Photo of a young Lyric, sitting on a red sofa with a white throw, dressed in a costume they made themselves that's supposed to be Puss N Boots. Several of Lyric's favorite stuffed toys are lined up on the sofa beside them. There is white text that reads: You don't have to have been subjected to formal Autistic Conversion Therapy to have experienced behaviorism and its harms. There are many types of conversion therapy used to "normalize" Autistic and other NeuroDivergent People. ABA, or Applied Behavioral Analysis is among the most widely

You don’t have to have been subjected to formal Autistic Conversion Therapy to have experienced behaviorism and its harms.

CONTENT WARNING: This piece discusses themes that may upset some readers (such as Autistic Conversion Therapy, manipulation, coercion, and abuse). Reader discretion is advised.

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There are many types of conversion therapy used to “normalize” Autistic and other NeuroDivergent People (ABA or Applied Behavioral Analysis is one of the most widely recognized and most controversial “therapies” of them all).

ABA and other conversion therapies have been tied to increased risks of mental distress, including PTSD. In one study, Autistics who were exposed to ABA were 86 percent more likely to meet the PTSD criteria than those who were not exposed to ABA

You don’t have to have been subjected to formal Autistic Conversion Therapy to have experienced behaviorism and its harms. 

Because I wasn’t diagnosed Autistic in childhood (and had no explanation for why I was the way I was), many of my visible Autistic traits (especially in school) were seen (and treated) as behavioral issues, causing me a lot of trauma and distress.  

Not knowing I was Autistic meant I was required to perform the same way everyone else did (without assistance, support, or tools to accommodate my differences). 

Because nobody knew my needs were different from those of most people around me, I was expected to perform in an environment that wasn’t made for me.

Home was hard sometimes, with guardians desperate to get an unruly and rebellious young person under control, but school was much worse.

At home, when I would “act out,” my favorite toys, privileges, activities, and comfort items would be taken from me one by one as punishment for my frequent non-compliances. It was called the Taming of the Schrew. I was the schrew.

THIS was gentle parenting in the time and place I grew up, especially when compared to many young people I knew growing up in Texas who were beaten regularly for less.

My experience in school was not uplifting or empowering. It was traumatizing and disempowering.

The school was a destabilizing place, unfamiliar and unpredictable, where I was not allowed the comforts of home. Comfort items occasionally removed at home were prohibited entirely in school (because “the other kids would be distracted by them”).

In the first grade, my first year in public school, I had my sensory protective gear (sunglasses) removed because it was “against the rules” and “everyone else was fine.” I’d been to the nurse’s office for daily headaches, but she told me I needed to stop going to her office (since I had no fever). 

Instead of modifying the system to include me, I was expected to alter myself to fit into the system. 

As a kid, I didn’t understand that the lights in my classroom were causing my headaches. I only knew that the lights were painfully bright and hurting my eyes. Unfortunately, when I tried to tell my teacher this, she told me to “toughen up.”

Because most public spaces, environments, and events don’t consider the needs of someone like me, I have always needed a LOT of control over adapting the environment around me to suit my needs. Unfortunately, they had rigid systems and processes they expected everyone to adhere to in school, leaving little room for flexing. 

I am learning to read human body language and expressions in adulthood because I was expected to learn them independently growing up (and didn’t).

Growing up, I didn’t know what human facial expressions or body language meant (though I learned to read animal body language fluently because it was a special interest). Because of this, I learned only to take people at their words and would often be surprised by people’s frustration with me not picking up on the “hints” and “cues” they were dropping for me.

In school and at home, I was artificially prompted to look at people’s faces when they spoke to me because it was a “sign of respect.” I didn’t understand why I should look at people’s faces because nobody told me I could look for information on their faces and body language. 

Had they looked deeper, they might heave learned that I often need to look away from people to process and comprehend what they’re saying to me. Had they been curious, they might have learned that eye contact felt akin to making out, intimate, and not something I felt comfortable doing with everyone. Had they asked more questions, someone MIGHT have noticed that I wan’t picking up the non-verbal cues people put out.

The “why” I didn’t like to look in people’s eyes was never asked, assumptions were made, and my “abnormal behavior” was corrected by the adults who trained me to “look at their noses” when they were speaking to me.

It was an uncomfortable ritual, that completely ignored my needs in favor of offering “respect” and the illusion of undivided attention (because with ADHD, my attention is almost always divided).

My mental health struggles, anxiety, frustration, and confusion, were treated as “bad” or “challenging behavior.”

Anxiety and not having all the information provided to me in a way I can digest can leave me frozen, even to this day.

As a kid, I would get stuck, unable to speak or start tasks and do things people would ask of me. My “refusals” were seen as acts of defiance, not cries for help, because I needed more support than I was getting. 

Sometimes anxiety would overtake me so severely that I would lose my ability to speak in front of my classmates and teacher when called on. When this happened the tag in my manila behavior folder (displayed at the front of the room for all to see) was swapped from yellow to red, signaling that I’d been “bad” that day, would have a note sent home to my guardians, and would not be permitted outside for recess during my next lunch break.

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