Ban of conversion therapies

“Conversion therapies” are pseudoscientific practices of trying to change an individual’s behaviour to conform to the social expectations of a particular culture using psychological and physical interventions.

Various jurisdictions around the world have passed laws against LGTBQIA+ conversion therapy. However, the same underlying techniques of coercion continue to be applied to young autistic children and other vulnerable people, as can be seen in this description of the scope of Applied Behaviour Analysis (ABA):

ABA has applications with a wide variety of client groups including those with intellectual and other disabilities, autism spectrum, childhood onset behavioural disorders, and people in brain injury rehabilitation and dementia care.

Applied Behaviour Analysis, School of Psychology, University of Auckland

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.

Now is the time for the governments all around the world to act and to ban all forms of “conversion therapy”. The time for change is now.

This project keeps track of all bans on conversion therapies and related initiatives towards bans of conversion therapies worldwide.

Conversion therapy ban index

Government commitments to ban conversion therapies

  1. Australia, Victoria, Ban of practices that aim to change a person’s sexual orientation or gender identity, including prayer and other religious practices (2020)
  2. Canada, Federal Government reintroduces legislation to criminalize conversion therapy-related conduct (2020)
  3. Aotearoa New Zealand, Ban on “conversion therapies” that target a person’s sexual orientation, gender identity, or gender expression (2020)
  4. United Kingdom, ban LGBT conversion therapy (2021)
  5. United States, 20 states, Bans on conversion therapy for minor clients on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity or expression (the first ban was enacted in 2012, and further bans have come into effect since then)

Initiatives towards banning conversion therapies

  1. Australia, Stop ABA being taught to psychology students and ban ABA altogether (2020)
  2. Canada, De-fund all IBI and ABA centres and redirect funding towards inclusive approaches (2021)
  3. Aotearoa New Zealand, Ban on all forms of “conversion therapies”, including ABA (2021)
  4. South Africa, Ban of nonconsensual Applied Behaviour Analysis (2021)
  5. United Kingdom, Ban Applied Behavioural Analysis for autistic people (2021)
  6. United States, Ban ABA Initiative (2020)
  7. United States, Texas, Don’t Fund Behavioral Coercion in Texas! (2021)

Unsuccessful attempts

  1. United Kingdom, Ban Conversion Therapy (2017)

Panel discussions towards banning conversion therapies

Alice Richardson, Kim Crawley, Laura Dilley, Pip Carroll, Rory, 20 May 2021
What is autistic conversion therapy? Until we ban Applied Behaviour Analysis (ABA) for autistic children, conversion therapy on LGBTQA+ children has not really been banned anywhere. What do we mean by a comprehensive ban on all forms of conversion therapies?

Allison Hoffmann, Jake Pyne, Terra Vance, Sarah S. Hernandez, 27 May 2021
What would learning environments that are optimised for the needs of autistic and otherwise neurodivergent children look like? How would neuronormative children learn and develop in such inclusive environments? Which organisations and interest groups are suitable allies?

A.W. Peet , Kim Crawley, Star Ford, Tania MeInyczuk, 9 June 2021
Globally, where are we at in terms of banning conversion therapies? How do we shut down derailing arguments about “new” ABA that primarily serve ABA specialists who don’t want to stop? Since conversion therapies such as ABA already violate many of the human rights stated in the International Convention on the Rights of People with Disabilities (CRPD), what gets in the way for this Convention to be a legitimate supraconstitutional document that ensures said rights are protected, instead of the afterthought it seems to be in these situations?

Alice Richardson, Jasper Poole, Naphaphol Suwanacheep, 11 June 2021
Challenges faced by autistic people in Thailand. How do we campaign against ABA in countries that so far have not had no one who felt safe to openly expose the dark side of ABA? As a musician and an artist, how can I become more involved?

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Historic background

This section provides a short overview of the dark history of the pseudoscience of “conversion therapies” for those who are not familiar with the context.

“Conversion therapies” that target autistic children are often branded as Applied Behaviour Analysis (ABA) or Positive Behaviour Support (PBS). However, over the years many further names have been invented in order to obfuscate the origins of the techniques used or to suggest that the techniques have been “improved” and are no longer harmful.

In 1961, [Lovaas] accepted a position as an assistant professor in the UCLA Psychology Department, where he spent the remainder of his career. Lovaas died at the age of 83 on August 2, 2010. During the next year [around 1962], Lovaas was referred only one client, Beth. To fill his laboratory space, he and his students devoted 6 h per day, 5 days a week, to Beth. Indeed, Lovaas admitted that, during this period, he spent more time with Beth than he did with his own children.

[In the 1960s] two articles presented his system for coding behaviors during direct observations and a pioneering investigation of antecedents and consequences that maintained a problem behavior, a forerunner of what is now called experimental functional analysis.

[Lovaas] resorted on rare occasions to contingent aversives. The aversives included low doses of electric shock for life-threatening self-injury or aggression displayed by institutionalized children with autism in the 1960s and slaps on the thigh for less urgent but still devastating problem behaviors displayed by children with autism in their homes in the 1970s and 1980s.

