Autistic Students Want a Safer, More Equitable School Experience

Yahaira López understands this predicament intimately. In 2014, she founded the nonprofit Autism Sprinter in order to help families of color find disability resources and learn how to advocate for services. López says her son, who has autism, struggled during the pandemic because he could no longer rely on the accessibility-related services offered by his school, such as speech therapy and occupational therapy, which are more difficult to do virtually.

“Children navigating special education are often in a deficit due to the lack of investment in creating a truly inclusive education model,” López told Teen Vogue. “Schools must invest efforts to help identify learning differences early. Learning looks different for autistic students who are verbal versus non-verbal, for example, but all children must be treated with the same respect and given the opportunity to grow in their learning styles.”

Beyond a lack of day-to-day resources, neurodivergent students have sometimes been subject to forms of therapy that some advocates say can be psychologically damaging.

Applied Behavioral Analysis (ABA), one of the most well-established methods of treating autistic young people, is a form of individualized therapy based around the idea of reinforcement. Individuals are rewarded for engaging in desirable behaviors and punished, sometimes through electroshock therapy, for “bad” behaviors like avoiding eye contact. In recent years, a growing number of autistic advocates have argued that ABA is inhumane and even torture, but it is still used in schools throughout the United States. Those critics say it amounts to forcing autistic youth to conceal their autistic traits and appear neurotypical, in rare cases by using methods such as electroshock devices. 

At the Judge Rotenberg Center (JRC) in Massachusetts, for example, autistic students potentially face electric shocks for exhibiting signs such as flapping their hands or making noises or movements deemed inappropriate. Though the U.S. Food and Drug Administration recently banned the use of electric shock devices on disabled people for self-injurious or aggressive behavior, an appeals court overturned this ban in July, allowing these treatments to continue. The Autistic Self Advocacy Network created the #stoptheshock hashtag in response. (Teen Vogue reached out to the JRC for comment. In a statement to CNN, the JRC Parent’s Association thanked the court for overturning the ban, calling the use of shock devices a “lifesaving treatment of last resort”).

JayJay Mudridge, an academic tutor specializing in neurodivergent clients, says they were subjected to ABA treatment throughout much of their childhood and that they often had things they enjoyed withheld unless they effectively masked their autistic traits. “ABA ignores the fundamental neurobiological differences between autistics and neurotypicals,” Mudridge told Teen Vogue. They say they were exposed to certain stimuli, like loud music, under the guise of desensitization. “But the fact of the matter is that my sensory systems register this sensory distress as physical pain. ABA didn’t make these situations not painful to me. It taught me my reactions to distress meant that I wouldn’t get my needs met.”

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