Conversion Therapy, Actually, Is All Around
How Dr. Dobson, ABA for autistic children, and "pray-away-the-gay" theology is connected
TW: discussion of gay conversion therapy and abusive experiments conducted on autistic children
Welcome to God is My Special Interest, a newsletter at the intersection of late-diagnosed neurodivergence and high control religion. I re-read and analyze books like The New Dare to Disciple and The Strong-Willed Child by James Dobson so you don’t have to! As you can imagine, my therapy bills are substantial. If you would like to become a paid subscriber to this newsletter, you get access to one extra essay a month, discussion threads, and commenting privileges--and you also support the work that I do!
ABA—short for applied behavioral analysis—is the most common form of therapy or resources given to autistic children around the world. Just this week, while in the weeds of disability paperwork and phone calls for one of my children, ABA was offered to me as one of the few services available through the state.
ABA claims to help integrate autistic kids into the world/classroom/workforce, often by forcing them to mask their autistic traits and sensory experiences. Historically, it’s used rewards and punishments, similar to training animals, to try to train autistic children to behave in ways that make the allistic (non-autistic) people around them more comfortable. It often promotes goals like stopping kids from stimming, forcing eye contact, or remaining in environments that are overwhelming on a sensory level. Rather than focusing on creating a life that is sustainable for autistic people and a community that accommodates diversity, ABA has largely tried to force autistic people into a neurotypical box at the expense of their own emotional well-being and at the cost of much suffering. Here’s how the Autism self advocacy network puts it: “ABA wants children to look and act like they are not autistic. It teaches autistic children to hide the things that make them “look” autistic.” Applied Behavioral Analysis therapy teaches autistic kids to hide sensory pain, and increases the likelihood of PTSD and suicidality in autistic people.
One of the founders of ABA, O. Ivar Lovaas, didn’t believe autistic kids were fully human. He believed they could be made/molded/formed into a human with the right kind of interventions and behavior modifications. He pioneered the ABA methods, and it became popular with researchers hell bent on trying to shape/mold other communities to conform—namely, conservative people looking to eradicate the presence of gay, transgender, and gender-nonconforming people. That’s right, the same person who helped create conversion therapy for gay folks, also created conversion therapy for autistic peopleIn 1975, Lovaas co-authored an article with Goerge Rekers for the journal of applied behavioral analysis titled: Behavioral treatment of deviant sex-role behaviors in a male child.
This article described how feminine boys (this includes those who cross dress, use feminine speech, reject “masculine” activities, or who actively voice the desire to be a girl) were successfully “trained” to have “normalized sex-type behaviors” (i.e., the boys stopped trying to be feminine). Lovaas and Rekers implemented ABA methods on the “feminized” boys and the abstract sums them up as follows: “The mother was taught to reinforce masculine behaviors and to extinguish feminine behaviors, by using social reinforcement in the clinic and a token reinforcement procedure in the home. During this treatment, his feminine behaviors sharply decreased and masculine behavior increased.”
Lovaas and Rekers declared their experiments “successful” and thus gay conversion therapy was born. Rekers was a Southern Baptist preacher and psychologist who has inflicted irreparable damage to countless gay folks within Christianity, but who has also actively pushed for legislation that punishes, criminalizes, and seeks to “cure” homosexuality in the United States. Rekers used Lovaas with his method of behavior modification principles because they gave him the framework in which to push his narratives. Rekers went on to be on the founding board of The National Association for the Research and Therapy of Homosexuality (which, of course, advocated solely for conversion therapy). (He also was on the founding board of The Family Research Council, one of the most influential right wing political lobbying groups in the US, but we’ll get to that in a minute.)
