Why Autism is Inspiring

Beth of Behaviour Babble reached out to me a few months back asking me to contribute to an article that she was pulling together. I was honored by her request to share my thoughts on autism. Specifically, the questions she asked were,

“What have you learned from working with children with autism? How did having them in your life make you grow as a person?”

Here is the article. I definitely recommend you reading it because the other contributors offer such amazing insights and observations. If you have a moment, please give Behaviour Babble a follow on Facebook as well.

I will offer this as an addition to the article.

The greatest challenges we face as a society is the disconnection that we experience between each other. Humanity thrives when we are connected with each other. We thrive individually and collectively when we are connected. Conversely, our greatest struggles, suffering, and failures occur when we are disconnected. Disconnection is an entropic state. It happens just like entropy. Connection, on the other hand, is a behavior or series of behaviors. It takes action to accomplish.

Connecting is a choice we must make. When we are feeling hurt, alone, afraid, and frustrated, we need to choose to connect rather than disconnect. It applies to all of humanity, and if we succeed in connecting then we can overcome any challenge we face as a species.

The reality is that the challenges that come with Autism and more specifically Autism Spectrum Disorder are almost all solved by choosing to connect with each other. It doesn’t mean the solution is easy. Connecting comes with sacrifice. It is difficult when you don’t understand what the other person is experience, but the yearning to connect is there for all of us. Perhaps the other person does not know or understand how to communicate this, but my experience both as an autistic, as well as a professional support individuals affected by ASD as well as other challenges. Choose to connect with each other.

Appeals to Popularity & the Consequences

Appeals to popularity can seem harmless, but they pose a major danger, especially when it comes to socially significant behaviors up to and including medical decisions, voting, beliefs, and much, much more.

Too often I hear this logical fallacy and it is frustrating. At one point, I thought (falsely) that autistics were less prone to falling for it, but evidence now speaks clearly to the contrary. The reality is that regardless of the area of life, the neurotype, or the developmental level of the human (barring early infancy etc), appeals to popularity is perhaps one of the most prevalent (dare I say it, popular) arguments used to sway an individual to the speaker’s view. And while seemingly harmless when it involves movie, books, and sports, it is dangerous when it comes to socially significant behaviors.

It is ultimately an argument of the tyrannical majority or a minority. It ignores evidence in in lieu of opinion. More dangerous still is it’s application alongside other logical fallacies. The Texas Shooter fallacy, for example, is based on the idea that someone “shoots” at a target, then only points out the holes closest to the bull’s eye. A similar fallacy, called cherry picking”, has the speaker only presenting data that fits their argument.

So why is this important in the context of behaviorism, let alone important in any other way?

Radical behaviorism is a science of observation and description of that observation, is why. Behavior analysts do not diagnose. We collect data and make decisions off of that data. The research behind our decisions is peer reviewed and is typically based off of hundreds, thousands, and even millions of data points. B. F. Skinner’s initial work and his follow up work especially had millions of data points. And before you assume that this is a appeal to popularity of data, the science also changes based off of new data. If it didn’t then Applied Behavior Analysis would not be a science. Which isn’t to say that individual’s within the science are not susceptible to this or any other logical fallacy. We are. BUT, the purpose of the scientific approach is to strive to overcome fallacious reasoning. This is why understanding that radical behaviorism is a science of description and observation. Without that essential piece the science is more prone to being diagnostic in its nature.

Being a diagnostic science is neither good nor bad. The medical sciences are a perfect example of an effective diagnostic science. A medical doctor would not be very effective if they could not diagnose, for example. Behavior analysis, however, is founded on being a descriptive science. In effect, we observe and describe what we see, then we take data on what we see and analyze that data. We then describe what we see from the data.

Some sciences come up with a theory then seek to find data to prove that theory. This is problematic

The Truth About Lemmings

American Bison Stampede Hunting

Appeals to Popularity

When Parents Fight for Their Kids

These parents essentially did a 15 year, continuous preference assessment to help their boys find their passion! It’s amazing.

Community member, Allan Schneider, shared this inspiring article with us.

The thing that sadness me is that frequently non-vocal/less vocal individuals are assumed to not have interests or passions, but all too often it is due to lack of exposure. Even individuals who might have struggles in other areas but are able to express themselves are frequently assumed to be limited in their interests.

