ABA, Conversion Therapy, and The Man Who Started It All

ABA, Conversion Therapy, and The Man Who Started It All

To start this blog post off, I must put a heavy content warning for the reader, especially if they are an ABA/Conversion Therapy survivor. In fact, any image that we've made for this blog post that could be a quote or something of Lovaas is nested below because of how triggering it may be for some readers.

Often times we in society, specifically American culture, talk about conversion therapy, but not everyone does understand that the same person who invented conversion therapy also invented ABA. 70 percent of autistic folks are LGBTQ+, and so we need to make a note that autistic people in society have likely been put into both conversion therapy and ABA (ABA is more common). To start off, I'll dive into what each therapy is, and then talk about the person invented these therapies to follow.

What is ABA?

Applied Behavioral Analysis, or ABA, is a type of behavioral therapy that is used to "treat" autism. Note: autism is not fixable, treatable, or erasable, and just needs to be embraced by everyone in society. ABA views autism as a horrible "disorder" that needs to be cured. Anti-vaxxers who are in ABA view autism as a "disease". For those who do not study Psychology, there is a difference between the words 'disease', 'disorder', 'disability', and 'natural variation'. Autism, to be very clear, is a disability and a natural variation in the brain.

ABA uses the following techniques in therapy to teach autistic people to mask their disabilities:
  1. Planned Ignoring: The name clearly states what it does. The caregiver or therapist will choose to ignore a child's behavior. This is problematic for many reasons. It teaches the child the following:
    • That the child's autistic behaviors don't matter to the parent or caregiver.
    • That the child's self-esteem, self-worth, confidence, and goals don't really matter to the parent and/or caregiver.
    • That the child's emotions and needs do not matter to the parent/caregiver
    • That being autistic is a burden, rather than something that is a natural part of who we are.
    • That pattern after pattern through the autistic brain shows that ABA therapists are not as receptive as they claim to be. 
    • That self-stimulatory behavior is "inappropriate". 
    • Those self-injurious behaviors (SIBS) that exist are "caused by the autistic person alone."
      • How do we change all of these concerns?
        • Self-stimming: First of all, stop. Think about how much harm this may do to the autistic child. Why? How? Self-stimming is a stress-relieving behavior and comes in many forms. When a BCBA or BT, or whatever title it is doing this, the problem is that they are teaching the child to stop their own ways of self-regulation and self-care. The person must (if they are to learn from the autistic themselves) not try to eliminate this behavior because it is needed for everyday success and self-care. 
        • SIBs: The autistic is likely to use self-injurious behaviors because their environment is not accommodating. The environment is overwhelming, and they often are unable to regulate due to the environment around them. How? Because the parent may be overwhelming them with constant conditioning demands imposed on them every day while teaching them to mask. Masking, as psychologists have pointed out, is very bad for the autistic person's mental health, but society blames the autistic person for not doing what they want them to, rather than listening to advocacy. Redirection is needed ONLY in times of SIBs. If it occurs any other time, it only further re-traumatizes 
        • Forced Eye contact: Why ignore a child if they don't give you eye contact? I mean, that just seems so illogical. Let them look wherever they need to in order to socialize, unless they are staring at parts of your body that violate your sense of safety, etc. 
        • Self-Esteem: Ignoring an autistic person for validating their own ways of self-care, their own ways of boosting their own self-confidence may occur. If this does, the best thing to do is to remind yourself that, like NTs, autistics are people too, who deserve to feel accepted. 
        • Autistic identity: This one is quite obvious; if they are advocating as a child or as an adult, and there is no acceptance, change that. Question your own interpretations of human behavior. Behavior is a construct for autistics. Don't understand why they may be doing something? You don't have to in order to treat them like a person.
        • Emotions and Needs: Don't ignore a child's emotions. As a friend once shared an analogy to understand my alexithymia, she compared it to a car engine. And this is not to say that autistics are machines because we are humans. No, the more we are overwhelmed, the more the brain is overworked and not able to "run as effectively". Needs may mean that you have to your ways of understanding accommodations. Listen to them, don't shut them out.
      • Ignoring these behaviors is not good because it teaches the autistic person that they cannot regulate, which in turn over time, teaches them that their internal lived experiences, as well as external, do not matter to the parent or therapist. Over time, it is noticeable, as autistic people are pattern-readers, and it just traumatizes the person. How? It teaches shame, guilt, lowers self-esteem, and perpetuates non-verbal gaslighting, harassment, lack of consent, etc.
  2. Extinction: The name is another word for punishment, as they are synonymous with each other.
    • Punishment comes in many forms, mild to extreme in ABA. The following punishments are typically given:
      • Physical/Verbal/Emotional/Sexual abuse by the parent
      • Restraint with ropes, straight jackets, etc.
      • Seclusion and Isolation
      • Non-consented touching
      • Electroconvulsive Shocks 
      • AAC Devices being taken away
      • Forced, non-consented taking away of toys
      • Emotional and autonomy invalidation/dismissal
      • Denying advocacy and silencing 
      • Manipulation/Gaslighting
      • Taking away opportunities/finances/the right to stand up for oneself 
      • Filicide
      • Threats
      • MMS/Chelation Therapy/GcMAF/GAPS/etc. to "cure" autism. Any bleach "cure".
    • What does this do? 
