Church, autistic children, and ABA
From Rebecca Chapman
Sir, — It is impossible not to be aware of the controversy around conversion therapy, and the differing views on this within the Church. Relatedly, I was thrilled to see mention of autistic young people in our churches in the letter (6 May) about the Nomad podcast (Radio, 29 April). None the less, it is important to be aware that ABA (Applied Behaviour Analysis) therapy is similarly highly controversial, and stems from the same basics of enforced normalisation.
I have much sympathy with the author of last week’s letter: our autistic son barely spoke until he was four, and developed functional language only after weekly speech and language therapy. Yet there is little, if any, research evidence that this is any different in timescale, with or without ABA or other interventions.
ABA has always polarised people. The National Autistic Society is clear that early forms of ABA were barbaric, including the use of electric shocks, and, in the 1970s, ABA was initially used to “cure” children who were at risk of developing “adult sexual abnormalities”. Such extremes of enforcement are, sadly, still being used today, including those same electric shocks in the ABA-based Judge Rotenberg Centre in the United States.
The use of ABA is longstanding, but there are significant limitations and gaps in the research about it, particularly its long-term effects. While some families report what they perceive to be positive changes in their children, from their own point of view, many autistic people have bravely spoken out about their trauma after undergoing ABA.
The emerging field of autism theology is an area with huge potential, which I am excited about. But let’s remember how important it is to keep autistic voices at the centre of our conversations, and especially in those about autism within the Church. Voices are not just spoken, but are enacted through writing, through picture, through music, art, dance, movement, behaviour, and action.
As Christians, we know that every person’s value does not come from their ability to conform to social norms, or to form words with their mouths, but because they are fearfully and wonderfully made, in relationship with the God of love, and the reason that he sent his Son.
General Synod member
220 Camberwell New Road
London SE5 0RR
From the Revd Edward Barlow
Sir, — Elements of the letter “Church activities and young people with autism” resonated with my own family’s experience.
My young son struggled with sensory overwhelm during services at our previous church, which has a particularly grand organ (entirely to my tastes, but a struggle for my child). At a pre-interview Sunday service in our current parish, my son (then three) was calmer and more at ease than he had been in a church for a while, crucially because the hymns were accompanied on the piano (this was entirely down to a shortage of organists that weekend). Since then, he has been diagnosed autistic, and we have also established a piano-only accompaniment for our monthly family services, to be more inclusive of those who similarly struggle with loud organ music.
I was taken aback, however, with the correspondent’s advocating of ABA. This approach is hotly contested, being widely understood to be based on conditioning an autistic child for compliance at the expense of authentic self-expression. Critics argue that ABA teaches neurodivergent children to suppress their identity in an unhealthy manner.
My son presents with a Pathological Demand Avoidance (PDA) profile, and so undergoes intense distress when faced with any sense of demand, imposition, or being controlled. Accounts from autistic people with PDA profiles would strongly suggest the behavioural programming used in ABA to be inappropriate and potentially very damaging. The approach may yield the expected behavioural results, but at what expense to the child’s well-being?
Those of us seeking to make our churches, households, or any environment autism-friendly will be faced with a raft of sales-pitches with the “right answer” for adapting our practices. It is crucial that we do not adopt any such strategy without cautious discernment and careful consideration, and this must always begin with listening to the experienced wisdom of neurodivergent voices.
St John’s Vicarage
29 Parkhill Road
Bexley, Kent DA5 1HX
Welsh set pace on the Moscow Patriarchate
From the Revd Mark Bailey
Sir, — Well done, the Church in Wales and Lord Williams, in unequivocally calling for direct action to isolate the Russian Orthodox Church and specifically the Moscow Patriarch Kirill (News, 8 April, 29 April). Our own Archbishops of Canterbury and York would do well to understand that there comes a point at which “sensitive conversations and pleads for peace” with those who have clearly articulated an ideology that promotes genocide call into question one’s own integrity.
Those of us working on the ground in the Church of England, helping and supporting traumatised refugees, need to be able to do so knowing that our own bishops openly condemn the words and perverse theological understandings espoused by those with omnipotent pathological tendencies. There comes a time when it is right to walk away from bullies.
The Rectory, Cottered
Hertfordshire SG9 9QA
Honour for cleric who headed Post Office
From Mr Edward Bevin
Sir, — It has been reported by Sir Tom Scholar, chairman of the Government’s Honours Forfeiture Committee, that the Revd Paula Vennells, the disgraced former chief executive of the Post Office, could lose her CBE, which she received in the 2019 New Year Honours.
This award rubbed salt into the hundreds of already heavily wounded sub-postmasters being wrongly jailed during the IT scandal, over which she presided. The current public inquiry is shortly moving to Scotland, with the result that more heart-breaking stories will emerge after what has been described as the most widespread miscarriage of justice in UK history.
Although she has apologised, there have never been any signs of contrition, as surely should be shown by an Anglican priest. Ms Vennells is now devoid of any credibility, and the least she could do — she has resigned from her non-stipendiary post as Vicar of St Owen’s, Bromham, in the diocese of St Albans — would be to return her CBE before the forfeiture committee discusses it.
This was a classic case of this country’s recognising failure in public life. She should also seriously consider donating to charities some of the hundreds of thousands of pounds that she was handed when she left the Post Office in disgrace.
