Applied Behavioral Analysis was first developed by Dr. Anton Lovaas as conversion therapy for “sissy boys”. His tactics and philosophy were so abusive his star pupil died by suicide. As conversion began to receive criticism within the psych fields, and grew in popularity amongst homophobic churches, Lovaas repackaged his program as a ” cure” for autism. ABA is practiced today in virtually every special education classroom in the country.
Just as LGBT conversion efforts ranged from damaging to deadly, so have ABA programs and other attempts at “curing” autism. Both homosexual and autistic patients were historically subjected to prefrontal lobotomies. Electric skin shocks were used as punishment for gender nonconformity and are today still used as cruel vindictive punishment against disabled children for exhibiting distress under torture at the Judge Rottenburg Center.
On the lighter end, lots of conversion therapy was one on one with a quiet calm person giving lots of focused attention, including verbal praise for compliance with therapy goals. Some gay men started receiving positive and frequent attention from absent fathers only as part of a therapy plan to make them more macho and therefore straight.
ABA is often like this too. A young woman with a friendly demeanor praises the autistic child for compliance with allistic social norms, like making eye contact. The abusive message, that autism is a defect and being allistic is better, can come from a cheerful young behaviorist with fun toys in her tote bag. The one on one attention and praise can feel worth it, for a time.
Adhering to rigid gender roles and suppressing homosexual behavior doesn’t make a queer straight. It keeps them hidden in a closet, constrained by rules and lies. When a queer person breaks free, we are beginning to know that’s a victory we should be praising. Adhering to rigid social roles and suppressing stimming behavior won’t make an autistic person allistic. It keeps them hidden in a closet. Unfortunately we celebrate the closet, and villify the escape.
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