Thankfully, my parents took a similar tack with me and my siblings. I have previously mentioned that my parents didn’t see me as disabled but rather as one of their 7 children who just needed a little different help. I honestly believe that that attitude is why I am a fully functional, independent adult with multiple degrees and an amazing set of life experiences. Well, their mantra was that me and my 6 siblings should be well rounded people. They constantly had us try new things. And in my case, the catalyst for change was none other than East Coast swing dancing.

After getting past the awkwardness of being a teenager, and the hesitation of dancing, I discovered a passion that lead me to embracing dancing. My teacher was passionate and patient. Her breaking down of specific steps and moves into observable behaviors and have us practice them over and over is a perfect example of discrete trial training (DTT) in real life, and after we had mastered each step or movement we moved on to the next.

I never went on to compete, and I only participated in a few performances, but that was not the point. The point was that I was exposed to something that I enjoyed. And for me, that exposure was pivotal because it gave awkward, teenage me, who struggled with connecting with people, something that I could share with passion. At dances instead of awkwardly flailing about and feeling isolated, I was teaching girl (and later a couple guys who approached me) how to swing dance. It resulted in me having conversations and being friends with a lot of peers. I caught my first girlfriend’s attention with dancing and was able to find many other connections because of my parents’ drive to have me and my siblings be well rounded.

Returning from the past now, I can say with joy that the center I work at embraces this same attitude. We are constantly exposing our clients to new activities and experiences. If they express their interest, great! We keep exploring. If not, we try other things. We never force new activities on them, and always listen to their preferences (or observe their behaviors like the parents in the linked article) to ensure that the activities are not aversive.

That is the heart of ABA and trauma-informed care; Using environmental factors and reinforcement to catalyze meaningful change within ourselves and others. Behavior analysis is an approach to understanding behavior that is systematic and measurable. It is a science of observation. Is there still more to observe and discover? I hope so! Have practitioners of the past made mistakes or made bad assumptions resulting in harm. That is why I advocate so adamantly for trauma-informed care, because it helps to address those mistakes and bad assumptions. We should not be defined by our mistakes. We should learn from them. I am sure that if we take this approach our efforts will create meaningful and powerful change for ourselves and our clients. It will lead to them having autonomy and dignity like never before. Ultimately, we should always be accountable to our clients first otherwise we lose sight of our mission. To help and support them.

Socially Significant (and Non-significant)

This glorious meme’s credit is owed to Jason Stauffer. He made the observation about a shared meme that pointing out a new behavior (Bx) without behavior is less of an issue than taking data on non-socially significant behaviors.

Some examples of this is taking data on stimming behaviors for our autistic clients or not making eye contact. If there is self injury behaviors (SIB) or harming of others, then it is socially significant, but if it is none of those than we should not be worrying about the Bx. Age appropriate would be another example. Expecting a 3 to 5 year old to ask for something in a highly articulate sentence, especially when dealing with big emotions, is unreasonable. Being age appropriate in our teaching and programming is extremely important because developing is a process, AND it is important to let children be children.

This post touches on the ethics and ethical code of Applied Behavior Analysis, program design principles, and trauma-informed care. They are interrelated, and it is important to discuss them regularly. Without these guidelines we see power abused. We see trauma created. And most insignificant, but still important to consider, we see time and resources wasted on behaviors that are not socially significant.

P.S. To the point about eye contact not being socially significant. It isn’t in almost all cases. There are times it is, but it’s up to the individual to judge. A social significance behavior with similar topography is orienting ones body away from the person one is speaking to. The replacement behavior is orienting ones body towards the person one is speaking to (and maybe looking in that person’s direction). Eye contact is a social norm in some communities, but it is not a default behavior norm, but using one’s body to indicate listening IS a default behavior norm.

#dobetter in Schools (as well as ABA)

ABA needs to be held to a high standard, but that does not excuse the abuses of education against the children the system should be serving and protecting.

I made a meme. Shocker if you know me, I know (sarcasm), but in its making it made me think. Here’s the meme first.

Now that you have seen the meme, to the last point.

I recently found out that my efforts as a special education teacher to create a positive reinforcement environment/system in the school I recently left has been systematically been dismantled.

The token economy system, the self monitoring system, the rewards for effort and the other positive behavior supports I and my wonderful peers had in place for my students and the other kids who I took under my wing because I was more worried about their success than silly classification systems have been torn apart by short-sighted administrators.

I have been told that key people have been told to be “less nice” and that “there needs to be consequences” (code for punishment) for “behaviors”. In short, all of the practices that took me 5 years to put into place that showed DATA DRIVEN RESULTS for not only reducing socially significant behaviors, but also for improving outcomes for my kids on all levels from academic to social have been taken apart because “reasons”.

