Emotions Go Both Ways, Unless It’s ABA

Editor’s Note: Jeni Canaday is a neurodivergent advocate, autistic ally, and mother to an autistic son.

A Preface

I am just a mom. Everything I know, I learned from my son. I run all of our advocacy by him and he has given me enthusiastic permission to share these words.

What’s my numero uno gripe about ABA Therapy? 

ABA (Applied Behavioral Analysis) needs to give its credit for being  “scientifically validated” to its lack of consideration. 

In ABA, individuality and emotions need not apply; they are not variables. That’s a fact.

I’ve probably watched hundreds of sessions of ABA. Hell, I’ve even implemented it with my own child (which is a nightmare and a horrible parent story for another day).

It doesn’t take long to see that the subject’s personal feelings are not a factor in ABA therapy.  According to the model of emotion, it cannot be measured without mutual understanding of the personal meaning that a stimuli has on the subject/experiment. I don’t know why behaviorists can’t acknowledge this.

Right now, I’m talking to you wise souls. Let’s get into this.

Here is an example of what happens when humans are displaced from their emotions (a side effect of ABA “therapy”), from the mouth of an ABA practitioner (and “practice” is an appropriate term here because all ABA is experimental):

In a recently published article, Deric Toney and Linda Hayes explored the intricacies of apologies and forgiveness from a behavior analytic perspective. They provided a functional account of the contingencies that operate in a situation when one person offends another. In their account, the forgiving response ultimately serves as the reinforce[r] for the apology. Accounts like this one might be useful when working with clients…where a behavior analyst has to explicitly teach someone how to identify emotions and interact with others.

-Todd Ward, BCBA-D

The power to “explicitly teach someone how to identify emotions” should never be granted to a “science” that doesn’t even consider emotions a variable. Those who truly see behavior as communication also understand that they have a responsibility to look deeper than what can be physically observed, and to encourage others to do the same.

BF Skinner, one of the founding fathers of Behaviorism, said it himself in the book Walden II: “We are only just beginning to understand the power of love because we are just beginning to understand the weakness of force and aggression.” He also said that, “Behavior is never the result of experimental study; instead it is the result of good conduct.”

ABA is nothing more than experimentation. Yes, maybe “good conduct” will be achieved for many of the fawns (via submission through compliance training) but all fawns lose their spots.

Of the fighters who were born with their horns and flyers born with wings, they will never be tamed things. Neurodiversity is in their genes.

Think about it.

Anytime behavior modification is the goal, the choice and autonomy must belong to the the individual: no matter what their personal communication modality is at the time, their spirit must be included in the conversation.

So if you don’t understand the rich context of behaviorese, step back and leave the teaching about feelings to the proverbial Bodhisattvas.

Let Neurodiversity speak!

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9 Responses

  1. Without a doubt this is one of the most phenomenal articles I have ever read I’m glad to be working with you.

  2. I love this. Instead of using/causing the dark green leaf, parents, educators and society need to use the lighter – its all that Aspies have been for – either overtly or indirectly
    Though shame and guilt are often used to create submission also

  3. Hi, thanks for quoting our article. However, emotions are hugely important variables in Applied Behavior Analysis and individuality what what sets ABA apart from the rest of psychology, as most other approaches focus on group averages. Please reach out if you would like to learn more about ABA. Thanks. Dr. Ward.

    1. How do you measure these hugely important emotions? By how hard a non verbal child fights to escape the painful demand?

      1. You can’t measure emotions really because you cannot assume what someone else is experiencing as a private event. Also, what do you consider a painful demand? Teaching a child to dress themself? Teaching a child to use the bathroom? ABA is used to teach functional and adaptive skills. Would you want your child to be unable to care for themself? Or unable to communicate to their peers? Wouldn’t that make someone feel a type of way, while we are on the subject of emotions. I really will never understand these arguments. The fact that you used the term “escape” evens shows that yes, children engage in problem behavior to escape tasks. God forbid we teach kids to name things in their environment or to communicate their wants and needs instead of screaming, crying, and throwing themselves on the floor (let alone more serious challenging behavior such as self injury and elopement – / the leading cause of death among children with autism). Hit pieces on ABA undermines the progress that is made for these kids and families everyday..

