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The Autism Spectrum According to Autistic People

Autism neurodiversity

Only An Ancient Science Can Save Your Child…!

Or so they tell us.

As soon as an autistic child is diagnosed, doctors bombard the parents with frightening forecasts and gloomy outlooks.

The only thing that can save their child from a lifetime of friendlessness and unemployment is the “gold standard for autism treatment” – Behaviorism.

Sometimes it is called Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA) Therapy. Other times it is called Intensive Behavioral Intervention (IBI) or just Behavioral Intervention.

Either way, it is commonly touted as the only truly effective and science-based treatment for autism.

Infographic describing the supposed importance of intervening in autism early on with behavioral therapies

Autism, doctors tell parents, must be caught and treated early in childhood, otherwise its effects may be irreversible.

Infographic using a 5 year study which showed a slight raise in IQ points

That’s right, a five-year study showed a slight increase in IQ points – which means virtually nothing in an autistic person.

I don’t know how they got from five years to “long term,” and metastudies have found that even the five-year improvements are not statistically valid, but that’s not what I’m here to talk about today.

At least, not specifically.  

The bigger problem is using mummified science to treat a complex neurological condition.

ABA therapy is badly out of date, scientifically speaking.

Don’t get me wrong, behaviorism is still relevant and we use its principles to this day. As a dog trainer, I live and breathe behaviorism. 

Using behaviorism, we can train rats to sniff out land mines. We can teach zoo animals to willingly allow us to perform medical procedures on them, like ultrasounds and blood draws.

We can train anything that has any sort of a brain, however simple. We can train a single neuron to fire with bigger action potentials.

Behaviorism discovered that punishment is useless, that rewards make the world go around, and that fear has long-lasting consequences.

Behaviorism legitimately changed the world… a really long-ass time ago.

[A 1909 ad for the incandescent lightbulb, featuring an annoyed sun glaring at a lightbulb, with planet earth in the foreground

Behaviorism as a science predates penicillin and the light bulb. Psychology moved beyond it and into the realm of neuroscience and cognition before we even landed on the moon.

New science builds on the shoulders of old science, reaching ever higher and achieving greater and greater things.

Without Newtonian physics we couldn’t have achieved space flight, let alone landed on the moon. But we could never have gotten to the moon with Newton alone. We needed thermodynamics and quantum mechanics and orbital mechanics and so the contributions of many different branches of physics were necessary to achieve such a complicated goal. 

Quote image reading

Now we are researching things which go further and deeper, the physics of black holes, space-time, and subatomic particles that make up the fabric of the universe.

It is the same with psychology and the behavior sciences. The science of the human mind is vast and complicated, and behaviorism encompasses only a tiny corner of it. 

In 2016, American Psychologist published a paper on structuring a beginner course in Contemporary Psychology.

{…}psychology in the 21st century has become an integrative multilevel science. For example, the combination of cognitive, social, and neuroscience topic areas are used to understand the inner workings of mirror neurons, and by extension, social behaviors of imitation and empathy (Iacoboni, 2009).

Another example can be seen in applications of attachment theory to understand multiple topics such as child development, identity, romantic relationships, and group behavior (Goldberg, Muir, & Kerr, 2013).

Strengthening Introductory Psychology – American Psychologist, Feb 2016

That paper has a lovely diagram of 21st Century Psychology and the topics which underpin it.

Graphic of a house-like structure with 5 pillars labelled Biological, Cognitive, Developmental, Social and Personality, Mental and Physical Health. Above them, the roof reads

 

 

Image taken from American Psychologist, Feb 2016

Notice that behaviorism isn’t there. Psychology just doesn’t consider behaviorism relevant in contemporary practice and research.

As another example, this APA course curriculum for a high school psychology course lays out many domains of study to cover – none of which are behaviorism.

If the entirety of human knowledge on the mind and its workings were represented as a tree, behaviorism wouldn’t even be a branch. It would be a root at best, or maybe an acorn.

Drawing of a tree with a root ball resembling a brain, and the leaves have names of different aspects of psychology

 

Behaviorism was the first real attempt at quantifiable science. It started out deliberately cold and hard-hearted as a reaction to Freud and his obsession with penis dreams.

Behaviorists considered themselves scientists, not armchair philosophers obsessed with sex and Greek myths. 

Things began to warm up with B. F. Skinner, who pioneered the idea that love, kindness, and psychological freedom are better than punishment, fear, and despotism.