I understand that there NEEDS to be scrutiny of ABA. We hold a lot of power and that power can (and has been) abused. It’s why I am so on board with trauma-informed care and the #dobetter movements. Like with any profession where we hold such power over another person’s life, we need to be careful with how we use this power. Yet the 💩 I hear that schools and school districts do is insane!

To be clear, I’m not talking about those amazing, dedicated teachers who would do anything to help their kids succeed either. I was one of them. And the only reason I stopped being that teacher was because I was literally killing myself trying to help kids and running into the iron curtain of administrative push-back at nearly every turn. But in behavior analysis I have in less than 2 years made more of a meaningful impact than in 7+ years as a teacher. Behavior analysts LISTEN TO ME when I share my prospective as an autistic. In education, I could HEAR the eye rolls! Schools grab kids, punish them, use aversives, shame and traumatize them because “that’s how it is” and then punish the kids some more when they stand up to bullies or have a sensory meltdown for being placed in extremely aversive conditions without consideration to WHY! Children who are clearly ASD are refused IEPs because “they have passing grades” while 504s are ignored when convenient. Nearly the entire system disregards the longest and most effective study on academics and behavior conducted in history, Project Follow Through, which had behavior analytic backing, because of the next fad program pushed by politicians and administrators, only cherry picking what they want to use.

I am all for ABA being held to a high standard, but I am tired of seeing and hearing of literal abuse by schools and school districts which is ignored while being criticized for being abusive for using DTT when the individual saying these things doesn’t even understand what DTT is. I’m tired of being told that I am “masking” my autism (I am not!) because I have learned actual skills that have improved my life when my students are literally being punished for asking for help by the people who supposedly are there to help them.

I will continue to advocate for trauma-informed care and #dobetter, but I really, really, really wish that the well meaning folks who are so adamant and vocal about their concerns about ABA would 1) learn about what we are doing right WHILE continuing to oppose bad practices (yes, I think that there are practices we should rarely if ever use within ABA, and in fact our ethics code generally outlines this), and 2) be more vocal about schools fixing the very serious and abusive systems that are in place for their students AND their teachers. Actually training for teachers. Actual systems of supports for teachers and students. Actually FOLLOWING THE LAWS OF THE LAND (ADA, IDEA 1999 & 2004, etc).

I am a teacher. I am autistic. I am a behavior analyst. I want actual change. I want trauma-informed care to be the default. Change starts here. Speak up for change.

#aba #appliedbehavioranalysis #appliedbehavior #behavior #abameme #abamemes #learnaba #psychology #bcba #bcaba #rbt #dobetter #traumainformedcare #autism #autistic #education #schools #school #sped #specialeducation #teacher #teachers

The Power of Differential Reinforcement in Trauma-informed Care

Understand what a differential is in mechanical terms is not essential to understand differential reinforcement, but it certainly helps with grasping why it is so important.

A differential is a geared mechanism that is used in vehicles to allow for one wheel to turn at a faster rate than another for purposes of gaining traction in different conditions as well as to ensure that a vehicle can turn more efficiently. When turning, for example, the wheel on an inward turn will need to rotate slower than the wheel on the outward side.

Moving Towards Our Values

Today is World Values Day! Values are a key aspect to Acceptance and Commitment Training because committing to move towards your values creates the pivots which lead to success.

Values ARE NOT goals. Values inform goals, but if a goal is achieved the value persists. Values are foundational characteristics that define who we are. We define our values. Imagine you are a tree. Your values are your roots. The branches reaching out, the leaves created, the fruit grown, those are all the fruits of your values. They are the goals you achieve and the things you do and create.

I did an exercise where I listed my values and then formed them into a motto of sorts. This motto informs my pets and professional life. The crest in the image was created by my dear friend, Robert Ennis, who is now my business partner at Legend Masters LLC.

The crest itself is formed around my values. The central structure of the crest is a top down view of the Middleton family crest of a tower (a Scottish clan). The Celtic knotwork if a nod towards my Scottish, Irish, and Germanic heritage. The fists represent conflict while the shaking hands represent resolution. The compass and light from the gem represents finding direction and light through action. The gem itself is a star sapphire, which is my favorite gem because it will take any light from its environment and reflect and intensify it.

Metaphor is powerful as a tool because it helps the verbal problem solving machines of our minds find connections and move towards our values if we are intentional about it.

