"Recovery," "science," and the politics of hope: A critical discourse analysis of applied behavior analysis for young children labeled with autism

Date of Award


Degree Type


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)


Teaching and Leadership


Douglas P. Biklen


Discourse analysis, Applied behavior analysis, Children, Autism, Recovery

Subject Categories

Education | Special Education and Teaching


This inquiry critically examines the discourse around intervention methods grounded in applied behavioral analysis (ABA) for young children labeled with autism. In this analysis, I explore the ways that these instructional methods are discussed and discursively represented in a variety of venues, including academic and professional literature, published parent narratives, judicial and government documents, popular media, and parents' conversational discussions of their children's education. I draw upon two primary and interrelated data sources in this analysis: texts (gathered through purposeful sampling of ABA literature) and talk (gathered through in-depth, qualitative interviews and participant observation with parents of young children labeled with autism who participate in ABA discourse). I interpret the data using two complementary strategies of analysis: Foucauldian discourse analysis and ethnomethodological analysis of talk, thus interpreting the broader ABA discourse that parents draw upon as a discursive "regime" that may "discipline" the ways in which parents interpret, represent, and indeed constitute their own experiences with ABA. Through ongoing inductive analysis of all data sources, I identify and analyze two different "Conversations" within ABA discourse: (a) the notion of "recovery" from autism, and (b) the notion of "scientific" proof. I conduct this qualitative analysis of the language drawn upon to describe, discuss, and represent this particular educational method as a device for exploring the underlying intersections of knowledge, ideology, and power in educational discourse, and the ways that language may mediate and shape educational research, practice, and policy.


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