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It’s hard to be a B.F. Skinner fan when you’re autistic.
The autistic community is pretty fed-up with B. F. Skinner, and who can blame them? Many autistics spent their childhood undergoing Applied Behaviour Analysis (ABA), and ABA practitioners love to credit their science to B.F. Skinner.
I have a major problem with that, because as far as I can tell, most ABA goes against everything Skinner believed in.
Who is B.F. Skinner?
B.F. Skinner is arguably one of the most famous psychologists of all time– after Freud, of course. He was a behaviourist. In his lifetime, he wrote a ton of books, received scads of awards, and was handed honorary degrees by twenty one universities.
Because of this, because so many people know his name, everything related to behaviourism gets attributed to– or blamed on– him:
The Judge Rotenberg Educational Center in Canton, Mass. has a “treatment” for out-of-control children where electric shocks are given in order to curb their behavior (a la BF Skinner)~PsychCentral, “Matthew Israel, Founder of Judge Rotenberg, Steps Down in Disgrace“
How we deal with the most challenging kids remains rooted in B.F. Skinner’s mid-20th-century philosophy that human behavior is determined by consequences and bad behavior must be punished.~Mother Jones: “What If Everything You Knew About Disciplining Kids Was Wrong?“
I get especially spicy when he is credited for things like electrocution and other punishments because B.F. Skinner was passionately against punishment.
B.F. Skinner was passionately against a lot of things, actually.
Down With Despotism
That’s a controversial position even today. Back in the fifties… it was radical beyond belief.
In the days when men ruled their families, when children were beaten with rulers by their teachers, and women’s virginity was closely guarded, Skinner spoke passionately against capitalism, against the rule of the majority, and against the control of sexuality.
Skinner’s anti-capitalism, anti-religion, anti-government rhetoric didn’t go over very well on the general public of the late 1950s. His detached, scientific analysis of institutions they held near and dear to their hearts convinced many that he was a mad scientist.
Despite the swirling rumors spread by his detractors that he was a cold and experimental parent who treated his children like lab rats, his two daughters remember him as a kind and very involved father who loved to spend time with his children.
I loved my father dearly. He was fantastically devoted and affectionate. But perhaps the stories about me would never have started if he had done a better job with his public image…. He was too much the scientist and too little the self-publicist – especially hazardous when you are already a controversial figure.Deborah Skinner, “I was not a lab rat,” The Guardian
As a scientist, he was fascinated by the living organism’s capacity to learn. He proved to the world that small and supposedly unintelligent animals could problem solve.
This cool video shows a pigeon figuring out how to reach some food, by moving a block so it could use it as a step stool.
Among Skinner’s many discoveries was the fact that punishment doesn’t work very well.
Down with Punishment
Despotism is defined in the Oxford English Dictionary as “the exercise of absolute power, especially in a cruel and oppressive way.”
Skinner learned that a rat who has been shocked for pressing a lever will eventually go back to pressing the lever once you turn the electric shock off, even if the lever doesn’t work.
So the rat has been shocked in the past for pressing this lever, and it no longer dispenses treats. But the rat will press it again and again, nonetheless.
He realized that punishment doesn’t result in learning. It only temporarily suppresses behaviour. It doesn’t even make the rat dislike pressing the lever. It just makes the rat more cautious about doing so.
Besides which, Skinner realized that it isn’t fair to punish an animal for a behaviour, because it is performing that behaviour for a reason, and if you deal with the reason, then the behaviour will change anyway.
He invented the “experimental analysis of behaviour” to try and figure out why organisms acted the way they do, rather than fruitlessly punishing them for doing it.
Skinner’s scorn of punishment carried over into his parenting, particularly when he saw traditional parenting practices for what they were– unsuccessful and pointless.
My parents had a low coffee table with some attractive knick-knacks on it. At first, like many parents, when I reached for things I was not to touch, my parents gave my hands a little slap. But reaching did not decrease and my father, remembering experiments that showed slaps to only temporarily suppress behavior, suggested never punishing my behavior again. My mother readily agreed.~ Julie Vargas, A Daughter’s Restrospective of B.F. Skinner.