#aba #appliedbehavioranalysis #appliedbehavior #behavior #act #cbs #contextualbehavioralscience #acceptanceandcommitmenttherapy #acceptanceandcommitmenttraining #beardedbehaviorist #ACTweek #values

Problem Solving Machines

Relational Frame Theory builds on B. F. Skinner’s verbal behaviors. It is a continuation of his work in the truest sense and the foundation of ACT.

The integration of ACT into ABA is natural and necessary because it teaches the individual self-management tools which empower them to have control over their lives. It enables the individual to have greater choice in their future. It affords them (and us) greater dignity and respect.

ACT is evidence-based. ACT is trauma informed because it teaches the individual how to grow beyond the trauma, not by pretending it did not happen, but by acknowledging it AND lighting a path forward. ACT is beneficial for everyone regardless of age, ability, neurotype, or belief system. If you haven’t yet, I highly recommend reading up on the topic.

Recommended books:

The Liberated Mind by Dr Steven C Hayes

ACT Made Simple by Russ Harris

Get Out of Your Mind & Into Your Life by Steve C Hayes

Acceptance and Commitment Therapy: The Process and Practice of Mindful Change by Steven C Hayes, Kirk D Strosahi, and Kelly G Wilson

Learning ACT by Jason B Luoma, Steven B Hayes, and Robyn D Walser

#aba #appliedbehavioranalysis #appliedbehavior #behavior #act #cbs #contextualbehavioralscience #acceptanceandcommitmenttherapy #acceptanceandcommitmenttraining #actweek #beardedbehaviorist #learnaba #learnact #mindfulness #acceptance

Observing Our Own Thoughts

Observing your own thoughts is important. Self-as-context is crucial in the process of being able to accept and commit to move towards your values. This exercise can be done with anything from clouds in the sky to leaves in a stream. It can be visualized in your mind’s eye or inspired by real things such as this amazing jellyfish exhibit I saw years ago at Monterey Bay Aquarium. Either way, I invite you to take a moment and to this activity.

The longer video that is looped is linked below if you wish to do the exercise for longer, although I encourage you to try doing it different ways.

Extended video is found here:

#aba #appliedbehavioranalysis #appliedbehavior #behavior #act #relationalframetheory #rft #acceptanceandcommitmenttherapy #acceptanceandcommitmenttraining #cbs #contextualbehavioralscience #mindfulness #selfascontext #thoughts #actweek #beardedbehaviorist

An Introduction to ACT (& ACT Week)

Our verbal abilities create connections in amazing ways. Humanity is fantastic at problem solving as individuals and as groups. But this ability is a double edge sword. Because we can connect anything with anything through our verbal abilities, we can connect pain, fear, anxiety, and more with objects, situations, songs, words, thoughts, memories, and yes, even other emotions.

Acceptance that everyone feels physical and psychological pain is not exclusive to nihilism. In fact, that acceptance is an important part of being able to build resilience and compassion for yourself and others. The act of turning away from your pain pairs the things you do to escape from that pain with that pain. Avoidance creates a verbal connection between that avoiding and the pain which in turn forges suffering. It is when we turn towards the pain, accepting it and then moving toward our values that we see that the path of life, while filled with pain, is also filled with joy, meaning, love, caring, kindness, and more.

When I struggled most was when I sought to escape the pain. To hide from it. Struggles with my autism and not understanding the social interactions the I seemingly always screwed up, depression, a failing marriage, family struggles, disagreements, and crippling loneliness. All of these seemed to be the concrete shoes that pulled me deeper into the waters of despair, anxiety, and fear. It was not until I found a friend who understood and shared that the weight had been lifted.

The relationships I have built, and jettisoned, since are founded around my values. Interestingly, I have been told by close friends and family that I am happier and healthier. Whether that is true or not, the foundations of ACT were certainly in play in helping me overcome those challenges I faced then and will continue to face. The beauty of ACT is that instead of it being guesswork, I can directly identify what is happening and how I can help myself and others.

ACT is not a magic cure. It takes work, but it is work that is meaningful and worth it. I highly recommend you read a book on ACT. The ones I prefer are:

The Liberated Mind by Dr Steven C Hayes

Get Out of Your Mind and Into Your Life by Dr Steven C Hayes

ACT Made Simple by Russ Harris

Thank you for joining me on this week of ACT.

#aba #appliedbehavioranalysis #appliedbehavior #behavior #act #cbs #contextualbehavioralscience #acceptanceandcommitmenttherapy #acceptanceandcommitmenttraining #beardedbehaviorist #ACTweek