      • It reinforces trauma, abuse of power, hegemony, authority, and the need to deny autistic people their rights to who they are as people and as individuals.
    • Any of the concerns mentioned in the planned ignoring section can be applied to any other ABA technique here. Just please stop fixing autism, okay?
    • Punishment is used when the parent, caregiver, or therapist is not getting what they need out of conditioning. Conditioning doesn't work for autistic people because operant conditioned is a flawed way of observing behavior and is only one way of looking at behavior. 
      • How do we accept autistic behavior and move out of punishment?
        • If you really have to ask any autistic this, go see a therapist to talk about the guilt. But please do not sit there and blame an entire community for your wrongdoings.
    • Autistic people are silenced when we speak out about these things.
    • ABA therapists get a kick and a rise (a negative power control) out of punishment. When confronted, we are gaslit. ABA causes Complex Posttraumatic Stress Disorder.
  3. Reinforcement: Reinforcing a rewarded behavior.
    • The problem with this is that Operant and Classical Conditioning were invented by white cis-gendered, straight, able-bodied men who were very intent on a system of behavioral management and controlling things that they didn't understand.
    • It teaches the child that their behaviors are "wrong".
    • It fosters the excessive need for the parent to control their child, which leads to abuse. 
    • Reinforcement becomes manipulative when the child doesn't do the task after repeated attempts to re-direct what is not desired occurs. 
      • Show compassion when this is occurring towards yourself if you feel like you don't understand the behavior.
      • Blaming something is understandable, but if you want to be mad at something, blame society and history, rather than your client.
      • If you really feel the need to change your ways, just stop using operant conditioning on autistic behaviors. If you don't know what this means, reach out to the autistic community for our advocacy.
  4. Redirection: Re-directing a behavior is needed alone if it prevents self-injurious behaviors or any violence or harm directed at others. 
    • When this occurs, many times, a parent feels the need to punish. Punishment doesn't help. It only encourages the behavior seen over and over. 
    • Redirection shows time and time in our community about how PTSD can affect memory loss. 
      • Don't fix, deny, lie, and defend the act of redirection if it's not being used for SIBs. 
      • Redirection can confuse the autistic, so stop confusing and don't redirect.
      • Ask yourself what the need for redirection is. If it's not for SIBs, then don't do it.
  5. Positive Behavioral Supports (PBS):
    • Micro-aggressions still can cause trauma. 
    • PBS', while they may be less harmful, are still harmful.
    • People most of the time will think in black and white, so think of extremes alone will not help you in your understanding of why ABA/PBS/Behavior Modification is traumatizing.
    • Positivist therapy approaches are fundamentally flawed because they are a very western-based approach to therapy. Colonization has affected how we treat human beings; therefore, positivity doesn't always make someone happier. 
      • Negative Reinforcement still reinforces operant conditioning.
      • Skinner and Watson were white men who wanted power and allowed their bigotry to unfold in their work.
      • Behaviorism is a very flawed field. 
    • Ways to rebuild this?
      • Stop addressing the autism in your therapist-client goals in a negative light
      • If you're a music therapist, occupational therapist, or speech-language pathologist, then use stimming and other autistic regulation techniques that have been involved in our culture as your goals in therapy.
      • Stop working in ABA.
      • Encourage parents to take their kids to other types of therapies.
      • Don't work from the inside, unless you feel the need to expose. Why? The US government has already claimed that ABA doesn't work.
      • Start asking the autistic person for ways in which they can help you understand them better.
      • If they are a child, then ask the child and if the child doesn't understand or is too young, reach out to the community.
      • Give yourself compassion and don't blame yourself for history's ableism. Do your part to help change the system. Allyship is earned, but if you're continuously attempting to be reflexive, that is all the autistic community needs from allies, besides using your positions of power to make a change and a difference. 
  6. Behavior Modification:
    • BM is problematic because it teaches shame in autistic behaviors, communication, and teaches the autistic that the only way that something is earned is through reward and punishment. 
    • BM has been existing since before the 60s for autistics in the US; however, people did not have a name for it until the 60s.
  7. RDI Therapy
    • A "therapy" that thinks it is helping others have "healthier relationships" by having the autistic give into everything the BCBA wants.
    • If your goal is to teach people to have better relationships, coercing autistic people into non-autistic ways of having relationships is just another form of emotional and verbal abuse. Empathy, communication, trust, and honesty go both ways. NTs have a hard time giving empathy back because they look at us as the ones who "lack empathy", which is a stereotype. 
    • RDI is harmful and traumatic and only teaches the autistic that in order to have successful relationships, they must give into the demands and abuse. They must give into what is referred to as a "normal" relationship with someone who constantly undermines them and does not accept them. 
    • It seems as though ABA and other types of behaviorism demand people to change, yet these people themselves refuse to grow and change out of their abuse and perpetuated harm. 
Noting that the following feedback is genuine, and while I may be direct in my language, autistic people are direct, not due to personality, but just because we don't communicate in indirect ways. Communication differences are needed to be accepted through a receptive ear.

