Banning autistic “conversion therapy” in NZ

We ask the New Zealand government to investigate the consequences of all forms of conversion therapy, including conversion therapies that target autistic children, which are often branded as Applied Behaviour Analysis (ABA) or Positive Behaviour Support (PBS).

Inquiry into the consequences of conversion therapies for autistic children

Please sign our petition:

This initiative is part of the global Ban Conversion Therapies project, which keeps track of all the bans of conversion therapies that are already in place and of all initiatives towards bans.

You are also invited to attend our series of panel discussions towards a ban of all forms of autistic conversion therapies including ABA related to the petition below.

➜ Register and submit questions for upcoming panel discussions.

Why is this important?

We all celebrated to hear of the legislation being enacted that bans conversion therapy after years of campaigning by the LGTBQI+ community.

However the win does not go far enough. The same underlying techniques of torture and dehumanising coercion continue to be applied to autistic children.

Any legislation which is so selective as to ban only “conversion therapies” that target a person’s sexual orientation, gender identity, or gender expression is in itself discriminatory. If a government moves to ban the mistreatment of one minority in a particular manner but neglects similar mistreatment of other minorities it is more than negligent, it is actively legitimising prejudice. If a ban were to go through with specific reference to sexual orientation, gender identity, and gender expression alone, it would be much like an anti-racism bill that protected black people but left all other people of colour out in the cold.


Ivar Lovaas is the originator of “gay conversion therapy” and “autistic conversion therapy”. The techniques he developed and applied are today known as Applied Behaviour Analysis (ABA). ABA is still used for the “treatment of autism” in the US, the UK, Australia and New Zealand. This explains why autistic rights activism and neurodiversity rights activism are so important. ABA techniques are sometimes applied under different brands to obscure the connection to “gay conversion therapy”. The quote below captures the essence of the underlying assumptions and motivations:

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, originator of ABA

The NZ Autism Spectrum “Disorder” Guideline (2018)

Common behavioural problems include hyperactivity, attention difficulties, repetitive and ritualistic behaviours, self-injury, tics, and unusually strong interests. Problems with mood are common, as are social difficulties… All behavioural interventions are based on the science of applied behaviour analysis

No mention of the actual results that are achieved with ABA and “behavioural interventions”: depression, PTSD, suicidal ideation, social expectations that are toxic for autistic people, and toxic environments that create sensory overload. Instead anxiety and depression are presented as common “comorbidities” that are medicalised. The message to autistic people: suck it up and “behave” as society expects, and don’t disturb the established social order or else …

The “science” of ABA is nothing more than experimentation with tools of coercion and torture. And yes, you can apply “scientific rigour” to the process, but that in no way justifies coercion or torture.

The University of Auckland still teaches ABA (2021). In New Zealand certified ABA practitioners continue to advertise their services for children with “compliance” problems (2021).

Many autistic people who have been subjected to ABA and similar “treatments” end up with PTSD:

Nearly half (46 percent) of the ABA-exposed respondents met the diagnostic threshold for PTSD, and extreme levels of severity were recorded in 47 percent of the affected subgroup. Respondents of all ages who were exposed to ABA were 86 percent more likely to meet the PTSD criteria than respondents who were not exposed to ABA. Adults and children both had increased chances (41 and 130 percent, respectively) of meeting the PTSD criteria if they were exposed to ABA. Both adults and children without ABA exposure had a 72 percent chance of reporting no PTSD. At the time of the study, 41 percent of the caregivers reported using ABA-based interventions.

– Kupferstein, H. 2018, from “Evidence of increased PTSD symptoms in autistics exposed to applied behavior analysis.” Advances in Autism 4, 1 (2018): pp. 19-29. DOI 10.1108/AIA-08-2017-0016.

The autism industry has become a multi billion dollar global busyness opportunity. Torture and exploitation of autistic people is not only legal, it is sold as the ultimate money making machine.

Autism and gender identity

Members of the autistic civil rights movement adopt a position of neurodiversity that encompasses a kaleidoscope of identities that intersects with the LGBTQIA+ kaleidoscope by recognising neurodivergent traits – including but not limited to ADHD, Autism, Dyscalculia, Dyslexia, Dyspraxia, Synesthesia, Tourette’s Syndrome – as natural variations of cognition, motivations, and patterns of behaviour within the human species.

