Wednesday, 6 November 2013

Challenging Behaviourists

It's hard to describe other people as odd or irrational when you have no means of comparison other than your perception of yourself. If everyone in the world seems to be crazy and you feel that you are sane, you have no independent way of checking whether that is really the case. Some in this situation might feel the right response is to try and make others more like themselves and dictate their behaviour. My youngest niece is like this.

For an Autistic child it's more often a different approach; I'll leave you alone if you leave me alone. This is an entirely rational compromise, but it's always broken by non-Autistics and we show great patience in constantly tolerating it. But we still have to manage the stress of it and the effect it has on our ability to perceive and process the world around us, which quite often invites yet more unwarranted and unwelcome interference as our coping consists mainly of instinctive self-stimulation or 'stimming'.

This perspective on things is repeated by many Autistic adults who recollect their experiences as children. The participation of Autistics has driven Autism research forwards in ways that could never have happened in the days when Autistics were universally excluded from any form of meaningful participation in matters that affect us. In many places this rights-free consensus still has a tight grip and some of the foremost advocates of it are those who promote the use of Applied Behavioural Analysis in training Autistics. Some things need to be noted about behaviourists before moving on: they do not contribute to Autism research, they do not read Autism research, they are not qualified to make authoritative or sweeping statements about Autism and their research exists almost entirely to promote the use of Behavioural Analysis, not learn about the subjects it is used on. Behaviourists are also notoriously defensive, even downright legally aggressive- beware making any comment that can be construed as defamatory because you almost certainly do not have the resources to protect yourself and neither do I. On the inverse, behaviourists respond to criticism in a very extreme and atypical way, occasionally the response goes as far as being personally defamatory of the specific person who has criticised them. Stronger criticism has been made of cognitive psychologists, psycho-analysts and neurologists in their work on Autism: none of which ever respond in the manner that behaviourists do to the comparatively mild criticism they receive. That criticism is not only mild when contrasted with what exists in other fields, but also when you consider the extent of what behaviourists get away with in their blind march into Autism; things which would land anyone else in court. They get away with this because they've created a different environment for themselves with very different standards- legally, ethically and scientifically and Autism is the golden goose for them because Autistics are so marginalised within what should be their own movement for equal rights and dignity. If you are 'too Autistic' then you are said to not be capable of participation, but if you are 'mildly Autistic' you are said to be not qualified to speak meaningfully about the experience of those who are 'severely Autistic'. No explanation is ever given for why these standards are not applied to non-Autistics, who do not concern themselves with learning anything about Autism broadly. Behaviourists frequently create Autism myths and then try to explain how their craft works based on those myths; but they do not know enough about Autism to make such statements.

This was still the basis of the BBC4 programme 'Autism: Challenging Behaviour' where a false balance is presented of there being 'two sides among experts' on the issue of whether ABA is right for training Autistics. Nowhere in the programme was it mentioned that if you are an Autism expert, you are very likely to be against ABA and if you are not an Autism expert you are more likely to be uncritical of ABA. Behaviourists are very far from being Autism experts. Most of their 'understanding' repeats the words of Ivor Lovaas, who in the field of Autism research is cited by- absolutely no one, except in criticism. We're offered various pearls of wisdom about Autism from behaviourists, such as a repeat of Lovaas' canard that Autistics lack the 'skills to learn' and ABA 're-wires the brain'. The people that make these claims are not at all experts in Autism, neurology or even learning. To understand what is believed in mainstream science about how Autistics learn, I recommend this paper by actual Autism researchers.

The programme was breath-takingly kind to the behaviourists, with a single token 'villain' for us to boo at and for the nice accredited behaviourists to distance themselves from. Gunner Frederiksen however, is a mainstream behaviourist with mainstream views on Autism. That there exists behaviourists, usually running ABA schools who use a different tone and present their work and intent differently is a response to market forces and anticipation of bad publicity. It has nothing to do with scientific developments or natural ethical progression from within their field. Where these pressures do not exist, behaviourists are all Gunner Frederiksens. Even then he is gifted with a wonderfully unbalanced segment where we are introduced to his 'greatest success' in Sweden. I'd be more interested in his failures. Near the beginning some footage is shown from the early days of ABA in Autism, but it's very tame compared with the reality of what was going on and there is no exploration at all into the matter of how Autistics actually learn well. The work and legacy of Ivor Lovaas is not addressed at all, but he's the dirty skeleton in the behaviourist closet. The most successful study of ABA in Autism comes from his landmark 1987 paper and the results of this have never been replicated. They can't be replicated either because this study relied extensively on the use of punishments, but to describe it as 'punishment' puts it quite mildly. At the University of California and Berkely, Lovaas doused children in icy water, made them stand in uncomfortable positions, starved them, slapped them, blew loud noises directly into their ears, pinched them, pulled their hair, slammed them down and made them walk barefoot on an electrified floor. He tortured them.

