#346 – A New Paradigm for Thinking About Autism with Nick Walker


Nick Walker received his M.A. in Somatic Psychology from California Institute of Integral Studies, where he now teaches in the undergraduate Interdisciplinary Studies program. We previously interviewed Nick on Shrink Rap Radio #323 on Aikido, Empathy, and Neurodiversity. He holds the rank of 6th Dan (6th degree black belt) in aikido, and has taught the art of aikido to adults, teens, and children for over 30 years. He is founder and senior instructor of the Aikido Shusekai dojo in Berkeley, California. Since 1996, he has been a core member of the experimental physical theatre group Paratheatrical Research. Some of his work with Paratheatrical Research is chronicled in director Antero Alli’s documentary films Crux (1999), Orphans of Delirium (2004), and Dreambody/Earthbody (2012). He is a dedicated autism rights activist, and has been deeply involved with the Neurodiversity Movement for over a decade. He is a teacher, trainer, speaker, and consultant on a wide range of topics, including somatics, embodiment, autism, neurodiversity, conflict transformation, creativity, and transformative learning. He is also a contributor to the 2012 book, Loud Hands: Autistic People Speaking.

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  1. Dr. Michael Ocana
    Posted April 12, 2013 at 9:21 am | Permalink

    Hi Dave,
    Very interesting. Sensei Walker’s experiences and perspectives regarding behavioral interventions such as ABA fit closely with my own impressions as a clinician who has often worked with youth with ASD diagnoses. My wife,as well, as a speech and language pathologist, was deeply troubled by the use of these interventions when she worked in community settings. As you may know from my blog, I work on an inpatient psychiatric unit for youth that has done away with all behavioural interventions and uses a collaborative problem solving method for engagement of youth. Collaborative approaches tend to engage the individual through attunement and healthy emotional engagement that quiet the ever sensitive amygdala. Behavioural approaches tend to be much “blunter” instruments and can easily be traumatizing for sensitive individuals. I found Stanley Greenspan’s book “The Growth of the Mind” to be an excellent discourse on how interventions for ASD need not be behavioural, and how the best one’s aren’t. In fact Nick’s own training in Aikido was in effect for him a form of “intervention”. I don’t imagine he would be opposed to families using such holistic and developmentally attuned “interventions”, although those might lead to apparent “reductions” in the “symptoms” of autism. I only point this out because there can be some confusion about not using ABA, verses “doing nothing”… I am sure some families would feel helpless and frustrated if this is the choice they feel they were faced with.

  2. Alan Ford
    Posted April 15, 2013 at 12:29 am | Permalink

    I had to stop listening at around the 27:30 mark when Nick Walker claimed that efforts by scientist to cure autism met the definition of genocide!!!

    By the same twisted logic you could claim that anyone with a psychological or mental illness isn’t really ill, they are just different and we should accept their “neuro-diversity”. The mental health professional community should stop all efforts to treat and cure mental illness as it is the moral equivalent of ethnic cleansing. You must change careers Dr Dave!

    I have an autistic son, and although I love him just the way he is, and I have fatherly fondness for his unique behaviours, like his “loud” hands”, I won’t be convinced to abandon my efforts to help him develop more “normally” so that we can make life less challenging for him.

    I don’t say he will have an any less meaningful or worthwhile life as an autistic person, but no one can argue that autism makes your life and the life of those around you less demanding. Otherwise autism wouldn’t be considered by anyone to be a disability and no one would be spending anytime discussing it or making podcasts about it.

    I also don’t say that autistic people deserve to be discriminated against or that they can’t make contributions to society and achieve amazing things or even that they should be “murdered by their parents (17:20)”

    If you’d like to flame me then please see if you can do it without any ad hominem attacks about my obviously being a bigot or a nazi etc..

  3. Posted April 15, 2013 at 4:00 pm | Permalink

    Dear Dr. Ocana,

    Thank you very much for your comment, and for raising this important point.

    You’re right, it is indeed a common misconception that in opposing the use of ABA and other potentially harmful interventions, the Neurodiversity Movement is advocating “doing nothing” to help Autistic children learn to have an easier time navigating the world.

    As you say, collaborative educational approaches are preferable, in terms of both ethics and overall effect on a child’s well-being. I’m a big fan of Greenspan’s DIR/Floortime approach, and so are most neurodiversity advocates that I know. I didn’t get around to mentioning it during the interview, so I appreciate your bringing it up here.

    It might interest you to know that Julia Bascom’s essay “Quiet Hands,” a firsthand account of her traumatic childhood experiences with coercive interventions, which is reprinted in the “Loud Hands” book, has now become required reading in some DIR/Floortime training programs.

  4. Posted April 15, 2013 at 4:41 pm | Permalink

    Dear Mr. Ford,

    Rest assured that I have no interest in flaming you, and I doubt that Dr. Dave does, either.

