Operant Extinction

A lot of times, when operant extinction (or extinction for short) is mentioned, it is in the context of planned ignoring. The problem with this is the assumption that the individual is ignored. The reality is that should always be the BEHAVIOR which is ignored, not the individual.

Extinction occurs naturally all the time, so it is important to specify what it is. Operant extinction is what happens when reinforcement that normally is available is no longer available. While planned ignoring can be one way of putting extinction for a behavior into place, it is just an example.

For example, there is a chemical that is on the market which you can consume. This chemical makes it so you don’t taste sweet. Why would this chemical be used? Well, individuals who are trying to reduce their sugar consumption will use it so that when they are tempted by a sweet treat they will not get the reward. The behavior being placed on extinction by those individuals is eating sweet things. The reinforcement that isn’t accessible is the taste of sweetness. The consequence is that, if they are consistent with consuming this chemical, that they will consume sweet things less.

In the case of planned ignoring, it can be done wrong if we don’t keep in mind our objectives and how we can do it right. Here are some basic rules for planned ignoring to make sure it’s been done correctly and in a way that doesn’t harm.

1. Always focus on a behavior, not the person. We should never ignore a person, and should always honor functional communication.

2. We need to make sure we are teaching/shaping replacement skills that are accessible to them. An example of this is that we can teach an individual that is non-vocal how to sign or using other communication methods to ask for help or gain attention. Expecting them to speak about their needs is unreasonable & cruel. Likewise, expecting a small child who is struggling with big emotions to “remain” calm and “talk nicely” is unreasonable. We can shape tone of voice and more complex words over time, but we need to focus on what can be done.

3. Honor functional communication whenever can. If attention is the function of the behavior, we should be sure to reinforce attention seeking that is functional.

4. Attention isn’t bad. Behavior isn’t bad. It is. The behavior itself if telling us something. If the individual is doing a dangerous or maladaptive behavior it’s because they have learned that that is how they can access attention. Giving attention for pro-social behaviors is essential.

5. Look for the win. Look for the behaviors that will help the individual. Focus on those. Start focusing on what is wanted rather than trying to avoid something not wanted.

6. Have the attitude that this is you and the individual working together towards a goal. You are a member of a team. Your goals should be aligned with helping the individual succeed.

Ultimately, attention is a wonderful thing. If attention is the function of a behavior that is highly dangerous or socially significant, the best answer is usually giving plenty of attention before the behavior occurs. You can gradually decrease the attention over time so that the individual can learn to tolerate less attention, but the reality is that we should be giving attention when and where we can. It should be up to the individual as to whether they want to have less attention. It is respectful and caring. But regardless of preference, we should never ignore the individual, only behaviors if it is appropriate to the context, and only if we are following the rules listed above.

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

Sources:
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.