Conversion therapy of any kind has proven to be both unsuccessful and wildly traumatic with horrible outcomes for mental health—causing PTSD and a whole host of other issues. Here are some sobering facts: LGBTQ youth who come from backgrounds where homosexuality was seen as wrong/something that could be “fixed” through ABA methods were:
8.4x more likely to report having attempted suicide
5.9x more likely report high levels of depression
3.4x more likely to use illegal drugs
3.4x more likely to be at high risk of HIV and STDs
Thanks to the tireless advocacy of gay folks, our culture is starting to reckon with the collective damage of ABA approaches to human sexuality and gender expression. While there is still SO much work to be done, the negative psychological impacts of gay conversion therapy have led to it being outlawed in multiple states for minors (and therapists can lose their state-issued license in these places if they recommend such measures). Stories of people who survived conversion therapy are being shared, and more and more people are recognizing the unnecessary harm it has caused so many people.
And yet, ABA—the foundation of all modern conversion therapy—continues to be the gold standard of therapeutic interventions for autistic children. Why is that?
I have a hunch that part of the reason is because ABA is very similar to mainstream Christian / dominant culture approaches to parenting. ABA's creation was set firmly upon a foundation of "traditional family values" that believes children have no right to personal agency or choice, and that those who deviate from "normal" are considered to be "disordered," and in need of a "cure" (which means eradicating any traits of diversity). This mirrors the leading therapeutic resources for autistic kids, which aims to convert them to be something they are not for the sake of those with power. The children who can learn to mask/conform/hide their pain are rewarded for a time with praise and acceptance, causing them to live life with a terrifying fear of disappointing their caregivers and community. Those who can’t mask/conform are treated to dehumanizing and demeaning therapies, similar to how some folks train dogs.
If it works on animals, it should work on kids, right? Where have I heard that before? Oh yeah, from Dr. James Dobson. The leading parenting expert of white evangelicalism.
For anxious white Christian parents in the 80s and 90s, nobody made them feel better quite like Dr. James Dobson. The psychologist who came of age in Southern California in the 1960s and was horrified by the way our culture was “backsliding” into a world where women, people of color, and even gay people had (some) rights. What was next— children?
He staked his claim where he could, which was empowering parents to take complete control of their children’s lives. In a world where white Christian men were scared of losing cultural power, Dobson was incredibly smart. He told parents to focus on their families. To focus on the children, people who could still be dominated without backlash or recourse in a rapidly modernizing world.
His breakthrough book was called Dare to Discipline, where he makes the case that the “progressive” parents of the 1960s were really harming their children. In chapter one he lays out his thesis: “developing respect for parents is the critical factor in child management.” He goes on to illustrate with multiple horror stories of “strong-willed” and “rebellious” children (mostly toddlers and teenagers) breaking their parents’ hearts and turning away from God. The most chilling part is when Dr. Dobson recommends spanking as one of the primary ways to instill respect for parents, and encourages parents that the most loving, Christian thing they can do is to hit their children (from the ages of 18 months to 10 years) any time there is willful disobedience. If you don’t do this, Dobson writes over and over again, your children will grow up to not respect you and they will reject everything you stand for: your authority, your religion, and your politics.
He tells “hilarious” stories of his own mother smacking him across the face with a heavy girdle when he once gave her “lip”—he was too scared to talk back to her after that, and he takes that as the basis of his parenting philosophies. In his other best-selling book, The Strong-Willed Child, he starts off by describing how he beat his dachshund into submission and how that is also how he approaches parenting young children.
To Dobson, disrespect is the sin that must be eradicated and trained out of a child through corporal punishment early and often. He was obsessed with the idea that parents who listened to their children were caving into a permissive culture and were losing authority/respect. His “common-sense” approach to parenting focuses on instilling authority, claiming that Christianity compels you to punish your kids with violence, and offers tips for how to control their behavior. The last one is where Dobson turns to classic behavior modification stuff, with the added element of religious trauma thrown in. He tells parents to continually liken themselves to God, and to even tell their children (as they are beating them!) that “this hurts me more than it hurts you.” Just like how it pains God to continually have to punish and torture us for our sins.