We are not yet ready to accept the fact that the task is to change, not people, but rather the world in which they live. - B.F. Skinner - @NeuroClastic #SayNoToABA

A passionate humanitarian, he advocated strongly for a more rewarding and free-choice approach to education, and he argued that structured education “did violence” to human development. 

That being said, Skinner didn’t study humans.

He studied small lab animals and theorized about how his discoveries could apply to humans. 

While Skinner preached against the use of punishment and emphasized the lack of long-term effect compared to reinforcement, behaviorists who worked with human populations didn’t always agree.

One of these behaviorists was good Ole Ivor Lovaas.

Using the work of other behaviorists who worked with children and clinical populations, such as Baer, Wolf, and Risley, Lovaas focused on autism. 

When Lovaas revealed that he was able to turn autistic kids into seemingly-normal kids through an intense course of conditional affection, slaps, shocks, and food rewards, people considered it groundbreaking.

Lovaas has his arms around a young girl who is standing uncomfortably on an electrified floor.
This was Pamela. The floor she stood on was electrified.

What most people didn’t know was that Lovaas had exaggerated his success rate, and that there were many who did not respond to his “therapies” at all, despite starvation, slaps, and electric shocks.

In one book from that time period, A Child Called Noah, a father recounts his son’s experiences under Lovaas – how he was starved, made miserable, and abused with no positive results.

book cover of A Child Called Noah

Noah no doubt suffered from apraxia – completely unable to control his body, and constantly punished for things he could not control. Knowing this makes the book an extremely painful read.

There was just so much they didn’t know back then. There’s so much we still don’t know.  (We’d know a lot more if scientists would talk to autistic people instead of blundering around trying to figure out why we do what we do, BUT I DIGRESS.)

The 1960s were a long, long time ago.

Even then, Lovaas was using outdated psychology.

Thirty years before Lovaas, neuroscientists had already cracked the black box of the mind (under local anesthesia) and mapped it out. 

Diagram of the brain, drawn in the 1930s, showing the location for various sensory a motor portions of the brain

Brain surgeons poked parts of the brain while a conscious patient reported what they experienced, and they used this to learn more about the brain. Dr. Wilder Penfield’s celebrated work on locating the source of epileptic seizures in the brain was in the 1930s – long before Lovaas pioneered ABA.

Psychiatrists had also begun to study brain damage and its effects. Oliver Sach’s books about people with various types of brain damage reveal some of the discoveries made during the latter half of the 20th century.

At the time of B.F. Skinner, we knew quite a lot about the “black box” of the mind, and how the brain affects our perceptions and behaviors. 

The science of human physiology and neurology began to merge with the field of psychology, as we began to make connections between the state of the brain and the state of the person.

We realized that in order to understand the mind, we needed to understand the brain and body too.

The cognitive revolution had begun, and it was sweeping away behaviorism in a new rush of discoveries which went far beyond simple reward and punishment.

This book is about science more modern than that used in ABA… and it’s still an old book.

By the 1950s we already knew that humans all over the world develop language in the same way, regardless of the language they are learning or their culture. Children make the same kinds of mistakes at the same stages of development everywhere. 

We also had learned that newborn babies are already primed to search out human faces, and that they can recognize their mother’s voice. 

In this way, cognitive scientists discovered many innate human instincts. They also learned a lot about the way the human brain processes information. 

Behaviorism was old news by the 1960s.

By the seventies and eighties it was being positively swept away by new discoveries in other fields. The discoveries in behaviorism became increasingly picayune while other areas of psychology were breaking new ground.

The behaviorism courses at my university were not particularly well attended.

Everyone wanted to be involved in the cutting edge stuff, the really juicy stuff, not the old dusty stuff. My advanced topics class could all sit around a single table with the professor  – who specialized in studying the role of exercise as a reinforcer in rats and how this changes their relationship with food.

Ultimately, in most of my psych courses, behaviorism was barely mentioned. Behaviorism was in the history chapters of our intro to psychology test. The message was “we learned some good basic things but it turns out it is way too simplistic.”

The only other course that mentioned Skinner was psycholinguistics, which spent a good week thoroughly taking apart Verbal Behavior.

Honestly – and I say this with all seriousness – George Carlin was treated as a more relevant source of information on language than B.F. Skinner.

Heres a bumper sticker I'd like to see -
Skinner would have thoroughly approved of this message, actually.

I’ve got to say, the coolest stuff I learned while getting my degree had nothing to do with behaviorism.

We know a lot about sentience in animals. We used MRIs to prove that our dogs love us.