  4. “BF Skinner, one of the founding fathers of Behaviorism, said it himself in the book Walden II: “We are only just beginning to understand the power of love because we are just beginning to understand the weakness of force and aggression.” He also said that, “Behavior is never the result of experimental study; instead it is the result of good conduct.””

    Humility is not on those leaves; yet I feel Skinner showed a deep humility when he said this.

    [We are beginning to understand the weakness of force and aggression].

    Understanding power of and through weakness – that too is humility to me.

    Experimental study shows the reasons and results of good conduct and how it differs from not-so-good conduct or bad conduct.

    And creates/evolves ways on how to model it and why.

    Something I wish successor behaviourists [and everyone else in this field] would show.

    [I think humility is somewhere between submission and awe + or a closely ambiguous mixture of both].

    Yes, fawns do lose their spots when they become mature deer.

    The males grow antlers; true – and their coats become plain and indistinguishable for those who are not looking or who are not their conspecifics/contemporaries.

    And the antlers do break or come apart nearly every year – and there are so many fights for survival!

  5. “The power to ‘explicitly teach someone how to identify emotions’ should never be granted to a ‘science’ that doesn’t even consider emotions a variable.” This is an inaccurate characterization of ABA. Skinner himself wrote extensively about “private events,” which is the term he used for behaviors and stimuli that are only observable to the person experiencing them. He specifically talked about anger, happiness, frustration, nostalgia, love, joy, and fear, to name a few. Skinner said that private events MUST be factored in in order to have a thorough understanding of human behavior (Skinner, 1953; Skinner, 1957; Skinner, 1974; Skinner, 1984). Modern day behavior analysts hold the same view.

    I agree with the idea that children do not have to be compliant 100% of the time, but this is culturally-determined. In many traditional Asian families, children are expected to be highly compliant. In some South American cultures, adults rarely place any demands on children at all and when they do, they don’t expect them to comply. If a child is generally compliant and is a willing participant in his or her learning, then the occasional noncompliance should be analyzed by the team, including the parents. Is the child feeling sick? Is this task particularly hard? Does the child not like this particular teacher? The team should fix those variables instead of forcing the child to comply. And the team should teach the child to say things like, “No thanks” and “Maybe later” when asked to do something they don’t want to. On the other hand, if the child is non-compliant most of the time, then that does need to be directly targeted for intervention. The goal of ABA is for children to learn the behaviors necessary to allow them to be able to function in the least restricted setting. You can’t teach the child anything if they won’t participate in the learning activities. This isn’t a knock on their neurodiversity. We should honor who each person is as an individual. I agree that we should leave quirks and eccentricities alone, as long as no one is being hurt by them. BUT, they are going to have a very different life trajectory if they don’t learn how to talk, read, socialize, take care of their own needs, and yes, stand up for themselves. This is what good ABA does.

    In response to the commenter who asked, “How do you measure emotions?,” the answer is that only the person experiencing them can measure their emotions. I can’t measure your emotions because I can’t observe them. In other words, I don’t know what you’re feeling; I can only guess. You can measure your own emotions by recording how many times a day/week you have a certain emotion. Many people do this already by using a mood tracker embedded in their personal planner. You can measure how long you have a certain emotion, for example, how many hours you feel anxious each day. You can measure the latency between some stimulus or event and when an emotion starts (e.g., recording how long it takes before you angry at your mother-in-law during a holiday dinner, as in “Whew! I held on for 3 hours hours this time! That beat my record at Thanksgiving when I Iost my mind after only 45 minutes!”) You can measure the amount of time that passes between occurrences of a certain feeling (e.g., “Okay, I’ve noticed that about 3 and 1/2 weeks goes by between my episodes of insane anger. Maybe it’s related to my menstrual cycle?” Etc.

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