Skinner spent the rest of his life trying to get the world to give up on punishment… sadly, without making any real headway.
He liked to dream about a world changed by his discoveries– a world in which controlling, punitive attitudes were demolished. A lover of individual liberty at heart, Skinner hated anything that enforced control over the individual.
He didn’t even like democracy. Too oppressive for his taste.
Rather than trying to force people to abstain from sex, he reasoned, why not have easy access to birth control, easy access to abortions, and systems set up to care for and educate any children people choose to have?
Skinner thought every aspect of our culture was designed to exploit people, reward selfishness, and punish people for things they had no control over. He wanted to tear it all down and start again.
His fictional utopia, Walden Two, is communist in nature, run by committees that contained equal numbers of women and men, working together to achieve individual societal goals.
Children in Skinner’s utopia are encouraged to explore their natural talents and interests at their own pace. There are no grades and no curricula, no standards to be met. Only encouragement and helpful guidance.
Walden Two is full of free time, free love, free birth control, and free education. People work four hours a day, and they can choose what work they do. The rest is spent in personal pursuit of whatever they wish.
The outside world – our world – seems strange and foreign to the inhabitants. In a world where students ask the questions, and the teachers answer, our idea of school is baffling to them.
I have to say, Walden Two sounds like an autistic utopia.
ABA Is No Walden Two
Listen to how O.I. Lovaas described his methods:
High rates of aggressive and self-stimulatory behaviors were reduced by being ignored; by the use of time-out; by the shaping of alternate, more socially acceptable forms of behavior; and (as a last resort) by the delivery of a loud “no” or a slap on the thigh contingent upon the presence of the undesirable behavior. Contingent physical aversives were not used in the control group because inadequate staffing in that group did not allow for adequate teaching of alternate, socially appropriate behaviors. During the first year, treatment goals consisted of reducing self-stimulatory and aggressive behaviors, building compliance to elementary verbal requests, teaching imitation, establishing the beginnings of appropriate toy play, and promoting the extension of the treatment into the family.~O.I. Lovaas “Behavioral Treatment and Normal Educational and Intellectual Functioning in Young Autistic Children.”
Does any of that sound like it came from Skinner?
Of course not.
Now, ABA therapists are quick to point out that ABA has moved on and improved from Lovaas, and that may be true. However, the fundamental mindset has not changed.
ABA, in its current form and as it is practiced on autistic children, still violates many of B.F. Skinner’s most dearly held beliefs, not to mention his scientific findings.
RBTs are told to prompt children for a specific behaviour, sometimes drilling them over and over. The analysts decide the curriculum. They control the reinforcers, when to dispense them, and why.
A series of clearly defined goals, chosen by the parents and the instructors, are set. “Compliance” is a frequent topic of discussion.
Rather than being given an environment which independently rewards the child for desired behaviours, children are instead required to perform certain behaviours in return for getting brief access to those interests, which are controlled by the therapist or parent.
Here are some first-hand accounts of autistic students who have received ABA:
I feel like the RBT therapists who want to “help” me actually belittle me, make me feel incapable of doing what I can do, and constantly push me to do tasks as simple as flash cards, analog clock quizzes on an iPad, and easy reading comprehension way below my ability level.“On Hurling Myself Into Traffic to Get Out of ABA Therapy”
They were chipper and cheery while flipping flashcards in repetitive drills that numbed my brain with boredom. It is recommended in ABA to give 40 hours a week of this stuff. “Touch your nose!” “Touch table!” “Touch apple!” “No, try again!” “High five!” The artificial simplified speech, plus the boredom made me terribly frustrated, but that wasn’t the worst of it. The worst of it was that these drills were a waste of time, effort and emotional energy, not to mention money. I started just before my third birthday and finished when my team refused to believe I could understand and communicate at the age of seven. That is a lot of “Touch your nose!” commands.Ido Kedar “Disney Characters No More.”
They actually teach, in applied behavioral analysis, in special education teacher training, that the most important, the most basic, the most foundational thing is behavioral control. A kid’s education can’t begin until they’re “table ready.”
