Myth Bust Monday: ABA Is “Autism Conversion Therapy”

Happy Myth Bust Monday everyone! It has been awhile since our last Myth Bust post, and a great topic came up this weekend.  A visitor to our Facebook page posted a quote by Autistic Activist Amy Sequenzia underneath one of our pictures.  The quote reads: “I propose that every time we write or talk about ABA, that we also say Autistic Conversion Therapy.  Gay Conversion Therapy has a bad reputation now, even if it still happens.  Both “treatments” (tortures) have the same root. I want supporters of ABA to own their objective.  ABA: Autistic Conversion Therapy that uses torturous methods.– Amy Sequenzia

First, we want to thank Amy for her advocacy for the Autism community, and for her bravery in sharing her experiences.  Before responding to Amy’s quote, many hours of research, reading, and listening was done into her published works and blog posts.  It was an honor to read her work. The world of Autism Advocacy often lacks the voices of people with Autism, and many well-intended neurotypical activists and supporters may not fully understand the unique experience of living with Autism.  So to Amy, thank you for sharing your voice with us, and to the poster that shared her quote with us, thank you for amplifying Amy’s voice.

Second, we want to say how deeply saddened we are to hear that Amy had negative, sometimes traumatic experiences when she was a child.  Those things should not have happened to her from people she depended on for support.  Many years ago ABA was widely practiced in a very rigid way that did not take into account the individuality of the person receiving services – this is often called “Old ABA” or “Lovaas ABA”.  There are several self-advocates like Amy who report having negative experiences, and this is heartbreaking to hear.  No person should have been made to feel that way.  As self-advocates like Amy shared their stories, ABA practitioners listened.  There was a major shift in the field of ABA – and in special education overall – to provide services in a more sensitive, individualized manner.  This is often called a “person-centered approach.”  Having a person-centered approach means that, as practitioners, we respect the values,  preferences, and voices of the person receiving services. This includes talking to the person instead of about them, inviting the person to speak at their meetings and appointments, and obtaining consent from that person for treatments or therapies that impact them. This is something that, as practitioners, we value deeply.

Third, the idea of “Autism conversion” and “torturous methods” could not be further from what we believe.  We don’t believe in changing a person with Autism, or making someone “less Autistic.”  We practice based on the idea that all people deserve to have a voice, have individual traits, quirks, and characteristics, and be themselves.  We believe that all people can learn, and that it is our duty to teach each person in the way they learn, NOT the way we want to teach.  We believe that the person receiving services matters – their opinions, preferences, and goals matter to us.  Most importantly, we believe that the experiences of Amy and others like her do not represent the goals and objectives of ABA.  We know we can only speak for ourselves, but our objective is to help people learn and meet their potential, not to change who they are.

Fourth, we urge everyone to consider the quote widely used in the Autism support community – When you have met one person with Autism, you’ve met one person with Autism.  This quote is so important because Autism is a spectrum – there are countless ways Autism impacts people’s personalities, behaviors, and lives.  Similarly, when you’ve met one ABA practitioner, you’ve met one ABA practitioner.  Every group of people has good and bad. We have, unfortunately, heard stories from families and colleagues about Behavior Analysts who were inexperienced, incompetent, or worse.  Though Amy had a negative experience, there are countless others who report positive experiences working with ABA providers.  As the times have changed, ABA has changed, and we urge people who have had negative experiences to consider these changes before completely writing off a therapy that has benefited millions of people.  We take our ethical responsibilities extremely seriously.  While we can never take away the experiences Amy had, and certainly do not try to erase those experiences, we can make sure that, as individual practitioners, we do not perpetuate the practices or attitudes that led to her negative experiences.  Our practice of ABA is ethical, person-centered, and our only intention is on helping every person live their best life.

In short, ABA is NOT a form of “conversion therapy,” we do not employ “torturous methods” and the only objective we own is to educate, assist, and respect the people we serve. #mythbusted


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