The Culture of Abuse?

Filed Under (Abuse, Discrimination) by Estee on 28-09-2012

This video from CNN, sadly, is just part of the abundance of abuse that autistic people face every day. While we watch the acts disclosed to us here, it is important to note this perverse normalcy of our culture of abuse and ask ourselves the question, to what extent are attitudes about autism contributing to systemic “sickness.” In other words, to what extent has neo-liberal society, the one that values independence under a capitalist system, promoted maltreatment and abuse? To that end, in what ways has “normal” society become sick? A few more reflections after you watch this:

In my critical disability studies, I discuss these issues alongside disabled people who have also experienced abuse. I also sit in classrooms where people who work within the systems, including Applied Behavioural Therapy (ABA) have listened to the accounts of inside operations. I’m so glad members of the ABA community, btw, are looking at autism education from a critical disability studies perspective.

By way of these first-person accounts, and by case studies such as Paul Cambridge’s The First Hit: a case study of the psychical abuse of people with learning disabilities and challenging behaviours (1999), it is clearly evident that caregiver service providers do not have a proper system for the protection of whistle-blowers; that the caregiving industry is vastly undertrained and underpaid. The service delivery system requires a major audit. Here a quote from a service provider:

“I was told to do the first hit and then it would be OK…X never expressed any feelings of liking for the people and had complete control over them. [this meaning the intimidation practice of the more seniored staff to the newer staff]. You weren’t allowed to show openly that you cared.” (Cambridge, 1999)….

“Newly-appointed staff were placed in difficult situations, where the risk of failure was high. They also often lacked the necessary competence or experience to perform essential care tasks well. Their abilities were then challenged and they were emotionally underminded by the principal alleged abuser, a practice that was sustained by other staff in the core group who had moved from the old institution.” (Cambridge, 1999).

In Toronto, we’ve heard of lots of abuse situations in residential living facilities. The scope of one blog post/reflection cannot encompass all the issues that are endemic/sick in our society that has laid the foundations for the way in which we employ, provide serivce and regard employment for clients with disabilities. If we do not value people with disabilities, we will not value the people who work within the service system which is an essential accommodation for the participation of many severely disabled people in our society. It is important to say here that I’m not at all excusing the individual acts of the abusers by stating it’s just a systemic problem!

We still sequester the severely disabled. We don’t want to see them. They provoke anxiety within us, and we rather turn away. Or, we’ll throw charitable money at “the problem” to temporarily make ourselves feel better. This is one side of the coin. What we need is a service system we can trust, and that values the disabled (among many other points I could make here).

The way we value (or don’t value) all members of our society is the linchpin of the future (bright or dismal) for pretty much all of us, not just the severely disabled. Consider that ability-disability is a continuum and that most of us will become disabled in our lifetime in one way or another (even ageing is in many ways a disabling condition), how are we supporting or even not supporting ourselves? Do we only think in terms of the individual — each one for himself? Or are are bodies not only part of this continnum but also permeable bodies, that is bodies that effect each other; responsible for and to each other?

Today, I broke down in tears, which happens often when I meet prejudice face-to-face. Adam’s regular doctor was not around to see him today. Adam was complaining that his ear hurt. Yet, he is terrified (and sensory defensive) of his ears being checked. Some doctors have more empathy and are better at getting Adam to agree to have his ears checked. Adam doesn’t love this doctor — his memory is vivid and we’ve seen this one before, and he seems a little more nervous around him than I’ve seen him around others. It’s important to note that he’s not a “bad man,” or anything of the sort that is so simplistic. This is to highlight the subtle nature of the prejudice and attitudes that paint “all” people with autism as one in the same. When I was there, I also wanted to discuss puberty and adolescence as I would if I had any other son. I received this response:

“Do you have any autsitic doctors?”

“I’ve seen everybody. I sort of know of everyone here in the field,” I responded a little disturbed, wondering where he was heading with the term “autistic doctors,” as if they proliferate the field as answers to everything autistic.

“Well, what we know about autistics when they go into adolescence is that they become violent and agressive. Like today. We had to hold Adam down today [to get his ears checked]. I can’t do that again. He could hurt me.”

I walked out, Adam in hand. When I got to the car, tears streamed. First, the doctor doesn’t even know Adam save for the petite bundle of nerves when Adam sees him. All he saw was Adam’s fear and resistance. Adam has never hurt anyone. Adam is kind-hearted, loving and happy, save for his anxiety and all that he must deal with in a world where normal is the top of the hierarchy. Adam will go through puberty like everyone else. I can’t predict what will happen, except that I know who he is. I know how I was and that I was as moody as shit. Somehow, I even seem to know in my heart that everything, up and down as it will go, will be okay.

I cried for the parents who don’t have the time to enter a disability studies program, or have the time to study philosophy or read about things or get in touch with other disabled people and their complex stories, although there are more access people and resources than there ever were, so I’m grateful for that. Autistic people are available, their books are also on the shelves, their blogs accessible to all of us. Some of them will empower, many of them caution. I thought, if I didn’t have my armour, what would I have made of that comment from a “medical expert” who actually knows less about autism than I do? I say that with confidence even though I stop at the point when I am fully aware I am not autistic and cannot appropriate the experience of being autistic in a highly prejudiced world.

To what end do bias and ignorance (lack of understanding and knowledged about people with autism that is dangerously over-generalized and misunderstood) espoused by some members of the medical community (and it is also important to note that not all of the medical community would say something so stupid), create a culture of abuse? After all, Mr. Doc gave me fair warning and can’t check Adam’s ears again…don’t get me started on how the disabled don’t get proper health care…

Reference (and I encourage you to find this one):

Cambridge, Paul (1999) The First Hit: a case study of the physical abuse of people with learning disabilities and challenging behaviours in a residential service, Disability & Society, 14:3 285-308.


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About Me


I’m a PhD candidate at York University, Critical Disability Studies, with a multi-disciplinary background in the arts as a curator and writer. I am the Founder of The Autism Acceptance Project (, and an enamoured mother of my only son who lives with the autism label. I like to write about our journey, critical issues regarding autism in the area of human rights, law, and social justice, as well as reflexive practices in (auto)ethnographic writing about autism.