I need to silence my most reliable way of gathering, processing, and expressing information, I need to put more effort into controlling and deadening and reducing and removing myself second-by-second than you could ever even conceive, I need to have quiet hands, because until I move 97% of the way in your direction you can’t even see that’s there’s a 3% for you to move towards me.
I need to have quiet hands.
I know. I know.Julia Bascom “Quiet Hands”
Doesn’t sound much like Walden Two, does it?
Nor has ABA gone as far away from punishment as its proponents claim. ABA does not wholesale reject punishment the way B.F. Skinner did.
When I read ABA websites and blogs, they often mention punishment as a viable option. They are usually quick to say that reinforcement is preferred, but punishment is always discussed as if it simply the other side of the coin, and equal in power to reinforcement.
It seems to me that key information about Skinner’s work on punishment has not been transmitted to modern RBTs and BCBAs.
Skinner dreamed of a Montessori-like world that allowed children to explore and discover as they wished, encouraging their interests and education by making it inherently fun, interesting, and rewarding, rather than putting emphasis on their achievement of it or building dependence on the teacher’s approval.
But most ABA, particularly Discrete Trial Training, does just the opposite of this. The child is urged to perform certain behaviours in return for promised rewards, or is punished for performing unwanted behaviours.
This is the clumsy kind of amateur behaviourism you’re likely to encounter at your local PetSmart puppy class.
Quite frankly, the behaviourism practiced by many RBTs and even BCBAs is far too elementary to be Skinnerian.
It is not B.F. Skinner that ABA seems to follow, but John B. Watson.
Who Is John B. Watson?
John B. Watson was Skinner’s predecessor, and much more the “father” of behaviorism than B.F. Skinner.
He took Pavlov and Thorndike and put them together and made a coherent kind of science of behaviour out of these bits and pieces. He believed that we are all products of our environment and that any child could be shaped into becoming anything, based on their environment.
…But no one likes to talk about him because he was a Grade-A Asshole.
Watson was the racist son of a Confederate soldier. In his youth, he was arrested for attacking Black people. Can you imagine how extreme your hate crimes would have to be in order to get you arrested in South Carolina in the late 1800s?
Watson not only named behaviorism, he was the first to take the principles of learning laid out by people like Pavlov and Thorndike and apply them to human beings.
In his infamous “Little Albert” experiment, Watson made loud startling noises whenever an 11-month-old baby (who may have later died of hydrocephalus — no one really knows for certain who he was or what became of him) played with a tamed rat. The child quickly became phobic, not only of white rats but of anything furry, bursting into tears at even the sight of a Santa beard.
Watch with caution – emotional abuse in progress
After he was kicked out of academia (not because he abused babies, but because he had an affair with his assistant), Watson developed aptitude tests and ran a hiring consultancy firm and, later, an advertising firm.
Watson envisioned a utopia, too.
In his utopia, children were passed from family unit to family unit in shifts, so they wouldn’t get too attached or dependent on any one adult. “Large” and “ill-favoured women” were not permitted to “breed.”
His books, no longer in print, were full of toxic masculinity and misogyny.
When you are tempted to pet your child remember that mother love is a dangerous instrument. An instrument which may inflict a never-healing wound, a wound which may make infancy unhappy, adolescence a nightmare, an instrument which may wreck your adult son or daughter’s vocational future and their chances for marital happiness.John B. Watson, The Psychological Care of Infant and Child
His book on childcare sold hundreds of thousands of copies and his methods became the standard and accepted ideal in the Western world, and he was not usurped until the rise of Dr. Spock some decades later.
Thus, mothers were told to feed the baby on a rigid schedule, ignore demanding behaviour for fear of “spoiling” the child — he called this “psychological murder” — and to be as distant as possible. He believed that love should only be given conditionally, contingent on the child’s behaviour.
Treat [children] as though they were young adults. Dress them, bathe them with care and circumspection. Let your behavior always be objective and kindly firm. Never hug and kiss them, never let them sit on your lap. If you must, kiss them once on the forehead when they say goodnight. Shake hands with them in the morning. Give them a pat on the head if they have made an extraordinary good job of a difficult task.John B. Watson, Psychological Care of Infant and Child
The Legacy of Pain
We now know that Watson’s recommendations were horribly, terribly wrong.