Conversion Therapy

The LGBTQ+ community has faced an abundance of challenges with Christians and Catholics over the years. It is not a sin to be LGBTQ+, yet an abundance of human beings on this planet seem to think that someone else's sexuality or gender seems to personally affect them. Many autistics online over the years have argued that conversion therapy is similar to ABA. Why? You'll see the similarities the further you read along. While the LGBTQ+ identity and the autistic identity aren't directly the same, they share a common theme: oppression towards minority groups.

Many Christians seem to have this belief that if they have the right to tell others they're sinning without looking at their own biases and bigotry. If the behavior you're imposing isn't intentional, then great, but it doesn't mean that you're not biased. The bible was written by human beings centuries ago, and yet many Americans think that by self-imposing their own beliefs (which are separate from identity) can somehow save them from going to hell. They often times forget that not everyone has the same religious beliefs. Here is an analogy that I often love to give to people who are trying to understand why LGBTQ+ people aren't marrying the opposite gender, etc:
  • LGBTQ+ folks are like the mountains. You can try and deny our existence, tell us it's a lifestyle or a choice, etc., but at the end of the day, that sexual attraction and/or gender dysphoria (which was removed from the DSM years ago-- keep up with the times, Queerphobes! Please stop using your religious beliefs to justify bigotry.) still exists and is still there at the end of the day. They don't go away. You may personally dislike our identities, but it doesn't give you the right to disrespect and continue the oppression towards the person who is in the community just because you don't understand the LGBTQ+ identity. 
What happened to the need to respect others' religious beliefs? Is that not a performative act? Does it somehow justify the ignorance still? Yes. I am not a performative ally towards POC, so why be a performative ally towards LGBTQ+ folks and disabled folks, including autistics? The world doesn't always revolve around religious beliefs if anyone has ever studied Philosophy. Some of us autistics, like me, are heavily into philosophy, science, sociology, and psychology. We love studying society and human behavior because it's considered a special interest. That man Mozart? His special interest was music. Society valued his mindset years ago, yet today we don't look at autistic people in the same ways. 

What does conversion therapy exactly do? We always bring it up in this society in the news and in other places, but the techniques are complex. Conversion Therapy is otherwise known as "Reparative Therapy". The "correction" of making an LGBTQ+ person straight and cis-gendered, because many Christians believe that being LGBTQ+ is somehow a "choice", all because many still have the belief that is a "sin". Because the bible is perceived as factual by some people, they feel that they have the right to impose this into other people's lives. ABA, like conversion therapy, isn't evidence-based. It is pseudoscientific.

