Wednesday, April 23, 2014

How necessary is the analysis of autistic behavior?

Punishment wreaks havoc. There are better ways to improve behavior than the iron fist held ready to strike the wrong-doer, the commonplace fix for anyone caught crossing the line.

Scientific discoveries of the branch of psychology called Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA) have provided techniques of rewarding "good" behaviors, and when they do it well, bad behaviors can fade away to oblivion, with no need for the cries of justice and retribution in the name of teaching accountability and responsibility. Many decades of laboratory findings with animals and humans have produced technological treatments for maladaptive behaviors emitted by all kinds of populations, especially people with serious disabilities, and autistics have topped the list. As a result, worried parents and confounded school districts often hire Board Certified Behavior Analysts (BCBA's) to modify the "problem" behaviors of autistics, but when is it really necessary? When is a problem truly a problem? Which behaviors are rightfully slated for reduction? Who has the right to deem any action "improper"? Who is a better judge, a scientist or a philosopher?

Two Alternatives to Punishment

One day about ten yeas ago I was assigned to be a substitute teacher for a first-grade class. I didn't want the little kids running around, out of control, and I didn't want to punish them either, so for five minutes I let them power walk around their desks, which were clustered together in the middle of the room, under the condition that if and only if they sat down and did their work for twenty minutes, then they could get up and do their thing.

In technical jargon, I was using the Differential Reinforcement of Incompatible Behavior (DRI). Nobody can sit and run at the same time. By reinforcing in-seat behavior during work time, unwanted out-of-seat behavior tends to go away. See Baisenger and Roberts (1972).

I was also using the Premack Principle which explains why grandmothers like to say, "You can eat your pudding after you eat your meat." Premack (1959) discovered that access to more-preferred activities after less-preferred activities strengthens the rate of engagement in the less-preferred activities. So I let them tramp around their seats after they wrote their numbers.

They consented, did their work, had some fun, and everybody seemed happy. Nobody reprimanded anybody. There was no need to keep them inside from the playground. Children, as well as adults, commonly object to punishment and its harmful effects, especially when they are the ones being punished. See The Problem with Punishment (2007). They should be allowed to say, "Leave me alone," to an authoritarian teacher. For further analysis of this kind of dissent, see The Consent of the Subject of Behavior Research and Therapy in Behavioral Ethics (2011).

Neurodiversity (When ABA Isn't Necessary)

Notwithstanding its proven success in the classroom, ABA is not without critics. The profession butters its bread with its lucrative "management" of autistic behavior, but autistic advocates are objecting to the practice. Leaders of the Neurodiversity Movement are proud to be called autistics. Behaviorists, they say, stand in the way of the growth of a healthy identity.

For example, Zurcher (2012, par.5 said, "Teaching autistic people how to ‘pass’ so they can blend in better with non-autistics is similar to the belief that a closeted gay person will live a happier and more fulfilled life by being closeted than someone who is 'out.''' She was responding to Dawson's (2004) influential paper, The Misbehaviour of Behaviourists: Ethical Challenges to the Autism-ABA Industry.

Furthermore, in a bold move against autistic 'therapies," a coalition of autistic advocates, led by the Autistic Self Advocacy Network (2014) (ASAN), sent a joint letter to sponsors of Autism Speaks (A.S.) urging them to end their support this organization. Autism Speaks was devoid of autistic leaders. They raised funds with ads that compared autism to a fatal disease. Meanwhile, autistics were running some major events of their own where Z. (2012) described the "autistic space" of the "ASAN second annual gala," free of "neurotypical" norms, where "stim toys (were) readily available."