By the late 1940s, psychologists were discovering that unconditional love is necessary for children to thrive and that they will literally die without it.
Watson’s family is a sad testament to the horrific nature of his advice. Both of his sons attempted suicide, and one succeeded.
His surviving son James said,
I honestly believe the principles for which Dad stood as a behaviorist eroded both Bill’s and my ability to deal effectively with human emotion…and it tended to undermine self-esteem in later life, ultimately contributing to Bill’s death and to my own crisis. Tragically, that’s the antithesis of what Dad expected from practicing these philosophies.James Watson as quoted in feminist voices.
His granddaughter, the actress Mariette Hartley who was the daughter of Watson’s daughter, wrote,
Grandfather’s theories infected my mother’s life, my life, and the lives of millions. How do you break a legacy? How do you keep from passing a debilitating inheritance down, generation to generation, like a genetic flaw?Mariette Hartley, Breaking The Silence
John B. Watson, father of behaviorism, is not exactly a walking advertisement for child rearing.
…He is also considered to be a whopping cautionary tale and Psychology students hear about poor Little Albert a lot in a variety of classes on experiment design, ethics, and basically how not to do science.
Perhaps for this reason, I see many of his theories and discoveries attributed to Skinner on ABA websites. I have also been told by many people that Skinner was responsible for Little Albert.
It’s as if Watson never existed, and Skinner was the only behaviorist in history.
But while Watson has been forgotten by everyone except for in Psychology classes and ethics and research design professors, his work echoes still in our day-to-day life.
Watson was also an influential commercial psychologist. He impacted advertising in a major way, coaching businesses on how to create positive associations with their products. He knew how to manipulate people’s emotions to convince them that they needed a product.
Tell him something that will tie him up with fear, something that will stir up a mild rage, that will call out an affectionate or love response, or strike at a deep psychological or habit need.~John B. Watson
In fact, I can see Watson’s principles still at work in the propaganda put out by Autism Speaks and many ABA-affiliated associations, filling parents with fear that their child needs ABA or else will never be able to live a fulfilling or independent life.
I see Watson’s authoritarian make-everything-conditional parenting style in many classic ABA practices.
ABA As Despotism
Disclaimer: Before you get your knickers in a knot and head down to the comments to say #NotAllABA, that is not the point.
We have the first-hand reports from many autistic people who report these strategies still being used in many places, and BCBA allies (yes, they exist!) who can confirm that these tactics and strategies are common parts of ABA education programs.
As an example, look at this video of a child who clearly hates this work being pushed to clap his hands and sit still anyway.
ABA courses teach that if a child takes too long in responding, they shouldn’t earn a reward.
The arbitrary nature of the three-seconds-to-reply rule, the behavior goals, the insistence on making a child “sit nice” and clap his hands when he clearly hates it… all fit in far better with John B. Watson’s abusive controlling worldview, rather than Skinner’s benign and loving one.
Skinner never said you should hold a crying child in a chair and repeatedly pester him to bang his hands together. Skinner believed children should be free to learn and discover, should be free of punishment and oppression.
While ABA practitioners focus on the end behaviour and enforcing compliance to the instructor/parent, Skinner lectured on the importance of focusing on inclinations, not the behaviours themselves.
The World of Things
Skinner thought that a teacher’s job was not teaching the child, but helping them teach themselves.
If you can handle the 20th century production values and the interviewer – who in my opinion should win an award for “most wooden and least interesting television personality” — that video is worth a watch.
Skinner emphasizes the importance of “the world of things,” and how children should not rely on the teacher, but instead learn to be successful on their own and direct their own education and drive for self-improvement.
He goes on to discuss some ways a teacher can try to engage students in the material, mentioning token systems, praise, access to special privileges, and so on.
However, he emphasizes that these should all be temporary and only if absolutely necessary. It is better to focus on making the child love the work than reward them for it.
A true Skinnerian would not make a child sit in a chair using reward or punishment to control their behaviour. A true Skinnerian would make sitting in the chair more reinforcing.