Discrimination against autistic people is comparable to the level of discrimination against LGBTQIA+ people 50 years ago. Within such a highly discriminatory cultural environment, many services from the autism industry must be considered unethical, and obtaining a “diagnosis” can be an invitation for potential abuse and exploitation. The pathologisation of autism has led to what some critical researchers refer to as the autism industrial complex.

Autistic people must take ownership of the label in the same way that other minorities describe their experience and define their identity.  Pathologisation of autism is a social power game that removes agency from autistic people. Our suicide and mental health statistics are the result of discrimination and not a “feature” of autism.

Major goals of the autistic rights movement include the following:

1. Liberation from the socially-constructed pathology paradigm
2. Acceptance of autistic patterns of behaviours
3. Education that teaches neurotypical individuals about autistic cognition and motivations, including communication skills for interacting with autistic peers; as well as education that teaches autistic individuals about typical cognition and motivations, including communication skills for interacting with neurotypical peers
4. Creation of social networks, events, and organisations that allow autistic people to collaborate and socialise on their own terms
5. Recognition of the autistic community as a minority group

– Autistic Collaboration Trust. “Communal definition of autism.” March 2019.

Multiple studies confirm that the suicide rates for autists are are more than twice (1.9 to 9.9 times) the rates found in the general population. Elevated rates of depression, anxiety, and suicide apply across the entire autism spectrum. These co-morbid conditions are a reflection of experiences made in the social environment rather than a reflection of autism specific neurology. The latest research confirms that bullying plays a major role.

– Autistic Collaboration Trust. “The dynamics resulting from the interplay of neurodiversity and culture.” July 2018.

The current study provides evidence that high levels of autistic traits may often be present in adults who have attempted suicide. Even when autistic adults and adults who suspected they were autistic were removed from the analysis, 40.6% of those who had attempted suicide scored above the threshold that indicates potential clinical concern.

– Gareth Richards et al. 2019. “Autistic traits in adults who have attempted suicide.” Molecular Autism 10, 26 (June 2019). DOI 10.1186/s13229-019-0274-4.

Making the world a safer place for everyone

Undercover autists as well as all other weird non-conformists are compromising their mental and physical health in toxic school and work environments on a daily basis. In W.E.I.R.D. (Western Educated Industrialised Rich Democratic) societies management by fear is the norm in most organisations, and groupthink is celebrated as a virtue.

Neurodivergence is at the core of creativity. Striving to be popular is incompatible with being creative. This is either the truth, or it is a case of autistic black and white thinking. Not wanting to be popular is what allows autistic and artistic people to act as agents of a healthy cultural immune system within human societies. Autism and other forms of neurodivergence are genetically-based human neurological variants that can not be understood without the social model of disability.

In the broadest sense, the social model of disability is about nothing more complicated than a clear focus on the economic, environmental and cultural barriers encountered by people who are viewed by others as having some form of impairment – whether physical, sensory or intellectual.

– Mike Oliver. 2004. “The social model in action: If I had a hammer.” in Barnes, C. and Mercer, G. (eds.), Implementing the social model of disability: Theory and research. Leeds.

Often those who can not speak remain the most misunderstood and the most misrepresented.

The vast majority of adult autists have no formal diagnosis, and in sick W.E.I.R.D. societies they can’t afford to be open about their neurology. The autism medical industrial complex insists that only those who have fallen off the cliff, whose mental or physical health has been severely affected by isolation, discrimination, and bullying, are eligible for a “diagnosis” of autism.

Our society has been constructed such that the only assistance available to autistic adults consists of an ambulance at the bottom of the cliff. If the severely injured autist is still alive, the assistance available addresses the acute symptoms of distress, without any thought being given to the toxic social environment that led to the acute crisis.

A disproportionate numbers of autists take their lives before receiving a “diagnosis”. This points to a violation of human rights, to institutionalised discrimination and bullying in our society, and not just to a lack of adequate crisis support services and healthcare services.

The journey towards a healthier and less W.E.I.R.D. society starts with the most powerful tool at our disposal – the introduction and consistent use of new language, and new ways of thinking about diversity and the human species.

