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Autism Advocacy? Anti-ABA Activist Michelle Dawson at the Supreme Court of Canada

Posted May 02 2009 10:11pm
Elizabeth Svoboda, like Erin Anderssen before her, has received criticism from Michelle Dawson, for daring to characterize her activities in ways that Ms Dawson, an outspoken public figure, does not approve of. Her letter reacting to the Svoboda article about the Neurodiversity movement in contains a number of points of disagreement including her role as a crusader and, in particular, her role before the Supreme Court of Canada in Auton where she intervened as an "autistic" a person with an unspecified Autism Spectrum Disorder.

I actually agree with Ms Dawson that it is inaccurate to state that she personally:

"convinced the Canadian Supreme Court to overturn an appeal that would have provided state funding for ABA therapy."

Apart from the Appellant British Columbia government a number of provincial governments intervened seeking to have the Supreme Court of Canada reverse the lower court orders directing the BC governement to fund Early Intensive Behavioral Intervention (ABA). The Supreme Court of Canada agreed with the various governments' arguments which were essentially based on the premise that it was the role of legislatures, not the courts, to decide what treatments should be considered medically necessary for what disorders. According to the governments' submissions the absence of evidence that the autistic children involved in the case had been discriminated against with respect to the provision of services determined by the legislature to be medically necessary the Courts erred in intervening under the equality and non-discrimination provisions of the Charter of Rights and Freedoms to order funding of EIBI (ABA) for autistic children.

While I agree that Ms Dawson's role in Auton was probably not determinative, I do agree with Ms Svoboda that Ms Dawson is, and has been, a "crusader" or activist. Ms. Svoboda refers to her as an "autistic-rights" crusader. Ms Dawson was in fact before the Supreme Court of Canada, not just to " provide information to the court that it did not already have" as she claims in her letter to Ms Svoboda. In Auton Michelle Dawson was there as an anti-ABA activist opposing ABA for autistic children. In that proceeding she opposed the parents' request that the SCC uphold the lower courts' Orders directing the BC government to fund EIBI (ABA) for autistic children.

In Auton, The Orders of the Supreme Court of British Columbia and of the British Columbia Court of Appeal directed the BC government to fund early intensive behavioural therapy for children with autism or autism spectrum disorder. Failure to do so constituted a breach of the childrens' rights under s. 15(1) of the Charter. Ms Dawson, in the interveners factum filed on her behalf, and available online, expressly opposed the request of the autism parents involved to uphold those orders by asking the SCC to reject the premise of those Orders which were the findings by the lower courts that the refusal by the BC government to fund EIBI (ABA) treatment for autism infringed s. 15(1) of the Charter:

The following orders are requested:

That the Respondents’ request to uphold the British Columbia Court of Appeal finding of an infringement of s.15(1) in the particular circumstances of this case be denied.

In the argument portion of her factum Ms Dawson takes issue with the science demonstrating the effectivness of ABA. She clearly opposed ABA in the proceedings on that basis contrary to the views of credible agencies which had reviewed the scientific literature on the effectiveness of ABA and contrary to the expert witnesses in the case, including the BC government's expert witness. She also opposed ABA on the grounds that, in her not so humble opinion, the practice of ABA was unethical because it could extinguish autistic behaviors and because "autistics' were not involved in the practice.

Ms Dawson had also expressly stated her opposition to ABA in the Notice of Application filed on her behalf in which she sought leave to intervene in the Auton proceedings:

5. The applicant is concerned that the judgments of the court below appear to endorse the principle that a particular type of treatment (Applied Behaviour Analysis) constitutes a medically necessary treatment for autistic individuals such that the failure of parents to provide that treatment or the failure of autistic individuals to seek that treatment could constitute a deprivation of basic medically necessary principles;

The Supreme Court of Canada summarized Michelle Dawson's position in Auton succinctly in paragraph 5 of that Court's decision:

" While increasingly accepted, Applied Behavioural Analysis (“ABA”) or Intensive Behavioural Intervention (“IBI”) therapy is not uncontroversial. Objections range from its reliance in its early years on crude and arguably painful stimuli, to its goal of changing the child’s mind and personality. Indeed one of the interveners in this appeal, herself an autistic person, argues against the therapy."

Ms Dawson, like anyone, can reasonably disagree on subjects of public interest. It is not reasonable though for her to contend that she has not been a "crusader" or activist. She has been very active in a number of forums offering her view of what it means to be an "autistic". She has publicly opposed ABA treatment for autistic children on what she considers to be scientific and ethical grounds before the Supreme Court of Canada and the Canadian Senate.

Michelle Dawson may prefer now to be known solely as a researcher but she has been, and remains, an activist with her own ideological, and sometimes political, agenda. That agenda is one which includes opposition to ABA treatment of other people's autistic children notwithstanding the desires of the childrens parents that they receive such treatment and notwithstanding the opinions of a number of credible authorities that ABA is solidly evidence based and supported in its effectiveness at reducing self injurious behaviors in autistic children and helping them to acquire specific intellectual, social and communication skills.


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