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What Is The Autism Industrial Complex?

For parents, a child’s Autism diagnosis can be frightening and even devastating. According to Autism educator Robin Roscigno, it doesn’t need to be. In her TEDxMileHigh talk, Rocsigno explains how the “Autism Industrial Complex” perpetuates and takes advantage of parents’ fear of Autism. Read on to learn more about the Autism Industrial Complex and how to better support Autistic children and adults.

Autism Industrial Complex 101

When Robin Roscigno’s daughter was first diagnosed with Autism at the age of two, Roscigno didn’t expect to be diagnosed herself in her 30s. Roscigno, now left with two Autism diagnoses to handle, entered the world of Autism services and interventions for the first time. It was an anxiety-inducing place.

“I see a lot of children missing their childhoods. I see a lot of stressed out parents second mortgaging their homes to pay for yet another therapy. And I see their relationships with their children deteriorate in the process.” – Robin Roscigno

What Roscigno didn’t know at the time was that this chaos surrounding Autism wasn’t a natural consequence of parenting an Autistic child. It was an intentional part of a for-profit system, she and her colleague later termed, “The Autism Industrial Complex.”

“I’m going to offer another perspective—Autism isn’t that scary, but your fear is being used to make a lot of people very wealthy.” – Robin Roscigno

Roscigno advocates for a culture shift. Instead of fearing and attempting to “cure” Autism, we should embrace and support the neurodiversity of Autistic people. In doing so, we can create a world where Autistic people can thrive, instead of always trying to mask their true selves. Watch Robin Roscigno’s TEDxMileHigh Talk about the Autism Industrial Complex here.

Autism Industrial Complex: How It Works

So, what is the Autism Industrial Complex, and how does it work? Let’s begin with the numbers. Since the 1990s, the estimated U.S. total lifetime cost of Autism services has grown from $1.2 billion to $4 trillion a year. With these families paying such high costs for services, you’d expect some results. 

“And yet, only 1/3 of Autistic youth attend college, just over half are employed in the first six years after high school, and only 19 percent of Autistic young adults live outside of their parents’ home —the lowest rate of independent living of any disability group,” explains Roscigno. 

Spending for Autism services is increasing, yet Autistic people are not benefiting. Roscigno asks, “So, who is? The Autism Industrial Complex.” 

Sending The Wrong Message

For the past 80 years, Autism treatment marketing has encouraged parents of Autistic children to see Autism as a “kidnapper, a thief, that robs parents of their children.” According to Roscigno, organizations such as TACA (Talk About Curing Autism) or DAN (Defeat Autism Now) perpetuate the idea that Autism needs to be “cured” or conquered. Yet, this framing of Autism has often led to controversial forms of Autism therapy. 

One such therapy, Applied Behavior Analysis, is the most popular form of Autism treatment in the U.S., and the only therapy covered by U.S. health insurance. Autism activists who have undergone years of ABA services often call themselves “ABA survivors” due to the treatment’s ultimate goal of making Autistic people appear less autistic to the neurotypical world. This includes being forced to make eye contact with adults or being physically restrained when flapping.

“Imagine how exhausting it is to live every moment of your life pretending to be someone else, faking everything you do in order to make other people more comfortable around you. What a horrible message we’re sending to Autistic kids and adults.” – Robin Roscigno

A New Outlook on Autism 

Autism therapy is undeniably important, Roscigno does not debate that. Yet, we need to adjust the way we approach Autism therapy as parents and as a culture. Instead of focusing energy and resources on helping Autistic people mask their Autism, focus on helping Autistic people have a great life.

“The worst-case scenario for your child isn’t that they’ll grow up to be Autistic – it’s that they’ll have a horrible life. The Autism industrial complex will make you believe that those two things are one in the same, but it’s not true.”

Roscigno asks us to reconsider our fears. Instead of worrying about how “normal” your child will be when they grow up, parents of autistic children should ask themselves, “What would a great life look like as an Autistic person?” 

AuTeach on TikTok

Since 2020, Robin Roscigno has used TikTok to help parents find the right therapy and services for their Autistic children. With over 90K followers, Roscigno helps Autistic people discover how to be their best, most comfortable Autistic selves. As a result, parents across the country have made shifts in their lives. Instead of overextending themselves by constantly searching for therapy after therapy, parents are finding time to play and laugh with their children. Instead of trying to force their children to see the world as they do, parents are learning to see the world the way their Autistic child sees it.

Only when parents can fully accept their Autistic child as they are now, can they truly bond and enjoy life together. Ultimately, the right support for an Autistic child takes time and effort, undoubtedly, but it doesn’t need to be as scary as the Autism Industrial Complex wants you to believe.

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