It’s hard to not see the similarities between ABA therapy and the Dr. Dobson / Focus on the Family approach. As I dug deeper, I found that Dr. Rekers was both a colleague and friend of Dr. Dobson, and they had seats together on the founding board of the Family Research Council. It makes sense that both Rekers and Dobson were drawn to behavioral modification techniques like ABA, because they were invested in producing children (and adults!) who conformed to their religious and political beliefs, and stamping out whatever fell outside their narrow concepts of what it meant to be a “healthy” or “normal” person. Indeed, in chapter five of Dare to Discipline, Dobson specifically mentions autism research and Dr. Lovaas as he starts to talk about the “magic tools” for getting your kids to obey your every wish:
“Immediate reinforcement has been utilized successfully in the treatment of childhood autism, a major disorder which resembles childhood schizophrenia. The autistic child does not relate properly to his parents or any other people; he has no spoken language; he usually displays bizarre, uncontrollable behavior. What causes this distressing disorder? The evidence seems to point toward the existence of a biochemical malfunction in the autistic child's neural apparatus. For whatever cause, autism is extremely resistant to treatment.”
YIKES. Even for 1992 this is a wildly incorrect characterization of what autism is. But the framing—autism is a scary entity that is extremely resistant to treatment—is similar to how Dobson frames, well, everything. He terrifies parents with stories of wild and rebellious children and then promises the “cure.” Here he does the same thing, with ABA providing the “cure” for those pesky rebellious kids.
Dobson writes about how Dr. Lovaas experimented with autistic children at UCLA, and describes one of the early ABA trials: “He [an autistic child] was placed in a small dark box which had one sliding wooden window. The therapist sat on the outside of the box, facing the child who peered out the window. As long as the child looked at the therapist, the window remained open. However, when his mind wandered and he began gazing around, the panel fell, leaving him in the dark for a few seconds. Although no child with severe autism has been successfully transformed into a normal individual, the use of reinforcement therapy did bring some of these patients to a state of civilized behavior. The key to this success has been the immediate application of a pleasant consequence to desired behavior.”
The above illustration, which Dobson shares as a glowing example of applied behavioral analysis techniques, makes me so incredibly sad. To force a small, nonverbal autistic child into a box and punish them every time they broke eye contact by being plunged into the dark, alone and with no power in the situation? It’s clear that nobody cares about the children in any of these stories—the scientists, child psychologists, and parents are the ones to please. And the goal is to make children who conform exactly to the norms of the group—white evangelical Christians who loved capitalismand always voted Republican—at every level.
Dobson does not focus on the needs of the child, but is continually talking to anxious, authoritarian-leaning parents who desperately want good, Christian, conservative children. The strong-willed child is the ultimate enemy of Dobson (to the point where he had to write an entire book about how to break the spirit of these pesky kinds of kids—which were most likely undiagnosed neurodivergent children!). There is the firm belief that every child can and SHOULD be utterly compliant to the will of their parents. Obedience is assumed to be the main desire of the parents. There is no discussion of the emotional/attachment needs of children, but plenty of the need for parents to establish authority early and often, using corporal punishment and strategies for modifying behavior. And if they don’t, Dobson warns—their kids will be seen as rebellious (gasp!) or worse—end up walking away from God and voting Democrat (I mean, ending up in hell).
The truth is ABA can work for a time, with certain kids. It “worked” for me, I suppose, at least for a time. Until it suddenly didn’t. I finally started seeing a therapist in late 2021, ostensibly because I wanted to be a better parent, but truthfully it was because I could no longer cope with the levels of anxiety, depression, and passive suicidality I was experiencing. All common outcomes for people who have been a part of conversion therapy, I might add.
A part of me sometimes feels lucky that I wasn’t diagnosed autistic back in the early 1990s. Maybe I, and all the other missed/ignored folks, dodged a bullet by not being shoved into ABA therapies. But you know what? I got that anyways, simply by being born into white evangelicalism with parents who were all-in on the Dobson parenting philosophies. I learned early on that to be strong-willed was the worst thing a child could be. Instead, I had to learn to conform if I was ever going to get love, affection, or praise. I had to become a child with no needs or opinions or emotions of their own, but instead a perfect mirror of their parents.