Wobble chairs are a good attempt at this, as are jelly chairs, rocking foot rests, vestibular swings, and other forms of seating for the neurodivergent.
Some of the more progressive education centres are beginning to introduce ideas like this in their classroom, decades after Skinner’s heyday. But many more still insist on the “learning to learn” pose of knee-to-knee, eye-to-eye.
Even the more progressive centres still try to direct attention, enforce certain kinds of behaviour with external rewards, and use other kinds of behavioural control which rely on the teachers, rather than the “world of things”.
A World For Autistic Kids
People think autistic kids need to be taught how to learn, need to be taught to explore the world, how to love, even how to play, but this isn’t the case.
We are fascinated by our senses, the things around us. We are so fascinated that we sometimes fail to acknowledge the people who badger us, which leads those people to thinking we aren’t aware or engaged.
Even if the things that interest us or motivate us are different from most other people, that doesn’t mean they are less valid. We are already interested in “the world of things,” as Skinner called it.
But ABA swoops in, makes us work for our interests, decides that throwing a ball is more important than counting grains of sand, or that making eye contact is more important than watching how our fingers blur when we wave them past our eyes.
ABA refuses to acknowledge the fact that we experience the world in a fundamentally different way. They cling to Watson’s “black box” and Skinner’s dismissal of “mentalism.”
But even Skinner understood that an organism’s biological makeup, thoughts, and feelings were important factors to consider.
ABA does us a disservice by failing to consider our neurological makeup or acknowledge our sensory processing difficulties.
ABA also seems to ignore the fact that external reinforcement decreases enjoyment of the behaviour itself.
Dog trainers take advantage of this fact all the time. Want to stop your dog from digging in the yard? Or to stop yapping for attention? Teach him to do it as a trick for treats. Now it’s work that he gets paid to do, and he won’t do it “for free” as much.
And yet here we have all of these teachers who give children treats for completing their work, as if they don’t realize that it will make the kids enjoy their work even less.
Despite the fact that educational psychologists constantly preach about the risk of this happening, it is behaviourists of all people who commit this error most frequently.
Because it is easier to change the target behaviour than to change the environment, probably. Trying to come up with an interesting curriculum that the child will engage with all by themselves? Hard. Giving candy for completing work?
Besides which, some people just love to control others.
Behaviorism Is A Tool, and So Are Some People Who Use It
Behaviorism CAN be used to improve quality of life and improve people’s enjoyment of the world around them– see how in this video, the addition of some reinforcement motivates people to use the stairs?
But behaviorism has also been used to design effective torture techniques.
Behaviorism has no morals, any more than physics or chemistry does. The scientist wielding it can use these laws of learning for good or evil.
Watson, the racist, cheating, abusive man used it to control and dominate. He left behind damaged, estranged children, and a legacy of suicide.
Skinner, the kindly and somewhat eccentric philosopher, used it to make his household a warmer, more loving place. He left behind two adoring daughters, one of whom is an artist and the other a specialist in musical education as well as the director of the B.F. Skinner foundation which is dedicated to preserving her father’s legacy.
People like to point out that Lovaas was a student of Skinner. So was Matthew Israel, creator of the notorious Judge Rotenberg Center.
Skinner was world-famous. Anyone involved in behaviourism would have wanted to study under him, would have read his books, would have learned his principles.
The entire world was Skinner’s student.
The director of a military hospital in Viet Nam once told me that he was using operant conditioning with psychotic patients, and I was pleased until I discovered that he had simply told his patients that if they did not go to work they would get electric shock therapy.~B.F. Skinner, The Non-Punitive Society
Not Skinner’s Behavior Analysis
The fact is that while Skinner’s fingerprints are all over every tool in the ABA toolbox, Skinner did not work with autism and he had no direct hand in the creation of Applied Behaviour Analysis.
Lovaas may have learned behaviorism under Skinner, but he applied it in a different way.
It was Lovaas who came up with Discrete Trial Training, not Skinner. It was Lovaas who applied electric shocks to human children, not Skinner.
Skinner is no more responsible for the Judge Rotenberg Center than Marie Curie is for the Atomic Bomb.