116 Watford Road
St Albans AL2 3JZ
Repentance, yes, but not an end to evangelism
From the Revd Professor Anthony Bash
Sir, — As an ordained, Jewish Christian, I am delighted to read (Online news, 9 May) of the service of repentance for the anti-Semitic rules introduced in 1222 in England. I am troubled, though, about talk of not evangelising Jewish people.
If we do not evangelise Jewish people, we deny them the opportunity to hear what Jesus himself said mainly to Jewish people. We also deny Jewish people the opportunity to hear what the Early Church also said mainly to Jewish people.
Is not denying Jewish people the opportunity to hear the gospel a form of covert discrimination that disadvantages Jewish people not only in this life, but also in the life to come?
7 Boste Crescent
Durham DH1 5US
Proper use of Rustat’s Jesus College benefaction
From the Revd John M. Overton
Sir, — I applaud the Rt Revd David Wilbourne’s gift to Christian Aid.
As I read through his letter (Letters, 29 April), however, I began to wonder how his gift to Christian Aid for having benefited from a Rustat exhibition placed the aid charity in any different moral position from the educational charity Jesus College in its having received Rustat’s original money.
Or is there a dilution effect, whereby at a particular transactional distance lucre becomes free of taint?
The Rustat exhibition was “a real help” to Bishop Wilbourne. Perhaps the Rustat legacy is best used to continue to benefit education of the financially disadvantaged — doubtless as Rustat might have intended.
Canon Peter Doll’s letter (same issue) was a welcome reminder that we are all sinners in need of God’s forgiveness, and, whether willing or not, or knowing or not, we are all complicit in individual and corporate sin. Who knows what blindness or lack of thought on our part will be found to be culpable by generations to come? Indeed, none of us is in a position to cast the first stone at Rustat.
JOHN M. OVERTON
6 Brown Edge Close
Derbyshire SK17 7AS
Evangelical engagement with the LLF resources
From the Rt Revd Jan McFarlane
Sir, — I read with interest the story about Anglican Evangelicals’ being encouraged not to remain silent about sexuality (News, 6 May). But what struck me most was the very last sentence. With regard to the film produced by the Church of England Evangelical Council, we are told that the Living in Love and Faith resources are not mentioned. I have heard a number of clergy say that they don’t want “their people” to engage with the resources. What is it that they fear?
19a The Close
Lichfield WS13 7LL
Don’t cancel debate on handling of trans issues
From Canon R. H. W. Arguile
Sir, — The recent articles and consequent correspondence on trans issues make me feel that we need more considered debate. In the letter from Ms Ozanne and Dean Hawes (22 April), I detect much passion, but not much serious argument. To suggest that Canon Tilby’s article (Comment, 8 April) was “dangerous” implies that there are opinions that ought not to be expressed. Opinions expressed by knowledgeable and thoughtful people ought to be responded to in respectful ways. The danger lies in not allowing arguments to be put forward.
No one of any sensitivity doubts the huge unhappiness of people who are concerned about their sexuality. Surrounded by numerous suggestions that, for instance, gender is a social construct (for which I see no evidence), I would rightly be howled down for suggesting that gender dysphoria is such a phenomenon. On the other hand, there is some disagreement about its character and diagnosis.
As someone who has been made to doubt his sanity and perception of events because of the expressed opinions of those in authority, I may have a slight inkling of what how it feels to be unsure of who I am and what I am. The massive diminution in the number of manual jobs traditionally done by men, the rise of feminism, the devaluation of sexual intimacy with the breaking of the connection between intercourse and pregnancy, the development of hormone therapies and the use of surgery, the rise of social media, and, dare I say it, de-affirmation of young men, whose suicide rates require some thoughtful investigation, are not, for an old groaner like me, a reason to doubt my sexuality; but such changes — not to mention the destabilisation of social mores — are surely likely to disturb many younger people. Some of these changes are for the good but not all; their consequences have been ambiguous.
The issues here are too complex to be gone into here, but they need ventilating. For the record, I am thoroughly opposed to any kind of coercion or social pressure to direct people’s sexual choices, but I would like someone to tell me how the current situation has emerged, whether we are dealing with serious problems for a long time ignored, and what place the social context has in all of this.
R. H. W. ARGUILE
10 Marsh Lane
Norfolk NR23 1EG
Denigration of men
From Mrs Vicky Cole
Sir, — Evidence, please, from Canon Angela Tilby for her casual suggestion that “perhaps” most men have a porn habit (“MP’s shame sends signal to all women”, Comment, 6 May). I had thought that we were moving away from a culture that allowed unsubstantiated slurs to be cast on particular groups of people.
Am I the only woman who is tired of hearing the men in my life denigrated with impunity in the public domain?
30 St Mary’s Paddock
Wellingborough NN8 1HJ
Online tunnel vision?
From Margaret Simpson
Sir, — Please can someone explain how the Church’s mission outside “important urban parishes” is enhanced by requiring that all training — in particular, the important safeguarding training — be done online?
One wonders whether those in church administration are aware of how mission happens in more rural settings, where the internet access may be poor, and where the good work among various groups in society is done by wise, energetic, committed retired people, who are more used to using pen and paper than computers.
What is the objection to (as in our parish) a competent person’s doing a PowerPoint presentation for all who are required to do the training, and who then fill in their answers on paper? Have the authorities considered that they might be discriminating against older people or the poor who cannot afford computers?
86 Wells Road, Fakenham
Norfolk NR21 9HH