A white rat studies a plastic tube containing an imprisoned fellow rat

We have proven that rats will work to free fellow rats from distressing conditions, and that crows have beliefs that they pass down to their children and grandchildren. 

We recognize octopuses as sentient beings and classify them as vertebrates when it comes to ethics guidelines, even though they have no bones at all. 

Then there is the vast field of genetic behavior – We’ve discovered that genetic grandchildren of Holocaust survivors, regardless of their upbringing, are at an unusually high risk of developing anxiety disorders.

This is thanks to something called epigenetics – your genes being actively affected by your experiences and passed down to your offspring differently than they would have otherwise.

I might be a giant fan of B.F. Skinner, but the fact is that Skinner’s body of work is scientific history, not a modern guide to the human mind.

…Not the least because he studied rats and pigeons, not humans.

While Skinner famously loved to explain virtually any human behavior through the lens of operant conditioning – and excelled at doing it – we have learned that behaviorism can’t actually predict human behavior very well.

Behaviorism is good at retroactive explaining. It is good at setting out deliberate programs to actively change a behavior. We can use it to teach a child to use the potty and to teach a dolphin to jump through a hoop.

Ultimately behaviorism provides a simplistic lens that can’t see beyond itself.

Many supposedly-simple scenarios studied by behavioral scientists (different from behaviorists because they employ ethology, neurology, genetics, and cognition in their models) prove to work quite differently from what behaviorism would predict.

One study – cited in the book Freakonomics – discovered that when daycares imposed financial penalties for parents who picked their children up late, the parents were late more than they had been before the penalty was imposed.

Then there’s what happens when you leave people alone in a room with a button that gives them electric shocks.

Since electric shocks are known to be potent punishers, behaviorism would not predict that people would keep deliberately shocking themselves.

But they do.

The average neurotypical person, when left alone with their thoughts for 15 minutes, finds this so unpleasant that they will, when given the opportunity, shock themselves out of sheer boredom.

Can behaviorism explain this retroactively? Sure. It means that people find boredom so punishing that even electric shocks are reinforcing by comparison. It can explain, but it cannot predict, because the human mind is complex and there is so much we do not know.

It’s easy to say “oh, well they must do this because they find it reinforcing” but that doesn’t actually… explain anything?

Like… why is boredom so aversive or how is pain better than simply sitting around thinking thoughts. Not to mention… why don’t they just engage in a pleasant stim instead???

There’s so much that needs explaining, and I need something more than behaviorism to do that.

We’ve learned that you are more likely to be helped by someone if you are stranded on a lonely country road than if you are stranded on a busy highway. 

We’ve learned that just the act of touching money makes us less generous and less likely to tidy up after ourselves. What’s that about?

Someone who has simply held money in their hand for whatever reason – money that isn’t even theirs – is less likely to help someone else or to tidy up after themselves after.

This effect has been documented as early as the age of three.

Why? 

Then there’s the infamous Dunning-Kruger effect – the remarkable discovery that incompetent people think they are very competent while competent people think they are not especially competent.

Considering the number of RBTs and BCBAs who have tried to convince me that ABA is real science, but have no familiarity with other branches of science, I’d have to say Dunning-Kruger likely applies to at least some of them. 

There’s also a lot of cool research around how even small amounts of power can change a person’s behavior within a very short time frame. Just putting someone into a slight position of power, like grading another student’s paper,  will make them more willing to take the last cookie, and eat it messily, too.

We have discovered that you can turn high school students into ardent fascists within four days of imitating the propaganda tactics of Nazi Germany. 

We’ve also learned a lot about so called “discipline” and how useless it is except as a way for a powerful person to exert control. 

Considering that behavior analysts come into family homes with the attitude of “I will program you to comply”, I think this likely applies to them as well. 

Screenshot of a list of instructions for a parent regarding their child, including warnings to
Shared anonymously on Facebook via “Autistic Not Weird.”

No one with any training whatsoever in child psychology should write “DO NOT let him sit in your lap until he complies,” because that person should know how harmful that is to a child. 

We’ve learned that babies will waste away and die without someone to love, no matter how well their physical needs are met. 

We’ve learned that children are less inclined to work after being told that they are smart, and are less likely to engage in an activity if they have been rewarded for doing it. 

We’ve learned that unstructured play is crucial to childhood development.

Behaviorism doesn’t come up in a child development course.

In the decades since behaviorism, we have learned about the terrifying power of adverse childhood experiences, and the awe-inspiring power of unconditional love.

We’ve learned the power of modeling appropriate behavior, instead of demanding it.