In the past year and a half I’ve had to come to terms with how much of myself I had to abandon in order to survive an ABA framework like Dobson’s Focus on the Family approach. I had to abandon my gender non-conforming ways, my sense of justice and ethics, my sensitivities, and any sense that I had a purpose outside of bringing more people into evangelicalism / pleasing God and my parents.
The age of self-abandonment is over, however. The rest of my life will be spent unpacking the masking skills I honed in order to survive a culture hell-bent on homogeneity. I’ve recently discovered I’ve been undergoing what amounts to conversion therapy for most of my formative years, and the impacts of that are real—for my mental and physical health, the way I relate to people, and even to my current ability to engage in spiritual practices (spoiler alert: I can’t!).
Of course, if you listen to proponents of ABA therapy, there is no need to look into the ill effects of conversion therapy for autistic kids as long as it produces results—kids who are able to shrink or conform in order to uphold the dominant culture. And I have to assume this is why Dr. Dobson and his parenting books have sold millions upon millions of copies. But what exactly are the long-term results of this kind of parenting philosophy?
If I—and many others I’ve met—are any indication, the results aren’t great. Dr. Dobson promised parents that if they ruled with authority then their kids would never stray from the straight and narrow. And yet, there is a rising tide of family estrangement within evangelical communities. To the point where Focus on the Family regularly gets asked questions about how to deal with adult children going low or no-contact. In many ways, it is a full circle grift. Dobson convinced parents to train their children to mask compliance, and they all expected it to work. Now that it has proven to be ineffective, Focus on the Family will sell you the book/course/workshop that will surely fix it all (or at least convince the parents that they did nothing wrong, but blame millennials developing self-esteem as one of the main culprits of deconstruction/estrangement!).
Conversion therapy, in whatever form, leads to horrific outcomes in those it is practiced on. ABA, gay conversion therapy, and Dr. Dobson’s abusive Christian authoritarianism are all cut from the same cloth, and use the same principles as their motivation. As we rightly strive to protect more and more LGBTQIA+ youth from conversion therapy (a battle that is far from over!) we need to also be advocating in the same way for autistic children being coerced or forced into ABA therapy. And those of us who grew up with parents or caregivers who bought into Focus on the Family materials need the space and permission to grieve a lost childhood. One where we could have been free to be our authentic selves, confident in unconditional love.
This article is already too long, so I’m going to stop here. In the next few weeks we will have another look at ABA (along with some great tips on inclusion and equity and the importance of allowing young children to not be held to ABA practices) and a personal essay on what it was like for me to learn to conform in my context.
For now, I’m curious--if you grew up with parents or a community that was conservative, did they follow authoritarian and behaviorist methods? And if you are comfortable sharing, how has that impacted your relationship long-term?
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From the Autistic Self-Advocacy Network. They have a really great PDF summary that is in simplified language (with lots of pictures) that can help give a quick overview of why so many autistic people reject ABA therapy.
Here’s a summary of how neurodiverse and actually autistic mental health providers characterize the issues with ABA therapy: “ABA therapy does not put the child’s emotional well-being and quality of life first. ABA therapy assumes that children simply won’t do things and need to be incentivized to do them through rewards and negative reinforcement (or, lack of rewards). The ABA therapists don’t assume that the autistic kids can’t do what they are asking them to do (do complex physical tasks, or physically speak), or that what they’re asking them to do is painful (such as make eye contact, be in a sensory overwhelming environment). Further, ABA therapy is not child-led, unlike most other therapies. Instead, the ABA therapist themselves and the parent decide what goals the child must meet. ABA therapy also rewards autistic children to hide their pain and distress, and rewards autistic children for “fitting in” to neurotypical norms. Autistic masking, which most of us do for decades, or an entire lifetime, often leads to poor mental health and even increased suicidality.”
