“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.
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).
This initiative is part of the global Ban Conversion Therapies Autistic Collaboration project, which keeps track of all the bans of conversion therapies and related initiatives towards bans of conversion therapies worldwide.
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.
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
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.
– 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
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.