We’ve discovered the dangers of authoritarian parenting, and the risks of helicopter parenting. 

We’ve learned that children learn and discover more on their own than they do in structured class settings. We’ve learned that telling children they are smart makes them fear failure while telling them they are hard workers makes them seek out challenges.

We have learned how to balance the study of observable behavior with the understanding and acceptance of a conscious mind. 

Psychology still measures behaviour. That hasn’t changed. The revolution that took us out of Freud’s armchair and into the lab has not been abandoned or forgotten.

But now we can measure so much more.

We can watch blood activity in the brain as people communicate with each other, or look at photos of loved ones. We can compare blood cortisol to the reported stress levels of autistic children to confirm that yes, they do know when they are stressed, even when their parents think they aren’t (studies we shouldn’t really need, BUT I DIGRESS AGAIN).

The American Psychological association declared the 1990s “The Decade of the Brain” to celebrate the “neuro-turn” of psychology.

Cover of a book called

The 2000s were dubbed “The Decade of Behavior” – and when they said behavior, they didn’t mean behaviorism. Behavioral science in this millennium includes sub-fields like psychopharmacology, economic psychology, behavioral genetics, and forensic psychology.

BehavioralScientist.Org has 11 subtopics, which include things like law, culture, and technology. 

Throughout all of this, Applied Behavior Analysis has stuck with their babyish ABCs of behavior, teaching the psychology equivalent of preschool to an ever-increasing number of people… and making a lot of money while doing it.

Why is the doctrine of behaviorism still being used, at all?

I say doctrine because there is something peculiar about the fact that entire diplomas consist of behaviorism from the 1960s. Nothing else from behavioral science… just behaviorism. No school but the old school.

Modern textbooks on Applied Behavior Analysis still speak scornfully of “mentalism” and talk about how the inner workings of the mind is a “black box” which we cannot penetrate, even though that hasn’t been considered true since the previous millennium.

I mean, it’s been 90 years since Wilder Penfield removed the tops of people’s skulls, poked their brains, and asked what they were experiencing. I can’t think of a more literal way to penetrate the black box of the mind than that.

The fact that last-century’s psychology is still taught in the same way, without the context of everything we have learned since, reminds me of religions who still cling to and repeat ancient texts and hold them as ultimate arbiters of truth.

It’s disturbing because behaviorism is objectively not the ultimate arbiter of psychological truth, or we wouldn’t have been so surprised to learn that loneliness changes our genes.

Some people may be quick to point out that I, as a dog trainer, use behaviorism daily in my work.

I do, it’s absolutely true.

But I don’t only use behaviorism.

I also employ comparative psychology, evolutionary psychology, neurobiology, ethology, canine anatomy, and phylogenetics.

Not to mention some healthy doses of common sense and a poop-bag load of empathy.

I didn’t learn behaviorism in a vacuum.

I also took courses in Abnormal Behavior, Emotions, Biopsychology, Interpersonal Relations, Child Development, Psycholinguistics, Social Psychology, and other fascinating topics.

In each of those courses, I learned things which are relevant to my work as a dog trainer just as much as behaviorism is.

Emotions was a particularly useful course and I use the things I learned regularly – when I’m working with fearful dogs, for example. How do I identify fear in a dog? Ethology.

Photo of a wolf running from another wolf and a blurb underneath distinguishing the difference between fearful and submissive behavior.

Behavior analysts usually aren’t taught any of that, though. 

Even later developments in behaviorism – I’m talking 1960s and 70s stuff – seem to get left out.

Most analysts I have spoken to tell me that they didn’t learn about Instinctive Drift, or Fixed Action Patterns.

They haven’t learned about contrafreeloading, which I lecture every dog owner on.

I brainstormed a list of important topics in behaviorism/behavioral science and asked some helpful BCBAs how many they had learned about in their Masters programs.

I was somewhat shocked at the results.

A poll listing 43 topics, only a handful of which have been covered in half or more of the respondents' courses.

Many of the things on this list were far from obscure. I simply reeled off everything I could think of.

Only 63% had learned about desensitization. 

Less than half had even heard of learned helplessness, even though this discovery is frequently listed among best-known discoveries in psychology. We know it results in lifelong effects on the organism’s ability to learn and adjust to new situations.

I can’t think of anything much more critical to avoid when engaging in behavior modification of a living creature than learned helplessness.

It’s vital to recognize learned helplessness, and distinguish it from desensitization.

BCBAs I spoke to didn’t know how to do that – they were never taught.