Many people can– and do– use the principles of operant conditioning to control, to punish, to torture, to dominate.
This is why I have so often criticized the flimsy ethics code of the BACB, which permits virtually every form of behaviourism so long as the behaviourist dots their i’s and crosses their t’s.
For whatever reason, many ABA therapists continue to target the behaviour, to control the individual, instead of changing the environment the way Skinner taught.
Take this example from an ABA course:
Don’t tell me that ABA doesn’t use punishment when educational courses actively recommend stuffing aversives up the child’s nose.
The obvious solution in the above video is to avoid cooking fish at all because the smell is aversive to the child.
Other solutions could involve providing the child with a pillow scented with a smell he enjoys, getting a more powerful exhaust fan in the kitchen, or finding some other way to keep kitchen smells from spreading through the house.
The recommendation they make – to stuff the smell he hates up his nose – is horrifying.
Skinner would not have recommended that. That’s not how he wanted behaviorism to be used.
He told us how he thought we should use it.
He wrote extensively on the subject.
When you think of the goals of ABA, do you think they are goals Skinner would have approved of if he had the knowledge or understanding of autism such as we have today?
I don’t think so, but we can never know for certain. When Skinner died, autism was only just being distinguished from schizophrenia in psychology texts.
By then, Skinner had become old and pessimistic. He no longer believed his utopia was possible. He believed people loved to punish far too much.
Punishment Is Reinforcing
Skinner realized that humans will always seek to control each other, to punish each other, and will always ignore the warnings of those who preach against it.
This is why ABA flourishes as an industry. Because people want to control children, particularly autistic children who have so many “undesirable” and “extraneous” behaviours.
ABA teaches them how to do that, and it charges them through the nose.
ABA organizations aren’t likely to change their ways, because the way they promote it now is making them millions. It is very reinforcing.
In interviews Skinner made gloomy predictions of the world we now live in – one where incompetent leaders with glib words run the world, where we are destroying the Earth’s sustainability for short-term rewards like a rise in the stock market or a few extra dollars saved at the pump, where we continue to try and punish and control the poor and the oppressed.
The Legacy of Behaviorism
Watson, too, changed his view on the world as he grew old.
He died a recluse, estranged from his surviving children.
His granddaughter, Mariette Hartley, founded the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention and wrote a book called Breaking the Silence, in which she talks about how her grandfather’s rigid and controlling ways created a legacy of pain, alcoholism, and suicide.
When you compare the two most famous behaviorists, their works, attitudes, and legacies are so far apart.
It is not right for ABA to claim Skinner, but fail to mention Watson.
Behaviorism was a movement in psychology that belongs in its time and place in history– in a previous century– and we must teach it in that context.
Time has passed since the days of B.F. Skinner, and we know a lot more now.
He was a good man, but that doesn’t mean his science wasn’t a product of his time or that we haven’t made discoveries since. Psychology has moved far beyond him, and we are now decades into the Cognitive Revolution.
Newton was a damn good mathematician, but that doesn’t mean we stop physics and mathematics there and ignore everything else that we’ve learned since.
In science, we can revere past scientists while still moving beyond their discoveries and theories as new ones arise.
Both Watson and Skinner came up often in my Psychology courses as part of history, not part of modern science. The Brelands, and later, Bandura, would overturn some of Skinner’s work.
Half of my psycholinguistics course in university was all about how and why Skinner was mistaken about language development, for example.
As Skinner so often told us, people are a product of their times. Their behaviour and motivations are determined by their personal experiences.
Skinner couldn’t know then what we know now. He was a scientist, not an oracle.
But I do admire him for his kindness of thought and spirit, and his passionate belief that we can – and should – treat each other better.
He certainly never would have wanted the oppression of children to become a multi-billion dollar capitalist industry with his name plastered all over it.
You know who would have loved that, though?
- Behaviorism is Dead. How Do We Tell The (Autism) Parents? - October 14, 2020
- Why Autism ABA Goes Against Everything B.F. Skinner Believed In - March 4, 2020
- BCBAs Respond To The Dog Trainer Who Called Out ABA - November 24, 2019