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  • Writer's pictureAmy Duffy-Barnes

The Dark Origin Story of ABA "Therapy" Narrated by an Actually Autistic Therapist



Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA) therapy is a treatment widely used to modify behaviors in autistic individuals. However, many people in the autistic community argue that ABA therapy is harmful and unethical. One of the reasons for this is that the man who created ABA therapy, Ivar Lovaas, also created conversion therapy. Conversion therapy is a highly controversial and discredited treatment that aims to change a person's sexual orientation or gender identity.


In the 1960s, Lovaas began to develop ABA therapy as a way to treat autistic children. He believed that the best way to help these children was to use a reward/punishment-based system to encourage desired behaviors and discourage unwanted behaviors. Lovaas claimed that his treatment could help autistic children become "indistinguishable from their peers" and that it was the only effective "treatment" for autism.


However, Lovaas's views on behavior modification were not limited to autistic children. In the 1970s, he began to work on a new project: conversion therapy. Lovaas believed that homosexuality was a form of deviant behavior that could be cured through behavior modification. He claimed that he could change a person's sexual orientation through the use of aversive stimuli, such as electric shocks, and positive reinforcement.


Lovaas's work on conversion therapy was highly controversial, and his methods were widely criticized. In the late 1970s, the American Psychological Association (APA) issued a statement denouncing conversion therapy, stating that it was "based on a view of homosexuality that has been rejected by all the major mental health professions." Despite this, Lovaas continued to defend his methods and argued that they were effective.


The connection between ABA therapy and conversion therapy is deeply troubling. Both treatments are based on the idea that behavior can be modified through the use of rewards and punishments. Both treatments also view certain behaviors as undesirable and seek to eliminate them. The use of aversive stimuli, such as electric shocks, in ABA therapy is highly controversial, and it is a form of abuse. The membership of Applied Behavioral Analysis International (ABAI), the governing body of ABA practitioners, reversed its position on the use of electric skin shocks for behavior modification in May of 2022.


This means that up until May of 2022, the governing board of ABA therapy believed that it was acceptable to utilize electric shocks in order to teach autistic people to mask and imitate neurotypical behavior. Moreover, the idea that people with autism need to be "cured" or made "indistinguishable from their peers" is deeply problematic. It implies that there is something wrong with being autistic and that the goal of therapy should be to make people appear more "normal." This view ignores the fact that many people with autism have valuable skills and perspectives that are different from those of neurotypical individuals.


Also a personal observation by an actually autistic person, the idea that ABA therapy is not that different from dog training is deeply disturbing. Dogs can be trained to perform certain behaviors through the use of rewards and punishments. However, dogs are not human beings, and treating people like animals is dehumanizing and unethical. Just as shocking people is dehumanizing and unethical. Don't be fooled by claims of the "new ABA therapy" that is "neurodiversity-affirming" now. Even without electric shocks, it is still just dog training and several studies have indicated that many autistic individuals may experience negative emotional reactions to ABA therapy, including anxiety and depression.


In conclusion, the connection between ABA therapy and conversion therapy is deeply troubling. Both treatments are based on the idea that behavior can be modified through the use of rewards and punishments. Both treatments view certain behaviors as undesirable and seek to eliminate them. The use of aversive stimuli in ABA therapy is highly controversial and should be considered a form of abuse. The idea that autistic people need to be "cured" or made "indistinguishable from their peers" is deeply problematic. It is time to rethink the use of ABA therapy and to consider alternative treatments that are more respectful of the rights and dignity of autistic people.


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