That’s significant, since autistic survivors of ABA therapy report frequently experiencing learned helplessness and since neuroscience is linking learned helplessness to trauma and PTSD.

Barely a quarter of BCBAs had learned about counterconditioning – one of the most commonly used facets of behaviorism in dog training, because it is so useful for helping dogs overcome fears, and because aggressive (fearful) behavior is one of the most important focuses for us. 

Only 7% knew about the Brelands, who are among the most influential behaviorists of all time, and who actively changed the face of behaviorism when they discovered that there are certain innate behaviors which cannot be modified with reward or punishment. They also founded applied animal psychology.

Only 3% knew about sign tracking, which is a shame because sign trackers are notoriously resistant to extinction, so if they could identify sign tracking, they might not try extinction-based programs.

ABA programs don’t even teach complete behaviorism sometimes.

(A few of the BCBAs who responded to my survey said they had learned many of the above topics elsewhere – through additional/unrelated psychology courses they had taken, but not as part of their ABA education.)

The vast majority of BCBAs seem to have been taught Lovaas’ behaviorism – just the bits he used, along with people like Wolf and Baer.

If you’re going to use outdated science, you could at least teach the most updated version of that outdated science. 

Activation systems, incentive theory, learned helplessness, and other useful theories which arose from neuropsychology and cognitive science are highly relevant to  behaviorism and should be included in any modern discussion of reinforcement systems.

Flow chart of decision making used in activation systems
Image thanks to https://thebrain.mcgill.ca/

Behavior analysts aren’t taught about Albert Bandura either.

A behaviorist-turned-social-psychologist, he made vital discoveries in how humans learn and behave. His studies on aggression, self-efficacy, social learning, and social cognition earned him scads of awards and are still relevant today.

Flow chart showin observational learning theory including types of reinforcement, modelling, vicarious learning etc
thanks to sfu.ca

Anyone who works with children should have a basic knowledge of Bandura. We have incorporated his discoveries into classrooms around the world.

Then there’s the language aspect.

Teaching/encouraging children to speak seems to be a big part of ABA, even though this is the job of a speech and language pathologist.

When BCBAs hold up Skinner’s book Verbal Behavior – a purely theoretical work written the same year that Dr. Seuss wrote The Cat in the Hat – as though it were some kind of Bible, I am distinctly uncomfortable.

Not only was Skinner’s book theoretical in the first place, entirely untested, it was roundly criticized even back in the 50s for the way it completely failed to explain – probably because Skinner was ignorant of them – several distinct and universal features of human speech development.

Have they read any book written by a linguist in this century

Have they read any work by any linguist?

Meanwhile, what about neurology?

We know autism is related to differences in processing, sensory perception and other aspects of cognition.

For that reason, anyone working with autistic people, children or adults, should have a basic understanding of neurology and how these changes might affect the perceptions, cognition, and behavior of the people they work with.

Most BCBAs don’t know what the cerebellum does and can’t talk to you about the amygdala’s role in anxiety. Yet here they are working with kids who have atypical cerebellae and amygdalas.

Sending a behaviorist to deal with a neurological condition is is like sending a dentist to deal with a tummy ache.

I don’t deal with neurology.

Sometimes dogs suffer from focal seizures which result in episodes of aggression.

They don’t look like seizures – America’s Funniest home videos once featured a dog having one –  but they are.

I have enough education in animal heath and neurology to recognize when a behavior is neurological… and if I think a dog could possibly be suffering from something like this, I send the dog to a vet – I don’t try to train them out of it. 

Another trainer might not recognize it and might try to train it – unsuccessfully no doubt, or with an appearance of success as the seizures naturally resolve or reduce due to unrelated factors. 

Thankfully for behavior analysts, often they know their patient has a neurological condition. 

So what are they trying to do? 

It makes no sense to try to train children out of a neurodevelopmental condition. It makes no sense to engage in methods which have long ago been proven to be detrimental to child development, like adult-directed play or extrinsic reward systems. 

After all, the child is already developmentally delayed. It seems like we should be focusing on methods shown to promote development, not ones proven to hinder it.

Applied Behavior Analysis treats itself like a scientific cult. It uses terms like “evidence based” and “science-based” as though the last fifty years of psychology and neurology threw science to the wind. 

Even ABA’s scientific methods are out of date.

Behavior analysis keeps publishing more and more studies confirming that yes, rewarding behaviors usually increases their frequency and yes, punishing behaviors tends to decrease their frequency.

