CW: Abuse, violence, radicalisation, discussions of traumatic practices and events.
I hope you’re all well. This is blog 2 of 5 that I’m writing for Pride 2021 about the intersections of queer and neurodivergent identities. If you want to know some facts, here is a link from Autistic Empire:
Now, on with the main event. Conversion therapy. We’re talking about it.
How to advertise child abuse
Because I’m a basic bitch, I’m on LinkedIn. Recently, I’ve been seeing memes with messages that disturb me.
Gently-lit and soft-coloured, with bland statements and quotes, they look harmless enough. That’s the point. This video explains more:
Watched it? No? Please do, because it’s important for the rest of the blog. It’s not very long. Don’t worry, I’ll wait.
This is what’s known as Pastel QAnon. The use of an aesthetic that is already present in order to radicalise people into more cruel and pernicious belief system. The video focuses on concerns about child trafficking and the conspiracy theories that are used to radicalise people towards the far right.
This, though, is not unique to QAnon. The lifestyle influencer memes, used to radicalised well-intentioned people (mostly white, predominantly cis-female) towards more extreme versions of their beliefs are widespread. I saw this image shared on LinkedIn recently:
I checked on the website that is in the bottom right corner, which seems to be completely above board and actually focused on hyperlexia and literacy issues. It may even be that the creator of the image genuinely feels that they weren’t saying anything that harms the people they seek to support.
It’s not that simple, though. Look at the language. “If they can’t learn the way we teach, we teach the way they learn.” The grammar of that is tricky. It’s possible to read it as if Ivar Lovaas encourages us, the teacher, to modify our approaches to fit the learning styles and needs of the child or young person. Everyone I saw comment on this post on LinkedIn certainly seemed to understand it that way.
But it isn’t. This is an advertisement for conversion therapy.
I spoke to the person who’d unknowingly shared it, they were happy with me discussing what happened on my blog, but asked me to anonymise them, which I have. They have since removed the post.
The wording is the thing here. What Ivar Lovaas is talking about is that we teach the child to learn in the way we see fit, as in: “If they can’t learn the way we teach,” he says, describing the fashion in which learning is supposed to occur, then, additionally, we (as teachers) “teach (them) the way they (should) learn.” There we go. It exactly that wording that is so pernicious, in that it sneaks in pro-conversion therapy discourse under the noses of people invested in their child’s welfare.
Conversion therapy is now widely known as torture and psychological abuse. The accounts of suicide and psychiatric illness, addiction problems and even violence caused by consistent traumatic experience have left their mark on generations of queer people. The point is always: this person is sick, we need to make them better. Their abnormality is a cancer that we need to extract and destroy, so the ‘real’ person can emerge. This person is always straight, cis and socially acceptable in every way.
But wait, isn’t conversion therapy illegal nowadays? It is in several countries, and the UK has committed to ending the practice, see this article: https://www.reuters.com/world/uk/uk-ban-lgbt-conversion-therapy-provide-more-support-2021-05-11/ Germany, Taiwan, Albania, Brazil, Argentina, Uruguay, Switzerland, Ecuador and Malta have banned the practice outright. In China there have been successful cases against it and it is banned in Victoria (Australia), half of the provinces of Canada and several US states, including California, New York and Illinois. The European Commission came out against the practice in 2018. The other Canadian provinces and territories, some American states, several European and Latin American countries and New Zealand are also considering bans.
The same underlying distrust of minorities is present in any majoritarian society. The history of psychiatry is littered with examples of violent abuses of power, enacted on the bodies of those who are different, including re-education camps for native and non-white populations. Those are a blight on the history (and present) of the world. I have no intention of showing these examples to you, they’re easily accessible if you look for them.
So, just ban it then!
Banning these abusive practices and ending the continued financial exploitation of queer people and their families is paramount and should be done immediately. However, even with a ban, not all LGBTQIA+ people will be protected from conversion therapy.
Most countries have limits as to what can be prevented and where the ban’s legal power ends. It may only apply to minors, as in Germany. It may be consented to. It may be allowed within the context of religious communities, or only banned in government-funded healthcare. It may be freely sold on the open market, or it may be advertised with stealth.
If you want to get conversion therapy for your child, all you need to do is google ‘ABA practitioner near me’. There, you’ve got it. ABA is conversion therapy. Like QAnon posts changing to Save The Children; they’ve renamed, reframed and rebranded. And they’re selling it with great success, in particular to parents and educators of autistic and neurodivergent people. They are the very same practices that are used to straighten out queers, developed by the same man, still sold and very, very popular.
What I am going to show you is a video of Chloe Everett, a neurodivergent student, speaking at TED in 2019. Please have a watch.
