OPINION: The Claremont Autism Center can do better to serve autistic people

A couple of brick buildings and a tall clock tower sit in front of a pink and purple sunset.
Lucienne Reyes PZ ’24 argues that the Claremont Autism Center should change its perspective on autism. (Anna Choi • The Student Life)

Last summer, I discovered the Claremont Autism Center, having found a YouTube video of an Athenaeum lunch event at Claremont McKenna College from 2019. The event featured speaker Marjorie Charlop CG ’81, a psychology professor at CMC and director of the Center. 

The Center is a behavior modification treatment and research program at CMC for autistic children. Under the director’s supervision, 7C students work as student therapists. The Center mainly provides social skills groups for children and training for parents on interacting with their children.

After watching the video and learning more about the Center, I believe they must change their perspective of autism. To better serve autistic people, the Claremont Autism Center should embrace autism acceptance instead of making them adopt neurotypical behavior.

Charlop’s presentation about the Center’s work described the prevalence of autism as a problem. “While geneticists and biologists are doing work to find out what causes autism, and if we can do something to stop it from occurring, we have a large number of persons who are here living with autism … and there’s a … huge heterogeneity of autism ranging from children and adults now who would be considered on the lower end of the spectrum and those on a higher end of the spectrum,” Charlop said. 

This statement is problematic because it disagrees with what most autistic self-advocates want. They champion autism acceptance over prevention, viewing autism as part of their identities. They oppose research on autism’s causes, fearing its exploitability to prevent or “cure” autism. If one’s work engages with members of another community, it is merely logical to support their interests, which include autism acceptance in this case.

Many self-advocates also oppose changing autistic behaviors. The Center’s focus on teaching autistic children to behave neurotypically, albeit well-intentioned, reflects negative attitudes towards autism. “It is likely that an [autistic] 11-year-old is going to be bullied, left out, name-called and other untoward things from his [neurotypical] peers, and we would want this child not to be considered a target for all of those,” Charlop said in an interview with TSL.

During the interview, Charlop acknowledged that it was important for neurotypical people to learn not to bully someone for being different, mentioning that she sometimes did workshops for teachers to learn about inclusion. However, she said that “one person, one small program on CMC’s campus, can’t change everything … There needs to be a major push in education.”

Numerous neurotypical people are also bullied for being different. Some decide to change, but many others argue against this to favor more supportive environments. True, one small group can’t transform societal attitudes alone — hence they advocate to those they can reach so more people can join them and do the same, accelerating the process of change. The same should apply to acceptance of neurodivergence.

Speaking takes priority over alternative forms of communication at the Center. Some children learn to assemble pictures with words along a physical strip of words, but with the expectation of transitioning to speaking. 

Clients aren’t taught augmentative and alternative communication (AAC) apps for two main reasons. First, iPads are expensive, especially when sourcing them for an entire program. 

The second reason, though, is my primary concern: According to Charlop, literature shows that children who use the strip transition to speaking; iPad users don’t (although a study contradicts this). “We would prefer [for the kids to] just walk around and say what they want,” she said in an interview with TSL. 

Speaking shouldn’t be considered better. While an autistic person is entitled to speech therapy if they personally want to talk, preferring alternative communication is still valid.

Favoritism towards speaking harms many neurodivergent people. Nonspeaking people often aren’t taken seriously because society associates spoken communication with competence. Autistic student and part-time AAC user Donnie Denome CG ’21 mentioned spoken language as part of professionalism. Those appearing incompetent are dismissed, devaluing people with intellectual disabilities and what nonspeaking people have to say. 

The Center may not intend to promote this view, but they can help combat it. Instead of prioritizing speaking, normalizing diversity of communication not only helps autistic people better determine the type of communication they prefer, but also reduces misconceptions about nonspeaking people. 

Autism acceptance at the Center must go beyond Charlop’s inclusion workshops. This means not trying to change autistic traits. It means seeking out adult autistic self-advocates to guide their work.

It doesn’t mean accepting meltdowns, violence or self-injury. These indicate a problem that the person is dealing with, usually sensory overload or frustration with communication struggles. Lessening sensory stimuli and providing communication tools is crucial.

Furthermore, acceptance doesn’t cover tolerating hurtful or invasive behavior from autistic people. From personal experience, some may unintentionally say hurtful statements and have difficulty understanding boundaries. One should tell an autistic person if they’ve hurt them. 

The Center’s social skills groups, which prioritize neurotypical socialization, would require changes. Understanding how neurotypicals interact is certainly important. The Center could instead offer perspective-taking, a neurodiversity-friendly way to teach this.

Moreover, several 7C students who work at the Center pursue careers working with autistic people. Teaching acceptance would shape the students’ approach to autism as professionals.

When asked if she thought the prevalence of autism was a problem, Charlop eventually stated that it was a tough question because she loved working with the children at the Center. Initially, she said yes, particularly for autistic people who self-injure and have higher support needs. 

“And where are they going to get this assistance? There’s not enough services,” Charlop said. “…We do not want kids who cannot communicate, interact with their environment and access the wonderful things in life for them.”

Inadequate support is the issue, not autism. I believe society can improve services, rights and accommodations without decreasing autism’s prevalence. Funding for research on autism prevention and “treatments” or therapies attempting to reduce autistic traits should be redirected to services.

Charlop expressed approval toward the neurodiversity movement, then added that her concern is that “the majority of individuals are not way up on that spectrum; they’re more moderate to lower end.”

That this should be a concern is a common misconception. Activist Emily Paige Ballou wrote, “We know there are nonspeaking autistic people, epileptic autistic people, self-injuring autistic people … because many of us are nonspeaking, epileptic and self-injuring autistic people.” Autism acceptance isn’t exclusive to people who appear more neurotypical.

I recommend that all who work at the Center peruse the Autistic Self-Advocacy Network, the Autistic Women and Nonbinary Network, CommunicationFIRST and Academic Autism Spectrum Partnership in Research and Education. As society moves towards autism acceptance, the Center’s work must prioritize the interests of autistic self-advocates and recognize the value of neurodiversity for everyone. This will improve the lives of autistic people — yes, the collective term is “autistic people,” not “people with autism” — by contributing to a more inclusive world.

Luciénne Reyes PZ ’24 is an autistic person from Los Angeles, California with heightened noise sensitivity. Like W.A. Mozart, she finds that trumpets are too loud for her and prefers the clarinet to other wind instruments.

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