We’ve known that since 1938 but whatever, I guess they still aren’t completely sure.

Maybe they don’t thing B.F. Skinner thoroughly covered this subject already, or they aren’t sure if autistic kids are as smart as Skinner’s pigeons.

In a day and age where a reliable evidence-base requires successfully replicated trials with large subject numbers and control groups, ABA journals continue to publish case studies, as if they don’t realize that the plural of “anecdote” is not “data.”

Many ABA journal articles puzzle and ponder over behavior which is perfectly understandable to anyone who has education in modern sciences.

Like this study, which tried an unusual method of stopping dogs from jumping up, and discovered that it was slightly effective.

Never mind that this problem is so simple to solve that I can do it in ten minutes without so much as touching the dog. It’s one of my favourite party tricks when I meet new clients – right up there with getting their three-month-old puppy to ignore steak on a plate. 

It’s clear from the text of this study that Dunning-Kruger is in full effect. In the introduction, the researchers express surprise that ABA techniques are not used more often by dog trainers, considering how similar our two fields are.

In response to that, I refer to my entire body of work on NeuroClastic, not to mention their very own study which wasted an impressive amount of time trying to find a “function” for a behavior which is very well understood already.

A more dramatic example, though, is this article.

They performed a functional analysis on a dog who guards his food to find out why he did it.

…But we already know why dogs do this. We also know what to do about it.  

I don’t need to perform a functional analysis to tell someone why their dog is guarding its food. I already know the causes of this behavior because I know the ethology (science of natural behavior) of dogs.

For more great infographics on dog behavior visit Lili Chin’s website: https://www.doggiedrawings.net/freeposters

I could have walked in, named the problem, and come up with a plan to solve it before this researcher even finished setting up their recording procedures.

My way of solving it would have been much safer and more effective than theirs, too. I read the article, and several of their procedures could have resulted in escalation and an eventual bite… in the face. 

First of all, they used an operant approach, which is not considered as effective as counterconditioning. 

In layman’s terms, what this means is that they rewarded the dog for not growling or guarding its food. But what you should really be doing is instead resolving the fear that motivates the behavior in the first place. 

They didn’t know that because “fear” isn’t one of their four functions of behavior. 

Ironically, this behaviorist, Dr. Sophia Yin, invented the device they used to work on the dog’s resource guarding (the Treat and Train). But instead of using her methods, they used operant procedures instead. 

According to their functional analysis, “attention” was supposedly one of the functions of this behavior. That conclusion is laughable when you know anything about resource guarding in canines. 

Here is a comprehensive thesis on the subject of resource guarding and possessiveness in dogs, referencing over a hundred different study sources, including studies which factor in cortisol, neuter status, plasma testosterone, even cerebrospinal fluids in possessive vs non-possessive dogs.

Some of the studies cited used hundreds of dogs.

So why on earth is the Journal of Applied Behavior Analysis publishing a single-subject case study on resource guarding? Are they trying to reinvent the wheel?

Do they know that they are the ONLY branch of science to regularly do single-subject studies? Do they know that they are the only branch of science which does not teach statistical analysis to its students?

When literally hundreds of people have already done this work for you, it seems prudent to use the information they have unearthed, rather than slog away with a method that has already been found to be inferior. 

Then they suggested that this study “may be helpful for owners and animal behaviourists alike”.

….No, it really isn’t. The hubris it takes to suggest such a thing is staggering.

 It is both amusing and irritating that these researchers talk like they are pioneers when they’re actually on a heavily trafficked road.

Quote from Robert Frost's The Road Not Taken

(Side Note: Did you know that Robert Frost’s poem, The Road Not Taken, is actually about self-absorbed twits who think the way they do things is extra special and meaningful when really it isn’t? Just… apropos of nothing…. I wanted to mention that…)

It’s annoying when they muck around with dogs, but if they want to go around using functional analysis to analyze behavior that has already been thoroughly studied in modern science, so be it. They can knock themselves out studying individual dogs and coming to ludicrous conclusions and risking getting their noses bitten off, because dog training/veterinary behaviorist professionals largely don’t pay attention to them anyhow. 

So why am I complaining about it, you ask?

Well, because it illustrates so perfectly the problem with using techniques from a previous millennium. 

The resource guarding study failed to identify the true cause of the behaviour (fear/anxiety). Then they took to deliberately provoking that fear/anxiety and rewarding the dog for resisting the urge to act on it. 

In other words, they trained the dog to mask his anxiety by rewarding him for remaining calm. 

…A great way to create what we call a “time bomb dog”. 

