We have a history of bias against difference. Those differences, like skin color, gender, sexual orientation, and physical or neurological variations, are defined by the people in power. This paradigm explains why we see white skin as Normal and black as Different, instead of the other way around. The same is true for autism. Non-autistic people defined autism as it differed from them, so they labeled movements as "behaviors" and identified autism as a "disorder." The autism treatment created with this bias, behavioral therapy or ABA, seeks to "normalize behaviors," rather than to address the needs of the autistic person.
What happens when we identify autistic people as "Not Normal"? Autistic children and persons learn that society views their bodies as unacceptable and inferior. They are told to keep their hands still (no flapping), to keep their bodies still (no rocking), to walk in a certain way (no toe-walking), to sit down while learning (no moving around). They are physically restrained, with gentle touches or harsh holds. Physical control is seen as benign or necessary because it is acceptable to violate personal space and bodies in the name of treatment or education. But we use psychological control, emotional coercion and social pressure, even more than physical control. "Normal" is defined for autistic people as the thing they are told to be. "Not Normal" is what they are and what they must hide.
The way autistic persons move is natural. They get emotional energy or emotional release from movement, just as athletes, musicians, and dancers do. When they are asked to repress certain behaviors, they must use energy, emotionally and cognitively, to stop. Their marker of worth becomes how often they "fit in," how well they hide their "not-normal"-ness. Their value in society rises in response to how well they imitate "normal" people. They gain a sense of relief and a sense of belonging when they pass these tests. And, over time, they lose their self-worth, their sense of self, and their sense of value.
The psychological nature of the treatment, persuading autistic persons that they must "normalize" their own behaviors, is particularly dangerous. It requires autistic people to constantly monitor their bodies. They must continuously check how they are holding their hands, their feet, their bodies. They must check how they are walking or running. They must police themselves to make eye contact or appear to make eye contact. They feel that they are under the constant gaze of an ever-watchful authority. They can no longer relax, even in private, because non-conformity is punished by rejection and isolation. They become their own prison guard.
Imagine feeling invisible when it comes to access and opportunity, but feeling constantly under surveillance. Always watched for "Not Normal" moves and always ignored for real equality. The combination causes social isolation and depression. It causes people to feel that their bodies are not worthy, so they experience physical discomfort, a loss of worth, and sexual dysfunction.
We have to ask why we allow our children to be "normalized" with ABA and the psychological cost they will bear for a lifetime. We have to ask what happens when we make seemingly benign observations about autistic persons' feet, as one psychotherapist does in her public blog post. We have to ask why we're talking about behaviors instead of the social benefits to autistic people of being widely portrayed in a positive way in the media and public discourse. We have to ask why we're talking about behaviors instead of the benefits of knowing that a certain neurology will not prevent access to services, housing, jobs, or relationships.
This spotlight on autistic bodies is just one way that "we" remind "them" that "they" are "Not One of Us." It preserves the biases of "Not Normal" and enforces psychological harm on autistic lives.