TW: ABA, conversion therapies
(Edited June 21st)
One little known fact about gay conversion therapies is that they stem from Applied Behavioral Analysis (ABA), a “treatment” used on autistic children (Sequenzia 2016). Conversion therapies are used on LGBTQ+ individuals to force them to conform to heteronormative and cisnormative standards, and essentially “cure” people of their gender and/or sexuality (Week 2: Gender and Sexual Orientation). Similarly, ABA conditions autistic kids to adopt “average” non-autistic behaviors so that they can pass as non-autistic (Sequenzia 2016). ABA and conversion therapies not only have similar histories, but are both harmful and equate the idea of passing as “normal” as being “cured”.
One important thing to keep in mind is that queerness has a long history of medicalization and was even a diagnosis in the DSM until 1973 (or, specifically, “homosexuality” (Week 2: Gender and Sexual Orientation), while autism is still part of the DSM today. This medicalization justifies the “need” for therapies. ABA was developed by Ivar Lovaas at UCLA in the 1960s, and initially involved administering electrical shocks to autistic kids until they abandoned autistic behaviors (e.g., stimming) and adopted non-autistic ones (e.g., eye contact, spoken conversation) (Silberman 2015). After this technique was shown to make autistic kids seem less autistic (these kids adopted or abandoned certain behaviors out of fear), Lovaas teamed up with Richard Green to start the Feminine Boy Project, which involved using techniques similar to ABA to make a feminine assigned-male child more masculine in order to avoid the possibility of future surgery (Silberman 2015). They used the techniques on a child named Kirk (who later committed suicide), and once this was proven “successful” it was used on children who displayed “inappropriate” gendered behaviors until it was denounced in the 1980s (Silberman 2015).
ABA and conversion therapy emulate the phenomena of compulsory able-bodiedness and compulsory heterosexuality, respectively (McRuer 2010). Essentially, both are supported by the unquestioned assumption that it is inherently better to be heterosexual and non-disabled, rather than certain stigmas or social structures privileging certain bodies over others making it easier or supposedly more beneficial to be straight, cisgender, and/or non-disabled (McRuer 2010). Although many people in the U.S. denounce conversion therapies, not as many feel the same way about ABA, which continues to be the most popular form of therapy for autistic children. Maxfield Sparrow (2015) notes that many people believe ABA is now acceptable because it no longer involves physically harming autistic kids, but he argues that it continues to be harmful and still often involves physically hurting autistic kids. I remain critical of ABA because it is still rooted in normalization for the comfort and conveniency of non-autistic people, rather than the well-being of autistic people. In short, ABA continues to operate on compulsory able-bodiedness. Eli Clare (2007) questions the idea of medicalized treatments benefiting disabled people by summarizing the transition from freak shows to western medicine in the U.S. Although analyzing and attempting to change disabled people is considered more humane than making them freak show attractions, Clare argues that it is a more acceptable way of ogling at disabled bodies under the guise of ridding bodies of disability, regardless of whether or not disabled people consent to this treatment.
As an autistic person who has undergone various therapies to not “look autistic”—and who now often passes as non-autistic—I can confidently say that I am still and always will be autistic. Similarly, Julie Rodgers (2018) mentions that many people who “successfully” complete conversion therapy are not straight or cisgender, but simply adopt a “straight lifestyle”, or find an identity in christ rather than the LGBTQIA+ community. An increasing amount of people have denounced conversion therapies as unethical and damaging, and I believe it is time for more non-autistic people to consider why so many autistic people say the same thing about ABA.
McRuer, Robert. 2010. “Compulsory Able-Bodiedness and Queer/Disabled Existence.” Pp 58-65 in Sex, Gender, and Sexuality—The New Basics:Third Edition (2017), edited by Ferber, Abby L., Holcomb, Kimberly, and Wentling, Tre. New York: Oxford.