How do behaviourists respond to Lovaas being used as a stick against them? In two ways- they deny that what they do is anything like what Lovaas did yet it took changes in the law to actually make behaviourists stop; Behavioural Analysis in Autism changes based on external pressures like this, not from any internal development. Where it is still legal- behaviourists still do things which would be illegal if done to anyone who was non-Autistic outside of an ABA setting. Again, behaviourists just insist that what they do is different from that. The second way they react is this: they then give awards to the very same groups they have distanced themselves from and never fail to provide whatever support to their colleagues who are taken to court: the Judge Rottenberg Center in Massachusetts is named after the same man who ruled that the school could stay open and deny Autistics basic human rights and dignity. The case was won because of the overwhelming support of the mainstream behavioural analysis industry reassuring Rottenberg that the practices of the school were normal, ethical(for Autistics) and mainstream, as well as parents enthusiastic about ABA.

Where they can get away with it; they do it. It makes their sentiments about 'nice ABA' utterly empty and where they are genuine in their sentiments- they do not get to choose what ABA is about. They can only choose whether they do it or don't do it; the consequences are what gets the final word, yet there is no qualitative research into adult outcomes for children who have received ABA. In fact there is very little qualitative research at all, despite it being the responsibility of research behaviourists to produce it. They instead focus their efforts on justifying the use of ABA. Looking at the literature, despite Lovaas' results never being replicated- you never notice ABA ever failing(by performing worse than the comparison controls, for subjects receiving other interventions or none at all). This is strange, it is unusual- even vaccines and antibiotics do not have success rates like this. You know what does? Alternative medicines, quackery; their proponents never produce research with mixed results. When you get qualitative research, it doesn't get acknowledged by organisations advancing the cause of ABA.

Autism: Challenging Behaviour failed to provide accurate and concise criticism of ABA. Even in the promotional articles that were put out to advertise the programme, the tone was very pro-ABA. Even with this though, behaviourists still responded quite strongly to even the idea that the programme would have content that was minimally critical. I will make one complaint to the BBC about one specific matter- that the programme failed to point out that the behaviourists featured are not Autism experts, that their assertions about Autism are not based on any scientific evidence and that the divide between those for and against ABA IS broadly speaking between people who are not Autism experts and people who are. 

Saturday, 2 November 2013

What Really Happened

The other week on Twitter I read that a senior civil servant at the Department of Work and Pensions, Robert Devereux, is being set up to take the fall for the imminent and inevitable failure of the supporting infrastructure for Universal Credit. This is largely because Iain Duncan Smith has been dodging scheduled appearances before the Work and Pensions and Public Accounts select committees: Devereux has been the only one showing up to take the heat. (Whilst writing this post it has now been reported that Devereux will resign if he's directly criticised by the PAC in their report published in a few weeks)

Iain Duncan Smith behaved impeccably at conference, leading me to predict that he would not be removed in a reshuffle though not because he was strong but because whilst he is much weaker than before, he is still needed. The current Prime Minister has made extensive use of scapegoats to shield himself from media scrutiny, which has been extraordinarily light-touch, enabling him to lose a historical vote on military intervention and carry on like nothing happened where this would have been a resigning matter for any of his predecessors- including Blair in 2003. He is well-practised and un-sentimentally callous in his scape-goating. Smith is no longer safe, the option of allowing himself to be removed and then pinning the blame for the disasters happening on the very act of his removal is now closed and it's the only defence he had against Cameron.
Smith's ideas are entirely belief-based

His legacy is in shreds, even if his belief in it has been cut only at the furthest margins. To cling on until 2015 he's resorting to something that will appease his boss and he thinks will get him off the hook. But for this to work, it is not enough to pin the blame on Robert Devereux; already David Freud the Minister For Welfare Reform is being scape-goated *publicly* as one official after another responds to criticism of unpopular policies by "it was Lord Freud's idea". That won't be enough either; they will run out of patsies, even if they make Smith one of them. The man-made crisis they are responsible for is that large and now not even the most complacent in the mainstream media can ignore it now. Given how politicians do demonstrate some foresight when it's a matter of self-preservation, this will ultimately come down to their success in re-writing very recent history. The worst thing about this is that it could work; the public and media have very short memories that are easy to manipulate. If they don't want to know something, they usually manage to re-arrange their recollection to satisfy that.

Not this time. It has to stop now because politicians should not be able to get away with things like shutting care homes and then pretending they don't know why invalid and disability benefits shoot up, or means-testing benefits that then lose public support, absolving themselves of direct responsibility for employment levels whilst imposing ever harsher conditionality on the unemployed, saying they'll help but ignoring the evidence of what works and introducing measures designed to kick a certain number of claimants off benefits no matter what and saying that this is about 'fairness'. Each and every time- they have failed and each and every time they have failed, they have been allowed to make astonishing revisions of the record.

They're going to ramp that up. Right-wing figures in Britain believe Smith to be popular- he isn't; acting tough on benefit claimants is popular. He just comes decorated with a superficial righteous cherry-on-top and once the public kind of grasp that he's incompetent, they will look to someone else to deliver the same policies but with a 'hard-thinking realist' decoration. Newspapers like the Guardian and Independent are only just starting to behave how they should have been two years ago when they were warned well in advance of the looming disaster. Their only interest is in selling newspapers and if the government's historical revisions(and those of Labour, who still will not come clean about their actual 1997-2010 record) do that, then journalists will play right along.
Mainstream media: Too little fact-checking, too much delay
Be prepared to go right back to the source materials and reports that were being circulated two and three years ago- the story running up to the 2015 election will be a complete fabrication that directly contradicts the evidence.