As she says, Ole Ivar Lovaas (who I will from now refer to as Ivar Lovaas) was a man who created a behaviourist approach to converting children, based on Skinner’s work on operant conditioning in rats and pigeons. If you reward ‘good’ behaviour and punish ‘bad’ behaviour, he hoped it would make autistic children “indistinguishable from their peers.” As she says, Ivar Lovaas used child abuse in order to stop children stimming. TEACCH (a form of less overtly cruel child abuse) was less successful in the US, as it wasn’t as well publicised.
Now, Autism Speaks, a company that sells ABA and other behaviourist interventions, also provides that across the world. In the US, ABA is widely popular and often the only voice present in discussions of the wellbeing of autistic people. Funding for special education support is often snapped up by Autism Speaks and the organisations it seeks to support. The vast majority of research into autism is either seeking for a cure or doing genetic research on the so-called ‘causes’ of autism. It’s usually something to do with guts and bowels. We will get back to this.
In a previous blog I wrote about the viciousness of conversion therapy and how a parent reached out for ABA teachers. It came into my suggested jobs on LinkedIn (that site again!). This blog is, really, a response to them.
ABA, in practice, is horrifying. When I was recently at a training for SEN teaching assistants, we were shown videos of autistic students being abused by staff who, in good faith, were believing that they were being kind and loving whilst the children under their care were suffering. This was awful, I needed to recover afterwards. In preparation for this blog, I rewatched those videos. It’s not nice. I will give links to the people who ask, since I don’t want to advertise child abuse on my blog.
Still, I was happy I was there. The neurotypical trainees couldn’t empathise with the autistic children in distress that we saw. I was able to say that these children would be going on to self-harm, potentially that day. That was hugely appreciated.
The lack of intuitive empathy from neurotypicals towards autistics is to blame here. Our humanity is routinely denied by those who seek to talk about us. A few years ago, the chief executive of Autism Speaks wrote a blog post in which she “equated having a child with autism to ‘not living.’” The step from ‘not living’ as a parent with an autistic child, to the autistic child being as good as dead is a small one. Scarily, it bears repeating that being autistic is, on the whole, pretty good (thanks to AuEmpire, whose writing is excellent and to-the-point in a way I’m not. Have a read there, too).
As Chloe says, “Not only were ABA and gay conversion therapy created by the same person, it uses virtually the same techniques.” Those differences are simply repurposed from queer people to autistics. The same central basis holds true: if you exist in a way that’s inappropriate, you need to be changed. If you are behaving in a non-gender essentialist way, you need to be punished.
“Why is it ok when a child is autistic, but for any other child, it is considered inhumane? When are we going to hold the same standards for children in ABA?” To this day, the Judge Rotenberg Center in Massachusetts, US, is using electro shock devices to deliver shocks to autistic people for behaving ‘autistically’.
As you know, the suicide rates are huge. The Swedish study I’ve referred to before has a 10x rate of suicidal completion in autistics. In the UK, 1% of deaths (pre-pandemic) are due to suicide. 11% of those were diagnosed autistic. Masking is a significant risk factor.
In the UK, PBS (Positive Behaviour Support) is used across the board, including within the NHS.
On Andrew Wakefield
Here’s where it all comes together. The modern anti-vax movement started in 1998 with Andrew Wakefield, being awful. HBomberguy (Harry Brewis) on youtube, is a wonderful essayist and has made a feature-length documentary on how the anti-vaccine movement, as we know it now, got started in the late 1990s. Please watch it.
The power of Wakefield’s lie has been huge. It has been an inroad to the far right for many people, primarily in America. White women in particular were radicalised, due to an understandable awkwardness many feel towards corporate medicine. The increase in autistic diagnoses since the 1970s (expertly described in Steve Silberman’s Neurotribes) also brought a movement to explain away our differences due to biological causation. Wakefield, as a former gastroenterologist, created a fake disease that somehow explained the eating issues many autistics have and linked it to an unappetising part of our anatomy.
What HBomb did not say was the main reason that this particular lie caught on so much. As autistic people, our lives are not worthy of life. I find it hard to watch or read materials that describe autistics in the 90s and 2000s, because the language is so pitying. We are not human. Therefore, if you wanted to delegitimise vaccines for your personal gain, the group to use is, well, us.
It will not surprise you that Autism Speaks still encourages and funds research into so-called Autistic Enterocolitis, as well as selling conversion therapy. ‘Cause of course they do.
The other day, on my youtube subscriptions, an old documentary about Stephen Wiltshire appeared (not that old, Stephen, if you’re here!) and I had to turn it off because of the language used to describe Stephen. It’s this particular mix of pity, fascination and disgust that accompanied discussions of homosexuality during my lifetime and that fuels discussions of trans issues now. Autistics are not people, somehow. Autistic children, therefore, are disposable.