    The bulk of autism research funding these days goes to research into “causation,” “cure,” and “prevention.” Much of that research involves attempts to develop means of prenatal identification of autism, in order to prevent the births of Autistic people – as has already been done with Down Syndrome.

    The United Nations Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide, adopted by the United Nations General Assembly on 9 December 1948, states in Article 2 that it qualifies as genocide to attempt to prevent the births of children belonging to a specific group.

    Thus, my statement about “meeting the definition of genocide” was a simple statement of fact. I regard it as a fact worthy of consideration. There have been many attempts to reduce the diversity of the human gene pool, and none of them have gone well, nor are they looked back upon with pride.

    Your second paragraph is an example of the Straw Man Fallacy: you’re objecting to statements that I never actually made.

    I hope that the other comments posted here by Dr. Michael Ocana and myself will help to clarify that I’m not opposed to seeking educational approaches that will help Autistic children learn to have an easier time navigating the world. I’m just opposed to “treatments” that aim to force outward conformity without regard to inner well-being. The DIR/Floortime approach is a good one.

    I don’t regard it as valid or useful to consider autism a “mental disorder,” any more than it was valid or useful to consider homosexuality as a “mental disorder” (it was listed in the DSM until 1980). I do regard autism as a disability – indeed, the Neurodiversity Movement is closely entwined with the Disability Rights Movement, and you may have noted the discussion of “ableism” in the interview. However, we might be working with different definitions of disability – the neurodiversity paradigm tends to emphasize the Social Model of Disability over the Individual or Medical Model.

  5. Posted April 15, 2013 at 6:56 pm | Permalink

    What a fantastic and important interview, Nick and Dave.

    Here is a quote from a piece of mine of how different cultures dealing respectfully with diversity among their people. “As a young scientist-limnologist, I spent some time in remote areas in East Africa in the 70s. I was swept up by the strong current that flowed through and around this collection of families, joining them in a circle of interdependence, acceptance and mutual support. This current embraced the strong and the weak, the good and the not so good, the healthy and the frail and the so-called normal and the different. And what a plethora of roles were to be found in this small village: the Grouch, grumbling and complaining and annoying everyone; the Clown who joked and mocked and brought laughter to every face, finding the ridiculous in any circumstance, teasing me mercilessly about my odd accent; the Witchdoctor who allowed me to observe him for days on end as he administered to the villagers and conducted the rituals; the Man-who-Talked-to-Trees; the Medium who communicated and interceded with the villagers’ ancestors; and the young warriors, self-consciously leaning on their new spears, spending hours beautifying their hair and skin with red mud. Each was a treasured and colorful piece of the mosaic that made up this vital community. And to be sure, there were those who also occupied common basic roles, equivalent to our butcher, baker and candlestick maker. There were villagers who needed to be carried everywhere. There were villagers who needed to be constantly protected from harming themselves. Yet, the traditional village not only tolerated such diversity, they also, in fact, truly embraced and celebrated the differences, offering a wide network of support for all. The village respected the roles and functions of the village shaman, the fool, the warrior and others who varied from the norm, providing them with food and shelter. Whether strong or frail, healthy or handicapped, each community member was supported physically, emotionally and spiritually. When necessary, special healing rituals focused on the mentally or physically frail.” (from http://www.zurinstitute.com/dsmcritique.html#village )

  6. Alan Ford
    Posted April 15, 2013 at 10:44 pm | Permalink

    Thanks for the response Nick.

    I hope I didn’t upset you with my post. For some reason your statement really affected me.

    Thanks also for the clarification of your position in your comment. I would never have wanted my precious son to be aborted had we known before his birth that he was autistic. I agree that this would have been a crime.

    I think I understand what you mean by “floortime” but if you’re inclined perhaps you could post some links in another reply to further information about methods of helping young autistic children that you’d recommend.

    Finally I should say that I admire you and I look at your success and achievements as a source of hope for my son.

    All the best.

  7. Posted April 16, 2013 at 10:18 am | Permalink

    Dear Mr. Ford,

    Thanks for writing again. I’m glad I could clarify my position, and that we could find our most important common ground: we both agree that your son’s existence is a wonderful thing, and we both want a world where he can thrive!

    Here’s the official website for the DIR/Floortime approach – the website includes listings of schools and practitioners who use the approach: http://www.icdl.com/DIRFloortime.shtml

    Here are a couple of great blogs by friends of mine – mothers of Autistic kids, who have connected with Autistic adults and learned a lot from them, and who have many insights to share:

    The Thinking Person’s Guide to Autism blog is also good – it’s a community blog with a team of editors and many contributors, including both Autistic adults and parents of Autistic kids: http://www.thinkingautismguide.com/

    I hope these resources are helpful to you, and I wish you and your son all the best.

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