Many psychologists before the 2000s were queerphobic. The following people used conversion therapy methods:

Sigmund Freud

  • To the person who hasn't studied psychology in school, we know that Freud was the founder of psychoanalysis. He was the one who started the study of the human mind through the analysis of talk therapy. This man originally was from Austria. 
    • Psychoanalysis is the understanding of both the theory of how the mind operates and a way of treatment methodology. 
    • Freud believed that homosexuality could be removed through the process of hypnosis. This is largely pseudoscientific in multiple ways.
    • He wrote a paper in the 1920s called "The Psychogenesis of a Case of Homosexuality in a Woman", which discusses his views on women and homosexuality. He particularly saw that the parents of a woman wanted to change her sexuality because they had feared she was a lesbian.
    • "Freud wrote that changing homosexuality was difficult and possible only under unusually favorable conditions, observing that 'in general to undertake to convert a fully developed homosexual into a heterosexual does not offer much more prospect of success than the reverse'." Therefore, the man did not view homosexuality as "curable".

Other Individuals who supported Conversion Therapy:

Sándor Ferenczi (he thought it was "curable"), Anna Freud (Freud's daughter-- she thought it was curable), Melanie Klein (she used the Oedipus Compex in her understandings through her work), Wilhelm Stekel (he thought it was a "disease"), Edmund Bergler (he violated ethics, was violent and forced cures). Current modern-day conversion therapy does still exist, and in some states it is illegal. It should be in every state.

Conversion Therapy has used the following techniques in past/present in punishment:
  • Behavior Modification
  • Anti-LGBTQ+ Ministry
  • Reparative Therapy
  • Sex Therapy
  • Lobotomies (past)
The similarities are non-surprising. In the 1900s, autistics were lobotomized, they had to endure behavior modification and a lot of queerphobia. Homosexuality was viewed as a mental disorder during the time. Nowadays it is not. Conversion therapy is banned on/in a total of 20 US states, and still, the US has more work to be done. Yet, ABA is banned currently in 0 states. How do we improve conversion therapy? By keeping religion and government separate. Also, by banning it permanently in every country and place in existence. Homosexuality is not a mental disorder.

Ivar Lovaas... The Man Who Started It All

Source: ASAT

Lovaas was born in 1927 in Norway. He was a psychologist. ABA therapists praise him; however, he has a very dark, dark history, and yet the ABA field does not paint him in a dark light. They only look at the things they want to because they don't want their field to end. This is an agenda that does not fit into ethical therapy. Yet, he's actually not the only person who started behaviorism. He's the one who pushed his type of therapy onto people; however, Skinner and Watson created the notion of Behaviorism. Operant Conditioning and Classical Conditioning are both fundamentally only two ways of observing behavior; therefore, behavior is a construct.

Everyone knows Lovaas' famous quote, which is:

"You see, you start pretty much from scratch when you work with an autistic child. You have a person in the physical sense — they have hair, a nose and a mouth — but they are not people in the psychological sense. One way to look at the job of helping autistic kids is to see it as a matter of constructing a person. You have the raw materials, but l you have to build the person." -Ivar Lovaas

Lovaas thought that physically hitting a child for them to do what the parent wanted them to do was socially acceptable. This encouraged the parent to actively learn to physically abuse their child. People will say, "Oh, this happened in the 60s, so what?" The caregiver still does this today. It happens and domestic violence reports are not taken enough into account within the autistic population due to stigma and false reporting by researchers, therapists, and parents. Parents are not the voice of their child. Only the child knows what they are dealing with, not the non-autistic parent.

Examples of this abuse by the researcher Bernard Perloff, who continued Lovaas' work are below:

"Researcher Bernard Perloff and a patient named Billy — began when Billy did not pay attention during his speech lesson. It ends with Billy in tears," (Neurodiversity.com, 2020). Source: Neurodiversity.com

Steve Silberman, when he wrote NeuroTribes, mentions Lovaas' first patient: Sarah. Sarah was autistic, which disproves Kanner's male child syndrome and the extreme male brain theory written by Simon Baron-Cohen. Billy was also mentioned in NeuroTribes and Billy was horrendously mistreated.

But Sarah wasn't the only female he worked with. Pamela was shocked by him. Photos are below:

All three photos are from the source: Neurodiversity.com

"Punishment for Pamela: an electric jolt: When she resumed her habit of staring at her hand, Lovaas sent a mild jolt of current through the floor into her bare feet. It was harmless but uncomfortable. With instinctive cunning, Pamela sought to mollify Lovaas with hugs. But he insisted she go on with her reading lesson She read for a while, then lapsed into a screaming fit. Lovaas; yelling "No!", turned on the current. Pamela jumped — learned a new respect for 'No'," (Neurodiversity.com, 2020).
Source: Neurodiversity.com

She didn't learn a new respect for the word no towards him because she was being forced into what he wanted. She wasn't the only child he shocked. Parents did nothing about it! No one in the 60s stood up to him.

