Why autism ‘treatment’ is a form of conversion therapy

In 1974, renowned UCLA neuropsychologist Ole Ivar Lovaas oversaw the Feminine Boy Project, a study using behavioral psychology to intervene in the development of “gender-disturbed” young men. Through reward-punishment conditioning, Lovaas and his student George Rekers aimed to make boys who played with dolls or had “wrist-whiskers” act more like the men society wanted them to be: playing with toy guns, brawl and compete.

Rekers’ involvement was inspired by Lovaas’ Young Autism Project, where he had previously applied behavioral conditioning to eliminate autistic traits in children. In their gender research, Lovaas and Rekers used maternal praise as reward and spanking as punishment. However, on autistic children, Lovaas used torture. His studies detail the use of electric shocks, full-body restraints, and severe physical beatings; he once bragged about threatening an autistic child with murder, writing: ‘I let her know that there was no doubt in my mind that I was going to kill her if she ever hit herself moreover, and… we solved the problem.”

George Rekers would rise to prominence in the gay conversion movement as both a Southern Baptist preacher and a tenured professor of psychiatry at the University of South Carolina Medical School. Lovaas, meanwhile, used that research to develop a treatment for autistic children called Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA). Today, ABA is the only form of government-funded autism spectrum disorder “therapy” in North America.

Both gay conversion therapy and ABA were founded on behaviorism – the scientific belief that human behavior is determined by the conditioning of our immediate environments and must be controlled by manipulating those environments. Behaviorist psychology has always viewed queer and autistic identities as deviant, and so the pathologies around both have been constructed at the same time, and from the same body of research. This is why many autistics today claim that ABA is actually its own form of conversion therapy.

“The new and the old ABA share the same goal: to convert autistic traits.”

In his landmark 1987 paper, widely cited as evidence of ABA’s effectiveness, Lovaas claimed to have made 47% of his autistic subjects “indistinguishable” from their allist peers through intensive intervention. However, these outcomes only measured behavioral outcomes; in the same way that gay conversion makes people law right, ABA simply traumatized autistic children by acting neurotypically to fit in.

“[Lovaas] designed ABA to eliminate autistic behaviors and identity to meet allistic expectations,” says Negrazis, an autistic non-binary licensed psychotherapist from Toronto. “[That way] they just wouldn’t disrupt the neuro-disabled order as much.

Over time, disability advocates have forced practitioners to move away from punishment and towards reward-based methodologies. The ABA Association still supports the use of physical restraints and even solitary confinement where it deems necessary, but many offshoots seek to distance themselves from both ABA etiquette and the use of punishment. These derivatives, loosely called “New ABA”, work instead by depriving children of positive reinforcement such as playtime, rest, or praise unless they comply with allistic behaviors imposed on them, such as eye contact, hugs and verbal communication.

Both the new and the old ABA share the same goal and the same end result: to convert autistic traits. And in doing so, ABA also acts as a form of queer conversion, says Negrazis, because “[autistic] genders and sexualities are inherently pathologized as abnormal. This means that the ABA views autistic nonconforming children as being socially confused about appropriate dress or play styles, and aims to condition them according to their assigned sex.

“It’s about watching the unruly bodies,” says Negrazis. “Lovaas actively constructed gender and sexual divergence as a disability, which created an inherent disability for the emergence of queer identities.”

Lovaas himself made this comparison in his writings on the Feminine Boy Project, calling gay or gender-nonconforming men “socially handicapped individuals.” He spoke of queerness and transness having “severe disabling consequences for adults… [that] can range from interference with normal heterosexual relationships to a permanent sense of shame and fear.

At the time, gay and autistic children were seen as what contemporary researchers Margaret F. Gibson and Patty Douglas call “surprising deviants” – their intellectual function showed promise compared to supposedly hopeless populations with severe cognitive impairment. . It gave value to their life if they could be placed on a typical course by intervention.

“With responsibility, the person with an intellectual disability assumes dignity and ‘acquires’ certain basic rights as a person,” Lovaas wrote. “No one has the right to care, no matter how retarded… so put your child to work; his job is to learn.

Cultural logic dictated that boys with autism would become unproductive men, while men whose gender presentation or sexualities did not conform to the norm formed fewer reproductive nuclear families. In this way, queer and autistic people were seen as a threat to the future of capitalism and colonialism: not only were the researchers saving these poor boys from a life of shame, but they were saving society itself.

Autistic children in particular have been the subject of such intense study because Negrazis says Lovaas saw them as “raw material for humans”; perfectly capable of being shaped and developed by behaviorism. He had illusions of grandeur about his research; if it could bestow humanity itself to lowly autistics, then society could use it to correct not just sexual and gender discrepancies, but all deviant behavior. Lovaas said that once behaviorism’s ‘reciprocal check’ is accepted, ‘politics as we know it will cease to exist…eventually every person will be intimately involved in making decisions that are now made by governments “. In other words, he believed, “we would have real democracy.”

“Behaviourism is a colonizing logic,” says Ander Negrazis.

His vision would not come true. Behaviorism has indeed continued to guide mainstream psychology and even economics, but its effects are far from utopian. In the decades since Lovaas’s work began, conversion therapies have traumatized generations of queer and autistic people by teaching them to hate themselves and hide, leading to mental illness, addiction and suicide.

Outside of clinical settings, the reward-punishment conditioning of behaviorism is ubiquitous. It structures our schools, drives our market economy, and is the fundamental psychology behind social media algorithms. Yet our education system is failing and our economy is collapsing, while the use of social media can contribute to widespread mental illness and misinformation. Whatever ‘true democracy’ looks like, we won’t find it in the coercive control of conversion thinking behaviorism.

“Behaviorism is a colonizing logic,” says Negrazis. “It erases and eliminates… our creative capacity, our cooperative relationships and our collective self-determination.”

So how can we conceptualize autism without thinking about conversion? LGBTQ2S+ people already know our own identities as expressions of humanity, not deviations from it. There’s no reason why we can’t learn to see autistic traits the same way.

Like queer and trans people, people with autism don’t have a condition that needs to be treated. Instead, says Negrazis, “[autistics] need support to help them identify the impact of trauma on their learning, their relationships, their ability to work and even their self-image.

While access to typical trauma-informed therapy would be an incredible start, ideally these supports would center autistics not as subjects, but rather as experts in their own experience. The autistic-led Authentistic Research Collective published a 2021 white paper that explored this; through a collaborative effort that viewed autistic traits as strengths, they developed a “co-production” process that prioritized flexible communication, sensory safety, and personal authenticity.

Members described their experience as “inspiring and often transformative”, and their findings found immense creative value in “gaining knowledge, building trust, security…recognition of our own experiences in others, and the search for self-acceptance and belonging”. Negrazis says we can build on these efforts to establish entirely new paradigms free from allistic and cis-heteronormative coercion.

“The psychiatric industry has done so much harm to both [autistic and queer] people,” they say. “The very foundations of psychology and counseling need to be dismantled and rebuilt by queer and autistic people themselves.”

About Antoine L. Cassell

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