swindled as a result is among the least appalling aspects of this.

The list of things which have been promoted as such -- and which parents have tried -- is absurdly long and often just plain absurd. Seriously, it almost mocks itself at times. If it wasn't for the fact that parents are actually doing these things to their kids (which I cannot emphasize enough) out of desperation to "cure" or "recover" their children, it would actually be comedic.

Among other things, the horrific list of things which parents have done includes (but is by no means limited to):

  •  Feeding their kids massive overdoses of vitamins to the point that they suffer from or risk vitamin poisoning.
  • Putting their kids into a potentially explosive tube full of compressed air for a prolonged period of time (usually around an hour per session).
  • Getting their kids high on marijuana.
  • Forgoing protection against potentially deadly diseases.
  • Strapping their kids down for several hours while they pump an irritant into said child's veins.
  • Deliberately infesting their children with intestinal parasites.
  • Chemically castrating their children.
  • Feeding their kids an industrial chemical which has never been subjected to proper safety testing.
  • Making their children drink an industrial bleaching agent.
  • Giving their children bleach enemas.
 This is a highly incomplete list.

When I say that the stigmatization and panic-mongering that organizations like Autism Speaks engage in has real consequences for autistic people... the above is just one of the things I'm talking about.

Take this as you will.

Edit: Was corrected on a relatively minor point.