Rhetorically, even Brewis himself falls into this trap when he refers to the child abuse committed by Wakefield. He says: “Some of these children weren’t even autistic.” This makes sense within the context of Wakefield purportedly doing research on a disease only developed by autistic children, but the underlying idea is that, if you are autistic, your life is not as valuable as your neurotypical peers’. I cannot imagine Brewis agreeing with that statement at all, but, as I discussed in the Autistic Coding blogs, being autistic has such a negative cultural reputation that our inhumanity is baked into the language.
As an aside, I’m not sure if anyone (perhaps Steve Silberman?!) has said this before, as it’s so logical; but, as the pathologisation of queer people was brought to an end in the 1970s, the pathologisation of autistics became all the more evident and culturally repressive. This is similar to Foucault’s arguments in The History of Madness, that mental illness was not a serious concern in medieval France until after leprosy was mostly eradicated. Intuitively, Ivar Lovaas and his theories pivoted away from gay-conversion, which has been a far more niche concern in recent years. The money was elsewhere.
Our dehumanisation has forced the anti-vaccine movement of modern times. We are seen as something to be eradicated from the earth. Anti-vaccine conspiracy theories have led plenty to be radicalised to the far right. The modern eugenics movement is based in the hatred of us and people like us. The gains in lesbian/gay acceptance have not caused a shift in power. The challenges to racist patriarchy have not undone the central power system that we live under. Fascist Germany’s T4 policies were not that long ago. The same language was used about us then as it is now. We are at risk.
I also heard Luke Beardon speak for AutAngel a few weeks ago. He spoke about how dehumanising the entire research literature on autistics was when he started specialising as a researcher. The behaviourist paradigm sets us up as less-than human. We need to keep on challenging it, which won’t happen without autistics at the heart of any movement.
All this is why I’m working with Stonewall to ask them to include ABA in their drive to ban conversion therapies. Right now, only the banning of conversion therapies for queer people is part of the proposed legislation. My point is that to end conversion therapy for queer people alone misses the wood from the trees.
Autistics are majority-LGBTQIA+ and, as I wrote last week, internalised homo- and transphobia are real, even for us. It’s indicative of the contempt in which we’re held by society that we are not seen as being able to make decisions about our gender or sexuality. That works its way inside, to fester and rot. We are vulnerable because we are autistic. Conversion therapy does not distinguish between autistic and queer behaviours. This is by design, as Ivar Lovaas didn’t distinguish between different unwanted behaviours himself. I remember hitting my own hands if I flapped them or held them in too feminine a way; I must have internalised something! An apparent majority of queers are neurodivergent , so if you want to get rid of your autistic child’s sexuality or gender, as well as their autism, then you can get ABA. For often thousands of dollars on the open market or through Medicare and Medicaid in the US, since Autism Speaks has cornered the market there.
If the UK ban on conversion therapy currently does not include ABA, PBS and behaviourist approaches on autism. The outcomes of this will be that only a small privileged group of neurotypical queers are protected. Our autism will be used to explain away our gender and sexuality variance. The friend I talked about in last week’s blog was told by a clinician that she couldn’t have been trans because she didn’t fall into a set of very limited categories, all neurotypical.
This happened less than fifteen years ago, in this country.
The amount of suicidality and addiction problems that are prevalent throughout the queer and autistic community clog together like hair down a shower drain. To drag on an already unpleasant metaphor; bleach won’t work. We have to remake the bathroom.
As I said last week, the idea that you could be autistic AND queer is still new for many people, even clinicians.
What it falls into is the regular dehumanisation of autistic and neurodivergent people. We are seen as inhuman and lesser-than. We are portrayed as monsters. We are to be pitied and feared and the presence and/or absence of sexual urges are fundamental to that (see my discussion on ‘Verplichte Figuren’ during my Autistic Coding series).
ABA is conversion therapy and conversion therapy is ABA. TEACCH and PBS are derivations from the behaviourist approach. If you want to stop someone in a meltdown from hurting themselves, perhaps try to not put them in a meltdown in the first place. If you want your child to be more normal, try and see things from their perspective instead of imposing yours upon them. If we, as a country, want to move on from eugenics, we need to see all queer people protected from conversion therapy; not just the privileged neurotypes.
ABA is, however, damaging even for straight and cis autistics. Why do they deserve to be ‘treated; with the same self-hate inducing poison that, under this legislation, queers would be free of? I’m usually not one to toot my horn for the straights, but some of my favourite mothers are (joke TM CR Deborah Frances White). She shouldn’t have had to be re-educated if she’d been autistic. This is the one exception to the rule where ‘what about the straights’ is not a dickish question to ask. If ABA is illegal for LGBTQIA+ people, then it should be illegal across the board.