To assist schools and universities in preparing for Neurodiversity Celebration Week from 15 to 21 March 2021 we have compiled a list of learning resources that allow people to familiarise themselves with the way in which neurodiversity and neurodivergence play out in people’s lives.

Banning ABA in New Zealand

The New Zealand government is already committed to banning gay conversion therapy.

Labour will ban conversion therapy, work with schools to provide gender neutral bathrooms and make sure healthcare is responsive to the needs of trans, intersex and gender diverse people if it is elected.

In addition, it will invest $4 million in existing Rainbow youth mental health services and review adoption and surrogacy policies with a view to removing discriminatory practices.

Labour Rainbow spokesperson Tāmati Coffey says the party is “relentlessly proud to support Rainbow communities” and has a plan to keep moving towards a more inclusive New Zealand.

“Labour has a proud track record on advancing equal rights; we led the charge on homosexual law reform, civil unions, and marriage equality. We’ve also made good progress this term by wiping historic homosexual convictions, providing additional funding for targeted mental health support and HIV research, and lifting the cap on gender confirmation surgeries.”

We have advanced a lot this term but there is more work to do to make sure all New Zealanders live free of discrimination because of their sexual orientation or gender identity.

“We will pass a law to ban the harmful practice of conversion therapy. Conversion therapy is based on the misguided idea that people are wrong or broken because of their sexual orientation or gender identity. This is fundamentally wrong.

– Radio New Zealand. “Labour promises ban on conversion therapy, rainbow mental health funding.” October 2020.

So far action from the government is still lacking.

Takatāpui are still fighting to stop churches harming their people after colonisation aimed to strip Māori and Pacific gender and sexual identities.

Justice Minister Kris Faafoi has committed to passing legislation to ban gay conversion “therapy”, which involves attempts to change a person’s sexual or gender orientation.

Takatāpui and other indigenous queer people say the practice has long been part of church efforts to colonise and reshape Māori and Pasifika sexuality and identity.

– Radio New Zealand. “Conversion therapy ban petition: Takatāpui ‘inherent to our culture’.” March 2021.

Autists and others who are disabled need your support

Now is the time for the New Zealand government to acknowledge that ABA is “conversion therapy” for autistic people and others who are disabled in our society. The time for change is now.

Beyond the formal petition, regardless of the country you live in, you can use the form below to add your statement of support for banning all forms of “conversion therapy” in New Zealand. The Autistic Collaboration Trust will keep you informed about progress of the petition, and the envisaged ban of all forms of conversion therapy.

The Autistic Collaboration Trust is incorporated as a charitable trust in New Zealand. The board of trustees consists exclusively of people who openly identify as autistic. The purpose of the trust includes development and delivery of training courses related to the goal of liberation from the pathology paradigm and the goal of acceptance of autistic cognition, motivations, and patterns of behaviour as natural variations within the human species.

Support for banning “conversion therapy” in NZ

As a Kiwi, I continue to voice my opposition to ABA and other forms of “conversion” therapy. In some ways I am grateful that I did not get an autism diagnosis until I was 60. I think the trauma from bullying and violence I received for being “different” would pale into insignificance compared the outcome from years of ABA. – Barry

I am a very late diagnosis at the age of 67; I am 70 this year. I am lesbian. I have a workplace history of working in women’s and youth services. I recommend reading Jess Hill’s book, “See What You Made Me Do” (2019) and see the high and startling similarities between domestic abuse and ABA. I am horrified we abuse children (and adults) this way and consider it legally acceptable. what kind of world is this? ABA is a form of barbarism as is/was Gay Conversion “Therapy”. Both are not therapeutic, they are abusive. The same behaviours have been banned in schools for neurotypical children. The same behaviours have been named as abusive in domestic abuse prevention legislation. Why is it considered ok to abuse children just because they are autistic? Using an outdated theory that has been successfully refuted by the LGBTIQA community, a theory written by an old white man? – Morgan King

I remember a time and a culture when conversion therapy in all its forms was considered with prejudice and suspicion. The Maori word for autistic means “someone needing their time and space”. When I saw the guidelines for 2018 I thought, “Um, no”. Applied behaviour analysis is not a science. It is a technology. And like all technology can be harmful and misused. When a technology converts “raw material” [like Lovaas said] … The person is building themselves, all the time. If you are going to talk about science, you talk about a way of looking at the world which brings on less fear, not more. Or doesn’t add to the fears that people already have about themselves and the world. Conversion therapy is big business. Torture with scientific rigor is still torture. There are many examples of this through recent and current history. – Anonymous

