Review of The Autism Industrial Complex: How Branding, Marketing and Capital Investment Turned Autism into Big Business

The information in this book is so incredibly important and immediately needs to be considered required reading for anyone attached to the “helping professions” that support autistic people (e.g. teachers, speech therapists, occupational therapists, physical therapists, pediatricians, etc.), parents of autistic people and also autistic people themselves. Alicia Broderick lays out the history of autism “intervention” and the development of what has become an industrial complex. 

I’m going to try to explain the AIC in two paragraphs

Autism is diagnosed and defined by media/pediatricians/therapists/educators/pharmaceutical companies/etc. as a disability, a problem, a set of symptoms to be eradicated, providing little to no hope of a “normal” future for children who receive the diagnosis. Intervention services, specifically applied behavior analysis (ABA) services- are offered by those who claim those services to be “scientifically proven” – but only if given in doses of 20-40 hours a week. Intense political lobbying efforts result in these services being named “medically necessary” and therefore required for insurance to fund them. 

What you have now is a foundation laid for profit-extraction with financial incentives for stakeholders to drum up business by finding more and more autistic “bodies” (as Broderick would call them) for which to prescribe more services. That gets done through fear-mongering media campaigns, “awareness” initiatives, pushes for “early intervention” and public admonitions to “know the signs of autism.” The widespread fear/awareness serves to justify what would otherwise be considered excessive and invasive “treatments” for any human being.  

This is a capital investment opportunity which makes autistic people the commodity.

Autism “intervention” is a multi-billion dollar industry. The AIC creates both the demand and supply for services. 

The identities/interests/opinions of actual autistic people are completely left out of the equation. 

Again- anyone operating within the “helping professions”- anyone believing they are acting in service of autistic people need to be made aware of the AIC and how they’re operating within it.

Alicia Broderick is a brilliant scholar who is operating on a wavelength that I don’t even think I can dream of aspiring to in my lifetime. That said- her writing rides up there on that wavelength. This is not a beach read- it’s an academic-language discussion of Ideas peppered with many many many citations to other academic-language Papers. I learned quite a few new vocabulary words, although I wasn’t able to get into enough research to arrive at a precise definition of “Foucauldian” which came up quite a few times. And while I admire her brilliance, I fear that her incredibly important message will remain buried in academic discourse when it needs to be proclaimed from rooftops and simplified on social media for consumption by the unacademic masses of which I’m a part. Us- the very cogs in the AIC machine. 

We need a bombshell Netflix documentary. A smart, biting podcast expose, perhaps? 

Until then, I’ll be returning to my regularly scheduled activities of screaming into my echo chamber… and adjusting my practices as a speech-language pathologist to support, rather than suppress, my fellow humans of all neurotypes. 

*Robin Roscigno, a co-author of several chapters of this book, has a TED talk about the Autism Industrial Complex (AIC) which everyone should watch.

*Alicia Broderick did a 2-hour presentation about the AIC for the New Jersey Autism Center of Excellence- also something everyone should watch. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-fxzfuvuek4