Like almost everyone I have researched in the white evangelical political and media scene, Rekers is a hypocrite of the finest order. In 2010, when he was in his 60s, Rekers was busted for renting a young male sex worker to travel Europe with him for two weeks. Why has there not been a Succession-style show written about these guys yet? I guess because nobody would believe it, it’s too wild and predictable at the exact same time.
Talia Levin has an EXCELLENT series on Dr. Dobson, you all should go read it:
It’s interesting to note how many prominent Christian leaders talk openly about how their parents beat them for minor transgression. See Billy Graham, for instance. In Janet Heimlich’s massive book Breaking Their Will: Shedding Light on Religious Child Maltreatment, the author mentions how Graham talked about his very Christian parents who “never hesitated when necessary to administer physical discipline to us.” Graham did not think this wrong at all but said that he “learned to obey without questioning.” (p. 92). Many people have been spanked repeatedly by their parents and swore they turned out just fine. But the research says otherwise. For more information and the most recent round-up of scientific findings, see the book Spanked: How Hitting Our Children is Hurting Ourselves. The author started her research believing spanking to not be all that harmful; by the end, she wrote “I now know that spanking is a form of family violence. Hitting people smaller than us must have consequences—how could it not?”
The New Dare to Discipline, pages 18-20
Later in chapter 5, Dobson writes about how capitalism uses punishments and rewards just like ABA, because it is great. But socialism doesn’t! So if you don’t use ABA your children might grow up to be socialists :)
All of the quotes can be found in an online article titled “The Law of Reinforcement” https://dobsonlibrary.com/resource/article/c70571a7-a373-4531-93ca-37112d39dba2. It is also in chapter five of The New Dare to Discipline by Dr. James Dobson, which was reprinted in 1992. In my copy the quotes can be found on pages 81-82.
My mom always talked about how I was the most rebellious preschooler she had ever encountered. Ages 2-5 every thing she told me to do I said no to. Every single time she tried to draw a line I would cross it. I had tantrums daily, sometimes becoming so angry I would lose my capacity to inhale and pass out. Then, at age five, after my bath I told her I wanted to become a Christian. I wanted to say the prayer. Not tomorrow, I insisted, now. And after that I was her most compliant, obedient child, never so much as uttering a complaint. It was her miracle story. And while I took it at face value growing up, it always felt so bleak. “I still feel all the feelings that make me bad,” I remember thinking, while I resolved to be as quiet as possible, because that is what made me good.
I have no memories of those years. By my late thirties I had been searching my past for some unremembered trauma. Something about the way all the block towers I had carefully assembled throughout adulthood were knocked over and scattered felt connected to those unremembered early childhood years. But you can’t remember what you can’t remember.
Then, in my gathering bits of autism data to piece together a new understanding of myself, I came across the term “pathological demand avoidance.” And the description that introduced PDA to me sounded notes of recognition in my body: “you tell a kid to put on their shoes and they refuse. Not because they won’t, but because they can’t. Their nervous system forms a threat response to your demand.”
My body remembered the lived experience my cognitive brain couldn’t access, and my trauma was named entirely by the miracle story my mom always told. I was having panic attacks multiple times a day and punished for them, for years, until at the age of five I found the inner resources to pursue a sense of safety through secure attachment. I called this “becoming a christian” and it was a decision to flawlessly internalise my nervous system response within a compliant body.
I’m honestly super impressed with my 5-year-old self for planning and executing a strategy that perfectly fit inside my parents worldview--like that’s some serious social analysis. But of course, 40-year-old me requires very different strategies to heal--strategies that the trigger existential terror of unmasking my bad, I attachable self. But I’m confident that that smart, sensitive, resourceful five-year-old grew into a smart, sensitive, resourceful 40-year-old who can find her way to safety and healing.
Well done on the article unpacking all this utter bullshit. My mom actually said “hurts me more than you” while beating me, while she was crying too. Fuck Dobson. I can’t get a peaceful childhood back, instead of I hated my parents touching me, full stop. Hated hugs, flinched when they touched me to get my attention, etc. the body does keep the score!
I wonder if Dobson or FotF has been sued over his teachings? I would join that class action suit.