As a human, autistic adult, and board certified behavior analyst (BCBA) dedicated to ethical and humane treatment of others, this research is a high priority to me. I am highly interested in ensuring that the data taken is accurate to the experiences of those who have received formal ABA services. As such, I would love for the dissemination of this study’s research to be far reaching.
Certainly there is a part of me that is concerned about the information this research will present. But what is more concerning to me is that there is so little research which has been conducted in this area, and what has been conducted has largely been disregarded by behavior analytic practitioners with some notable exceptions.
For all that read this, I encourage you to disseminate this study to those who have experienced ABA services within the criteria listed. For those that participate, I encourage you to be honest and direct. Regardless of the results of the research, I look forward to being able to learn how my field, the field of Applied Behavior Analysis, can improve.
Brian Middleton, M.Ed., BCBA, LBA, the “Bearded Behaviorist”
Disclosure of relationships: Brian is friends with one of the researchers in this study. His friend, Louis Stay, is autistic and is a senior psychology undergrad student with an interest in autism counseling. Louis has worked as an RBT and has a desire to improve outcomes for all learners, but especially individuals receiving services for ASD.
Brian does not have a relationship with any other member of the research team nor has he received payment for advertising this study.
-*Putative punishment of dancing when someone falls in the form of response cost (music stopping) and correction.
-Clearly stated rule of Safety First (rules governed behaviors).
-Clear use of Premack Principle (if you get up/help each other out we will play the song again).
-Clearly restating the rules and why they are important (rules governed behaviors).
-High Probability (high-P) demand sequence in the form of chanting the rule of if someone falls you help them up.
-*Putative reinforcement of the behavior of helping those who fall through attention and socially mediated access.
Behavior analysts didn’t invent these principles. We observed them. We took data. We identified rules that are present in behavior. This is not new, but the ability to identify and replicate means that we can make the world better by helping ourselves and others see how our behavior shapes our environment and visa versa.
Being great, good, kind, caring, passionate, and loving isn’t only dependent on something we are born with. Certainly there are factors that can increase the probability of someone doing all of these things since by our natures we are social and crave connection and belonging at some level, but when the environment is designed to increase pro-social behaviors the probability of doing pro-social behaviors increases. In short, pro-social behaviors are something that can be developed. They are something that can be taught.
Make the world better. Reinforce the change you want to see in the world!
*Putative means potential or possible. Keep in mind that reinforcement and punishment are only determined by whether the stimulus following a behavior increases or maintains (reinforcement) or reduces (punishment) the behavior or similar behaviors preceeding it.
Legal notice: this video is used under the fair use doctrine for educational purposes. The copyright of the video belongs to Linkin Park. The commentary is licensed under open-source educational materials licensing.
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.
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 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.
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.
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.
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
Puns and sayings are among the Bearded Behaviorist’s favorite things. Since Brian has a beard, the name makes a certain amount of sense, but when you add in an old saying, “to beard the lion in its den” the pun and story come together better. The term means to face an issue or problem head-on. It’s origin comes form the Old Testament about King David when he was a shepherd, before he gained his fame. The story goes that when a lion took one of his lambs, he followed the lion into it’s den, grabbed it by the mane or “beard” smote it, thus rescuing his lamb. So, while the name Bearded Behaviorist does refer to the creator’s beard (a mighty fine one it is too), it also refers to the practice of address the challenges we face directly and with evidence-based approaches.
Brian Middleton started Bearded Behaviorist as an effort to make understanding behavior fun and interesting. Dedicated to open-source education, Brian is a founding member of the Open-Source Educational Resources special interest group of ABAI. His social media pages and website are dedicated to dissemination of behavior science as well as pushing for inclusion of trauma-informed care standards in Applied Behavior Analysis and other human services. He is the host of the Oh Behave! Podcast, and open-source licensed podcast. Brian is a proud autistic adult, loving husband, avid lover of sci-fi/fantasy, a “nerd” with something better to do, enjoys the great outdoors, cooking, musicals, puns, spending time with friends and dogs, and making up silly songs. He is also the Chief Creative Officer for Legend Masters LLC, a print and design company. He holds a Masters of Education and a Post-Master Certificate in Applied Behavior Analysis. He also does not enjoy writing in the third-person and really wants to stop now…