The British Psychological Society, LGBT Rights, “Cure” … and Autism

I saw this on Twitter yesterday.

It’s an article by the British Psychological Society (the BPS) about how “UK organisations unite against conversion therapy”. The article basically affirms that attempts to cure people of stigmatised sexual orientation or gender identity have no place in civilised society. (Obviously.)

In it, Janet Weisz, Chair of the Memorandum of Understanding group, and Chief Executive of the UK Council for Psychotherapy, states that-

“Any therapy that claims to change [a person’s sexual orientation or gender identity] is not only unethical but it’s also potentially harmful.”

So far, so good.

“Therapy” that seeks to “cure” a person by stamping out “problem” behaviour is wrong, harmful and oppressive.

Now let’s think about this in relation to autism.

The cognitive leap required is not so far. People who know their history in this regard will know the relationship between the work of Ivar Lovaas with “effeminate boys” and the Applied Behaviour Analysis (ABA) practised (still – widely, and at great financial cost) on autistic children today.

ABA is a contested and controversial topic in the autistic/autism communities. Practitioners advocate and advertise it (well, they would, wouldn’t they?), parents report “success” as their child makes eye contact or asks for a drink. Success as children perform “normal.”

But let’s look at the other side of the debate-

  • Ex ABA practitioners on why they left ABA “When I started finding more blogs and articles from Autistic people describing the trauma they felt as a result of ABA, I was so horrified, I could barely finish reading them.”
  • Autistic adults summing up why ABA is abusive (including this extremely well argued and balanced post by Unstrange Mind that speaks to concerns of parents and autistic adults alike).
  • The parents of autistic people subjected to ABA writing warning letters to other parents describing the PTSD experienced by their children as a result (here)

The debate has been well rehearsed elsewhere and I don’t intend to repeat it at length here – other than to say that forced compliance (whether forced through coercive use of aversives or through “positive reinforcement”) is wrong. Training a person to behave like a performing monkey on demand, whether in the hope of changing their “inner psychology”, or to make them more socially acceptable is wrong. It teaches unquestioning obedience to powerful adults, it denies agency and it destroys trust – whether by means of carrot or of stick, it is wrong.

Now, let’s return to the BPS.

Let’s return to the assertion that attempting to change a person by means of “conversion therapy”  “is not only unethical but it’s also potentially harmful.”

Surely, the logical progression of this (absolutely correct) argument is the condemnation of Applied Behaviour Analysis (ABA) “therapies”, which have attracted condemnation from autistic people, from the parents of autistic people – and even from ex ABA practitioners.

Well, not quite.

In its Guidance for Psychologists on “Autistic Spectrum Disorders”, rather than addressing the “unethical [and] also potentially harmful” nature of ABA, the BPS not only uncritically references its use as one of a range of “interventions” to which an autistic child may be subjected, but it also advocates the “distinctive contribution of psychologists” to such endeavours (at p.4)

So there we go. Forms of “therapy” that are “unethical” and “harmful” for one oppressed group are “interventions” to which psychologists can make a “distinctive contribution” in respect of another.

This is outrageous and harmful, and if the BPS were to (consistently) engage more meaningfully and more effectively with the autistic communities about which they are so fond of producing “Guidelines”, they may learn a little about working in ways that are less “unethical” and “harmful” to those communities.

I dream of such a world.

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