[In 1973] Lovaas was heartbroken when he saw that most of the children with autism had reverted to their pre-intervention levels of functioning. Along with his colleagues, he proposed several ways to improve outcomes such as starting intervention during the children’s preschool years instead of later in childhood or adolescence. However, even in the  Journal of Applied Behavior Analysis , where the follow-up study appeared, reviewers doubted that there was much empirical basis for Lovaas and colleagues’ proposals for increasing the effectiveness of ABA. After much back and forth the reviewers acknowledged the great importance of the study but also pointed out its limitations as a source of evidence for refining ABA interventions.

In the 1990s, Lovaas built on the 1987 study by co-authoring a long-term follow-up of children in the 1987 study, as well as several replication studies. He also obtained two federal grants to support replications by other investigators. His efforts helped gain widespread acceptance for early intensive ABA, despite ongoing debate over the quality of research on this intervention and the magnitude of its effects.

From the early 1960s onward, he sought to provide 30–40 h per week of individual teaching to children with autism—far more than was customary. [Critics] also questioned the extent to which available data justified recommending 40 h per week, as opposed to some lower amount such as 20–25 h. Despite having little objective evidence to counter these criticisms, Lovaas became more and more insistent over time that, if children with autism are to have the same learning opportunities that are avail-able to typically developing children, who learn all day every day, they must have 40 h.

Lovaas devoted much of his energy to advocacy on behalf of autism and popularization of ABA. In the 1960s, he helped found the parent organization now called the Autism Society of America.

Tristram Smith, Svein Eikeseth. “O. Ivar Lovaas: Pioneer of Applied Behavior Analysis and Intervention for Children with Autism” Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders, (2011)

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 in interview with Psychology Today (1974)

The techniques Ivar Lovaas developed and applied are still used in the US, the UK, Australia and New Zealand. This explains why autistic rights activism and neurodiversity rights activism are so important.

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 involvement of Ivar Lovaas and George Rekers in the development of LGBTQIA+ conversion therapy goes back to the early 1970s.

For two decades the federal government funded a brainwashing project to keep children from “acting queer.” This collaboration between ant-LGBTI (Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, transgender, Intersex) psychologists and “religious right” leaders, known as the Feminine Boy Project laid groundwork for current psychiatric abuses against transgender and gender-nonconforming people.

This was funded by National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH) from 1972-1986. The original stated grant goals were “treatment of prehomosexuality,” the idea that if children were kept from stepping outside gender stereotypes they wouldn’t turn out gay. When homosexuality was removed from the DSM (Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders) in the mid-1970s, this became “treatment of pretranssexuality,” conflating gender identity with sexuality, based in biased assumptions that anything other than stereotypical gender and heterosexuality were wrong. Children were declared “pathological” for behavior like boys playing with dolls, wearing dresses or helping in the kitchen, or girls climbing trees, playing with boys’ toys or wearing boy clothes.

– Cynthya BrianKate. “The Feminine Boy Project Still Threatens Gender-Nonconforming People”

Kirk Andrew Murphy, one of the first children subjected to “conversion therapy” committed suicide in 2003 at the age of 38.

Kirk Murphy was a bright 5-year-old boy, growing up near Los Angeles in the 1970s. He was the middle child, with big brother Mark, 8, and little sister Maris, just a baby at 9 months. Their mother, Kaytee Murphy, remembers Kirk’s kind nature, “He was just very intelligent, and a sweet, sweet, child.” But she was also worried.

“Well, I was becoming a little concerned, I guess, when he was playing with dolls and stuff,” she said. “Playing with the girls’ toys, and probably picking up little effeminate, well, like stroking the hair, the long hair and stuff. It just bothered me that maybe he was picking up maybe too many feminine traits.” She said it bothered her because she wanted Kirk to grow up and have “a normal life.”

Kaytee Murphy took Kirk to UCLA, where he was treated largely by George A. Rekers, a doctoral student at the time.

In Rekers’ study documenting his experimental therapy, he writes about a boy he calls “Kraig.” Another UCLA gender researcher confirmed that “Kraig” was a pseudonym for Kirk.

The study, later published in an academic journal, concludes that after therapy, “Kraig’s” feminine behavior was gone and he became “indistinguishable from any other boy.”

“Kraig, I think, certainly was Rekers’ poster boy for what Rekers was espousing for young children,” said Jim Burroway, a writer and researcher who has studied Rekers’ work.

As recently as 2009, a book Rekers co-authored, “Handbook of Therapy for Unwanted Homosexual Attractions,” cites Kraig’s case as a success. That was six years after Kirk Murphy took his own life.

For Maris Murphy, there is more to the story than what was written in case studies about her brother.

“The research has a postscript that needs to be added,” she said. “That is that Kirk Andrew Murphy was Kraig and he was gay, and he committed suicide.”

“I want people to remember that this was a little boy who deserved protection, respect and unconditional love,” his sister said. “I don’t want him to be remembered as a science experiment. He was a person.”

– Scott Bronstein and Jessi Joseph. “Therapy to change ‘feminine’ boy created a troubled man, family says” CNN, (10 June 2011)

Many autistic children who receive ABA therapy are nonspeakers. As these children age, they gain access to better communication tools. And when they do, these autistics often report horror stories from ABA therapy.

In many cases, these children don’t report their ABA horror stories until adulthood. It takes them that long to process the traumatic events that occurred and to realize they were wrong.

We wish these horror stories weren’t so common, but they are.

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