The new eugenics is old again
Our dehumanisation has forced the anti-vaccine movement of modern times. We are seen as something to be eradicated from the earth. Anti-vaccine conspiracy theories have led plenty to be radicalised to the far right. The modern eugenicist movement is based in the hatred of us and people like us. The gains in lesbian/gay acceptance have not caused a shift in power. The challenges to racist patriarchy have not undone the the central construct of capitalism: inherent inequality is how resources flow up to the one people that already have it.
I am happy to work with Stonewall in promoting their anti-conversion therapy drive, #banconversiontherapy. Robbie de Santos, Director of Communications and External Affairs at Stonewall has this to say!
Conversion therapy in all its forms is harmful to individuals and communities. At Stonewall, we want to live in a world where every lesbian, gay, bi, trans and queer person is free to be themselves. That’s why, as part of the Ban Conversion Therapy Coalition we will keep campaigning the Government to bring in a full legal ban on LGBTQIA+ conversion therapy in the UK. A full legal ban on conversion therapy needs to include everyone, including those who are both neurodiverse (sic) and LGBTQIA+, and be effective across all settings, including faith, medical and therapy settings. Our communities have been waiting almost three years for the UK Government to follow through on their promise to ban all conversion therapy, the UK Government must publish a comprehensive bill now, as well as a clear time for its implementationRobbie de Santos, Director of Communications and External Affairs at Stonewall (he/him)
Thank you for your words, I 100% agree. We need to end conversion therapy for all, not just a privileged group of neurotypical LGBTQIA+ people. If desperate parents, like the parent who reached out for ABA practitioners near me a while back, feel the need to convert their children to neurotypical, then that’s first of all an indictment of a society that wants them to in the first place. We need to keep fighting. Our intersecting communities depend on it.
Say no to Autism Speaks, say no to Conversion Therapy, say no to ABA. #redinstead
This petition seeks to ban conversion therapies, in the UK, in all its forms. Please sign it, wherever you’re from. https://petition.parliament.uk/petitions/578616
Please add your voice to this petition, too. It’s to ban ABA in New Zealand, since the country is already planning to do away with queer conversion therapy. https://our.actionstation.org.nz/petitions/inquiry-into-the-consequences-of-conversion-therapies-for-autistic-children?source=rawlink&utm_source=rawlink&share=7f7e8314-41dc-4ef0-924d-2a9079bb8150
The end + Next week!
Phew, that was a big one! Next week, something lighter. I will talk about recent cultural products (books, films, theatre) that connects queerness and neurodivergence and celebrates them both. For this, I need your help. Please let me know your favourite recent films, books, podcasts etcetera, that have queer neurodivergent characters or by queer neurodivergent creators. I’ll pick the best and add them to mine!
Thank you, and I’ll see you next week.
P.S. As I had just finished writing this, it’s come to light that St Peter’s Hospital in London is no longer performing bottom surgery for trans men in the UK. This was the last place that f2m trans people requiring bottom surgery (such as phalloplasty and metoidioplasty) were able to receive it on the NHS. This is due to funding cuts, ideological in nature, that will cause queer people – a large amount of whom will be neurodivergent – to lose invaluable and life-saving healthcare. This is dangerous and needs to be reversed.
Some bits and bobs
I will be speaking at Autistic Pride Online on Saturday 19th June, in the after dinner slot, from 20:00 – 20:20. It will be pre-recorded, so no funny business with zoom this year. Hooray! Osime Brown’s family, Callum Brazzo and many others will be present. Please join, I’ll be there to watch, too.
Via the excellent @autisticaston (hi Aston!) online, I discovered @2dadscandoit. They are doing a podcast about adoption as a same-sex couple. One of them (Jack) is autistic and gay, too. This year, they are posting once a day about their journey as new fathers. This video reel on instagram is exceptional, give it a watch.
I had a lot more links than I had space to include this week, so I’ll add them here at the end of the blog. Apologies for the shambolic state. Treat them as a bibliography. Note: I include Guardian articles despite the paper’s recent pro-transphobia bias. Be aware that no news organisation is without bias. It is just sad that the previously only acceptable newspaper in the UK has drifted so far to the right on this issue.
https://www.theguardian.com/society/2017/jul/08/david-mitchell-son-autism-diagnosis-advice (this came out before the more recent discoveries about Hans Asperger, hence why Mitchell doesn’t mention it)
https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2021/jan/30/why-would-big-tech-police-anti-vaxxers-when-they-are-so-good-for-business (I apologise for Nick Cohen’s other views)
https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2223172/ This is a paper about the efficacy of PBS, also known as ABA-lite, which combines the approaches of ABA with ostensibly taking the voices of actually disabled people into account. This is, however, not the solution and only by a cultural paradigm shift, made by neurotypicals, can we be more healthy in this, admittedly already broken, society.
This is excellent on the funding of Autism Speaks and the sheer amount of dodgy self-enrichment that happens over the back of autistic people. The quote about the Autism Speaks chair comes from there.