And this is exactly the complaint that adult survivors of ABA consistently report.

They say that their stress, fear, and anxiety were consistently punished/non-rewarded/ignored, while they were encouraged to hide their feelings and act like they were ok.

But… they weren’t ok. 

And as I’ve already pointed out, masking our feelings and innate behaviours has been linked to increased depression and suicide rates.

This is why we don’t use outdated scientific techniques.

This is why we use all of Psychology instead of one small corner of it. 

Unfortunately, treating autism makes big money. For all I’ve been talking about how real Psychology considers behaviorism to be a museum piece, there are plenty of colleges ready to rake in the cash and resurrect it.

…Which results in papers like this, from a prospective PhD in Psychology. 

This PhD thesis covers a variety of studies, mostly on rats. But I want to focus on the one which featured living, breathing children. 

This study is an abomination unto science and child psychology. 

Screenshot of table 4-2 from thr study, which includes photos and descriptions of playsets such as castle, princess, knight, horse

1. Only three subjects – autistic boys, 3-4 years old. 

2. In each case, the child was made to sit at a table and ordered to “go play” with two plastic playsets. If the child got up, they were ordered to sit back down.

Any expert in child development will tell you that preschoolers do not naturally sit in a chair and play with playsets on a table. They want to be on the floor and moving. So already we are in an unnatural set-up. 

screenshot from the study describing how the children were ignored if they tried to talk, or if they cried

3. Behaviors such as trying to speak to the instructor or crying were ignored.

Developmental psychologists can tell you that it is vital for children to be responded to when they are in distress. Children whose parents respond empathetically to distress are more emotionally competent in school, for example.

Ignoring a distress behavior, or ignoring a child’s attempt to engage in conversation is only going to blunt and discourage communication, which is the opposite of what an autistic child needs.

4. The preschoolers were rewarded for “appropriate play actions” with a small food treat and a “good job!” which is problematic on two levels – first of all, studies show that using food as rewards with children leads to unhealthy relationships with food.

Second of all, using external reinforcement reduces intrinsic motivation and thus makes the child less likely to play at all unless there are treats available. Third, praise is supposed to be specific

5. If the child did not perform a “correct” play action, the researcher would prompt them to do so. If they resisted prompting they were physically coerced into doing it. 

Now, none of this meets the criteria for meaningful play, which is supposed to be child-directed, intrinsically motivated, immersive, unscripted, and enjoyable. 

But I don’t think they cared about that. All they cared about was proving that autistic preschoolers “prefer” to play variably instead of repetitively after having their highly structured adult-directed “play” manipulated with food rewards and non-specific praise. 

quote by BF Skinner: The child who is exploring the real world around him is farther advanced than the child who has to run to the teacher for approval. The teacher -- if he is any good -- will make sure the child shifts his dependency to the world of things, otherwise the teacher will remain essential, and that, we don't want. @NeuroClastic #SayNoToABA

Of course, since it was a sample size of three with no statistical analysis, the study didn’t prove anything other than that the ethics committee must have been on a smoke break when this study landed on their desk.

…ABA research studies do go through ethics committees, right?

I mean, I once had to submit a proposal to an ethics committee so I could train a rat to press a lever in return for sugar water. So there’s definitely an ethics committee looking at studies that force children to sit in a chair without getting up and play with plastic figures in return for food rewards and ignore them while they cry.

…I just ask because that massive thesis made no mention of ethics committees or parental informed consent or anything, but that doesn’t mean they didn’t get ethics approval and consent from the parents. 

…Right?

They couldn’t just… pull kids out of their ABA program without ethics committee approval and work with them in an experiment which violates all modern child development recommendations without getting the parents to fill out an informed consent form.

That almost certainly didn’t happen and they probably just forgot to mention it or put any kind of appendix featuring their consent form or their ethics committee application in their doctoral thesis.

Right?

…I mean, most scientific journals actively require you to provide proof of participant consent and ethics committee approval before they will publish you. Taylor and Francis group do, for example, and they publish hundreds of journals including the Journal of Development Studies, The Journal of Psychology, The International Journal of Neuroscience and many more. 

…Okay, so the Journal of Applied Behavior Analysis does not require proof of consent, nor does it require the name of the ethics committed that approved it. In fact it makes no mention of ethics approval or consent, which is a little unusual in the science research world since the Declaration of Helsinki in 1964… 

But this wasn’t a peer-reviewed article, it’s a doctoral thesis. So many she didn’t feel the need to mention them or include them. 

