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. 


  1. I had no idea what ABA was, only heard it suggested by a behaviourist. I figured it had to be better than the mainstream-school version of "Punish an ASD child hours after the fact and tell him it was because he "chose to misbehave". I had no idea it was a really fraught system and I understand now why the Panel wasn't thrilled when it was brought up. Cheers for giving your perspective on this issue.

  2. Left some information on your previous blog.

  3. Given without prejudice-(before they delete!)


  5. Well,finally watched the non-spareroom nonsubsidy debate,on the immediate outlining of this policy my first reaction was to check if dialysis rooms were exempt and of course they were not.Readers such as they are would have noticed a desperate attempt by myself to outline that fact repeatedly.A recap-homehaemodialysis is the preferred option if possible-as it is cost saving,increases independence and PROVEN BETTER HEALTH OUTCOMES viv a vis hospital treatment -I argue and will continue to argue that this policy is defacto charging people for healthcare and shortening lives.I am extremely saddened by my worst fears becoming true.To further recap-the excuse not to outline such exemptions was that it was "too difficult-"a lie of horrendous proportions-the Council will already know.What to say?

  6. It appears the DWP and its press releases have given up on the pretence it is nought but fodder for the friendly tabloids,in this case it is helpfully complete for them-