This abuse story about teenage psychiatry in 1980s Wales, where its own mania to control caused it to fail to save me from another place of harm, includes “the utter trauma, for any libertarian character, of the hard man nurse shouting in my face about ‘to get you in here and change you'”. That is what ABA’s concept is, a violation of having personal liberty. It is the entire difference between the free world and terrorist societies. Look how support defeats itself and turns into abuse as soon as it turns into force. – Maurice Frank

I am in full support of a ban on ABA and “conversion therapy”. In case it is helpful to anyone, here is a recent article I published regarding these two therapies.Jake Pyne, PhD

I am involved in healing cPTSD and other suffering caused ABA. Whether new or old ABA, it remains a coercive form of 20-40 hour a week drubbing seeking compliance, programming an individual using dog-training means that should never have been used on dogs either. Leave the programming/conditioning for robots I beg. – John Greally, Co-founder The Autistic Cooperative, Autistics Worldwide, Autistic Union

I fully support a complete ban of ABA. Living your life 24/7 with the external pressure to behave as someone you are not is causing immense and unnecessary harm. Autistic people need validation, not conversion. – Mia Jullig

It [ABA] clearly removes bodily autonomy and natural coping and learning mechanisms based on Neurology of an Autistic individual, replacing them with mechanisms that harm Neurology as it works against the natural state of the brain, causing PTSD and more in the long run. It can also appear to make them look happy as many fawn to please people since their natural actions keep them rejected. It also takes time for continuous use of incorrect natural coping and possible harsher conditions to set off a sudden burn out, crash, suicide, or depressive episode. It is also much unseen in children as they haven’t met the demands of adult life. Once an adult and these mechanisms continue to be used along with changing situation and additional pressures, the mental and physical injuries arw absolutely inevitable. This makes the therapy more dangerous as to parents they see it working, doing exactly what it is supposed to: train their Autistic child to pretend to be Neurotypical. This alone should be common sense that it is NOT a good idea and clear as day conversion type therapy, proven to be harmful to humans. – Jenan Skinner

4 thoughts on “Banning autistic “conversion therapy” in NZ

  1. I am involved in healing cPTSD and other suffering caused ABA. Whether new or old ABA, it remains a coercive form of 20-40 hour a week drubbing seeking compliance, programming an individual using dog-training means that should never have been used on dogs either. Leave the programming/conditioning for robots I beg.
    John Greally
    Co-founder The Autistic Cooperative, Autistics Worldwide, Autistic Union

  2. Many thanks for all the support for a ban of ABA and all forms autistic conversion therapy that is flowing in. This is so encouraging to see. It confirms the time for change is now.

    We are collecting all the email addresses and statements of support, and will keep you informed of further developments.

    The Autistic Collaboration Trust is gearing up for a formal petition. We have already been approached by a media representative who is investing ongoing ABA related “research” conducted by universities in New Zealand.

  3. ABA (autistic conversion therapy) is absolutely analogous with gay conversion therapy.
    ABA focuses on teaching autistic people to “not act autistic” through rewards and punishment.

    Autism is a natural variance, much like being transgender or gay, and no person should be considered less or punished just for being themselves. Any therapeutic interventions should be solely for the purpose of supporting autistic people to live happy, healthy, and self determined lives.

    Results are similar between gay conversion therapy and autistic conversion therapy in terms of mental health; autistic people who received ABA as children have much higher rates of PTSD as adults. While parents may sometimes believe that it has helped their child (to “not act autistic”), research shows that the majority of autistic adults (who were once autistic children) are absolutely against ABA for children. Research suggests that it helps non-autistic parents more than it helps their autistic children or other autistic people, and is actively harmful for autistic people.

    A study of 11,000+ people revealed that 72% of autistic respondents would not take a “cure for autism” if one existed, and only 14% said they would. In comparison, 34% of non-autistic respondents said they would not give a “cure” to an autistic relative, and 41% said they would.

    Autistic lives are difficult not because of autism, but because of stigma, prejudice, pathologisation, discrimination, and violence, of which ABA is a part.


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