Either way… this study never should have happened.

Until ABA updates its scientific methods, its functions of behavior, and incorporates modern day psychology – including neurology, child development, educational psychology, and other vital research – it cannot be considered to be a safe, effective, or ethical field. 

What bothers me most is the fact that they continue to peddle their vintage science as if it were cutting-edge to unsuspecting doctors and their patients.

I don’t think they know that ABA therapy fails to consider the emotional development of the child.

I don’t think they know that ABA therapy ignores neuroscience, behavioral genetics, attachment models, trauma models, culture, child development research…

I don’t think even qualified analysts know that their education may have ignored vital facets of behaviorism such as the perils of learned helplessness, the importance of instinctive drift, and the physiology of reward mechanisms.

They don’t know that using operant conditioning to alter anxiety-based behaviors is like painting over rotten wood. 

They don’t know how much they don’t know. Do any of us?

Isn’t science supposed to be all about incorporating new data? But then why is applied behavior analysis so closed off to other methodologies and branches of psychology? Why don’t they incorporate discoveries in neuroscience and child development?

Instead, in their hubris, they convince doctors, who don’t know any better because they study the body, not the mind, that theirs is cutting-edge science, the “gold standard” for autism therapy.

And the doctors then sell it to the parents.

Who don’t get told the truth.

How can ABA be the gold-standard for autism when it ignores everything we know about autism?

How can it be evidence-based when it cannot incorporate decades of evidence that rigid rules, overly-structured settings, and scripted tasks are harmful to child development?

How can it be called therapy when it ignores the actual condition at hand, including ignores critical modern autism research on the link between camouflaging autistic behavior and depression?

I mean, that research even pushed Simon Baron-Cohen himself into becoming a neurodiversity advocate.  And he’s the one who coined the whole “male brain” nonsense (which he now has recoined as “hyper-systematizing”).

He invented half the measures used to diagnose autism in the first place and now he realizes that autistic people should not be changed. Even he realizes that it’s messed up to do what ABA tries to do. As a scientist he seems to recognize the importance of updating your views and staying current.

Which ABA does not, it seems.

How can ABA therapy be evidence-based when it still relies on non-replicated studies with small subject numbers and few control groups?

Do the ABA therapy companies inform the parents that the science they are using dates back over half a century and has not been significantly updated since 1963?

Do they inform the parents that much of what they do directly goes against recommendations made by experts in child psychology and development?

Do they inform the parents that the most prominent and well known autism scientist recommends that autistic children be accepted and allowed to be themselves?

Parents have the right to be fully informed.

Parents have the right to be told that the “gold standard” for autism has not been significantly updated in over fifty years, despite a veritable waterfall of autism discoveries in the past twenty years.

In the time since ABA was created, we have gone from defining autism as a kind of mysterious infantile schizophrenia to recognizing it as a multi-faceted polygenetic neurological condition mediated by epigenetics, heritability, and with fascinating links to completely different conditions such as Ehler-Danlos syndrome and inflammatory bowel disease.

Every time the APA updates their diagnostic manual, the DSM, they have had to give autism a massive overhaul to accommodate the things they have discovered about autism since the last one was written. 

It needs another.

Yet ABA has not altered itself to take these changes or discoveries into account.

Parent have the right to be informed about this. 

Parents have the right to be informed that their child’s “therapist” may have no education in autism, no education in the neurobiological underpinnings of behavior, and no education in child psychological development. 

It’s easy to think you have all the answers when you’ve been armed with a handful of outdated formulae and told you can solve any problem the world throws at you.

It is easy, as a doctor, to believe ABA organizations and autism organizations like Autism Speaks when they declare ABA to be the “gold standard” for autism.

It’s easy, as a parent, to trust a treatment that is pushed heavily by your doctor as vital to your child’s development.

In my opinion, by their own ethics code, behavior analysts are ethically required to have disclaimers on their materials. 

There should be something like this on every consent form:

*ABA therapy focuses on the behavior of your child but does not take into account modern research in neurology, biophysical factors in behavior, neurodevelopmental conditions, trauma, or child development.

The methodology behind applied behavior analysis was founded in the ’50s and ’60s and your analyst’s education may not have incorporated more modern discoveries in psychology or behaviorism. 

Even if it were written in tiny disclaimer font on the bottom of posters, I’d consider it a big step forward.

It’s time to stop pretending that 20th century science has all the answers to a disorder we are only just barely beginning to understand.

It’s time to be honest about it.

It’s time to tell parents the truth. 

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