Testimony of Zoe Rooney to the Board of Education, May 30, 2019

My name is Zoe Rooney, and I am an educator and the parent of two children in the district, one of whom is in full time autistic support.

Both of these items are contracts that provide professional development to district teachers and staff of students with autism in regards to Applied Behavior Analysis, commonly known as ABA.

As a parent of a child with autism, I have learned that one of the best ways to appropriately advocate for my child is to listen to older autistic children and to autistic adults. More than any other individuals, including doctors, educators, and therapists, autistic adults are able to speak to the experience of being autistic and the impact of various interventions and programs.

In doing so, I have learned that many people consider ABA to be abusive and harmful.

There is a great article that was published in The Atlantic in 2016 that goes into detail about this controversy and acknowledges that there are vocal advocates on both sides of the debate. For me personally, as I would with any type of abuse, my inclination is to believe survivors.

These actions items cite the “research” backing ABA, but as the article in The Atlantic mentions, the research is actually far from definitive or even convincing.

I have many concerns about the methods that fall under ABA and there are things within that umbrella that I absolutely do not want my child subjected to, particularly since he is unable to come home and communicate to me how he feels about going to school, or his feelings about the ways teachers and staff interact with him.

I’ve never seen the district ask parents for consent in terms of the methods teachers use with their autistic children. While IEP goals sometimes reference specific methods, more often they are about the academic targets. In my experience, IEPs usually don’t get as granular as specifying whether the goals will be addressed using methods like ABA.

As another example, the district has touted new robots they’ve started experimenting with in some autistic support classrooms to build social skills. Were parents asked for permission to subject their autistic children to this experiment and to interactions with a robot?

There’s no explicit process by which I am asked to give consent for methods such as ABA, nor am I aware of any particular designated process for opting out.

Are any parents of any children, autistic or otherwise, ever asked for permission for various experiments the district tries, or are they just notified as if these things are known best practices and there’s no question of consent?

I will be contacting my son’s teacher and the SEL at his school to discuss provisions for his IEP to address this, but it should be a process that is built in, particularly for our most vulnerable students who can’t come home and describe in words what happens at school each day.

In addition to building in better transparency and communication around these issues and being more careful in consideration of these contracts, I would like to see the district work harder to consult with autistic adults and older students within the district who have autism. These are the real experts, and they should be the ones the district is contracting with to get this right.

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