Lovaas started this while having dinners with these parents, getting them to drink and convincing them to abuse their children, (NeuroTribes, 2015).
Source: NeuroTribes

The use of ABA created the refrigerator mother stereotype. Ivar Lovaas would infer that it was the parents who were causing their child's autism, and autism is genetic, has genetic mutations, and most (not all, but most) parents nowadays still fall for the stereotype. They do not reach out to the autistic community for feedback. Reaching out to autistic adults for advocacy is really key to learning more about autism. Furthermore, the language directed towards autistics about ABA by BCBAs has been really harmful. We have blog posts and stories published by ex-ABA therapists. We have screenshots of evidence by autistic people about why ABA should not be reformed-- yet, these voices are actively shut out and dismissed. Something that takes way too long to change when considering the safety of the community it is harming, is dangerous. This is why it needs to be banned, simply because ABA, at the end of the day, is not safe. Autistics do not have to say yes to future generations enduring this abusive therapy. It's not ethical, it's not evidence-based, it does not speak for the entire community, and it was built off of the abuse. This is why autistic-led organizations are forming together to ban ABA, as well as allies. When a child is put through 40+ hours a week for a "therapy" and it's considered "mandatory" by the government, the state, and country (especially when it is court ordered), it is considered a dangerous therapy to the community it is trying to serve. We do not have to apologize for wanting social justice, change, and equity. We do not have to apologize for wanting autistic civil rights. We cannot change the system from the inside, seeing as though people have tried for years. Behaviorism was built on ableism and it doesn't care about how it may be treating its patients in the "therapy" space. ABAI defended the JRC's actions last year, as well as previous years when confronted about the JRC and it's electroconvulsive shocks. Autistic BIPOC that are LGBTQ+, non-christian, and multiply disabled are still are enduring this abuse every single day. It's not just privileged folks who are.

When autistic people talk to BCBAs, it always ends in immediate defensive commentary from BCBAs even after autistic people have tried to talk to them about why it's harmful in effective, educational, professional ways. Autistic voices are valid because when we're undermined by BCBAs for the ways in which we communicate, it undermines the very lived experiences of oppression we go through. This entire blog post assumes no one is perfect. Autistic ways of communicating are not invalid ways of communicating. They end up tone policing us. When someone does nitpick the autistic for their language solely based on biased perceptions, they actively dismiss their autonomy. NT's have autonomy already accepted within today's society. We notice you, BCBAs, when you do this. How would you feel if you were told to stop being you? How would you like it if any of the techniques mentioned above were done to you? Where is your empathy? Autistic people do not lack empathy. You want us to not be autistic, yet you all are unable to understand that this level of violence has got to stop. It is a continuous problem when a therapy field promotes violence towards its patients. Autistics do not condone abuse, and when you tell parents how to train their child to be "normal", it's not consenting. Quite frankly, you all are behaving unprofessionally and unethically. ABA, RDI, PBS, and Behavior Modification therapies are all extremely harmful. Yes, even PBS is harmful. Which brings me to my next point: centrism is really harmful to today's society. You cannot be neutral on the side of the oppressor. Being neutral means continuing to put up with abuse. I will not sit here and apologize for the 150+ deaths and injuries that have occurred at the Judge Rotenburg Center since 2007. I won't apologize for the advocacy nor the persistent activism. Therapists are not to be bragging about how they got their client to a certain level of autistic masking. It damages their mental health. 

These comments and examples can be found on Twitter and Facebook. It's not just the comments that appear to be obviously defensive, either. Some are not obviously defensive, but still are. Examples of comments that are subtle but still oppressive:

It can be quite frustrating when someone says this because they are not an ally. Allyship is earned, not a free given. If you're willing to put the work in, then it is. But if you're questioning why someone is upset with you, then the proper thing to not do is dismiss that person's perceptions right off the bat. 

ABA techniques are just as bad as those who are in other fields using them and also working as BCBAs. The BCBA here is contradicting themselves and gaslighting people. 

More examples of this type of dialogue and why its harmful can be found here.

We need to start listening to autistic voices. They are being trampled on. The suicide rate is at 72 percent. That needs to change.

More Resources:

The Great Big ABA Opposition Resource List