The behavioral journals have many examples of the type of put-downs objected to by these autistic adults. For example, in the Journal of Applied Behavior Analysis, Foxx and Azrin (1973) said, "Self-stimulatory behavior continues as a major problem among retardates and autistic children (p.2)." They spoke about behaviorists trying to "eliminate" head-weaving, body-rocking, thumb-sucking, body-part-rubbing, object-mouthing, and object-spinning, with tranquilizers, electric shock, thigh-slapping, and "painting the thumb with a distasteful solution (1973, pp. 1-4)." Taken to an extreme, behavior analysts at the Judge Rotenberg Center (JRC) have been known to shock autistic children with painful electricity devices only "for minor misdeeds, like yelling or cursing (Gonnerman, 2007, p.1)."

Presumably, without knowing it, informed parents and their public school sending districts consented to JRC "torture (or) cruel, inhuman or degrading...treatment or punishment.  (Méndez, J., 2013, cover page, p. 84)." JRC would not be strapping electricity packs to the backs of children if they were granted the right to dissent.

Autistic leaders have valid objections to so-called "behavior therapy," especially when they target behaviors that don't hurt anybody, such as self-stimulation. It would be better if society could welcome and embrace neurodiversity instead of squelching their atypical expressions.

Self-Injurious Behavior (When ABA May Be Necessary)

On the other hand, when problematic behaviors cause real self-inflicted harm to autistics themselves, then ABA can be justified. Self-Injurious Behavior (SIB) such as "eye-poking, chronic rumination, frequent arm-biting, (and) violent head-banging" in autism and developmental disabilities can result in "severe, life-threatening injuries (Weiss, 2002, p. 130)."
Carr (1977)...summarized the existing literature into three possible motivations for SIB (and said) self-injury may be an operant behavior maintained by positive social reinforcement. In contrast, self-injury may also be motivated by negative reinforcement, in which behavior is maintained or strengthened by the removal of an aversive stimulus. Finally, self-injury may be reinforced by sensory stimulation. The most frequently used reinforcement-based treatments for self-injury include differential reinforcement of other behaviors (rewarding them for not injuring themselves) and of incompatible behaviors (Repp, Singh, Olinger, and Olson, 1990) (In Weiss, 2002, p. 135).
So ABA treatment can help when autistics hurt themselves. Clearly, behavior science knows how to change behavior, but the advocates should be telling them which behaviors should be targeted for change. How do the analysts decide a "target behavior" is a "problem behavior"? What are their criteria for judging a problem as a problem? 


Since parents and professionals can make serious mistakes, ABA is most ethical when children also have the authority to dissent from any intervention they do not want. Ethical behaviorism under maximal consent has the potential to satisfy every individual who holds a stake in the outcome of autistic behavior, including the outspoken members of the Neurodiversity community. Who is a better advocate for an autistic child than an autistic adult who knows how it feels to be autistic? They should be seated on Child Study Teams in districts containing school-wide programs of Positive Behavior Support, the educational correlate to ABA. This would provide the children with constructive alternatives to conventional school discipline, which is also known as "the pipeline to prison (School to Prison Pipeline, 2014)."


The Autistic Self Advocacy Network. (2014). Joint letter to the sponsors of Autism Speaks. Retrieved April 23, 2014 from

Baisinger, J., and Roberts, C. L. (1972). Reduction of intraspecies aggression in rats by positive reinforcement of incompatible behaviors. Journal of the Experimental Analysis of Behavior, 18(3), 535-540. Retrieved April 23, 2014 from

Behavioral Ethics. (2011). Retrieved April 23, 2014 from

Carr, E. G. (1977). The motivation of self-injurious behavior: A review of some hypotheses. Psychological Bulletin, 84, 800-816. (In Weiss, 2002).

Dawson, M. (2004). The misbehaviour of behaviourists: Ethical challenges to the autism-ABA industry. Retrieved April 23, 2014 from

Foxx, R. M., and Azrin, N. H. (1973). The elimination of autistic self-stimulatory behavior by overcorrection. Journal of Applied Behavior Analysis, 6(1), 1-14. Retrieved April 23, 2014 from

Gonnerman, J. (2007). The school of shock. Mother Jones, 1-6. Retrieved April 23, 2014 from

Méndez, J. E. (2013). Report of the special rapporteur on torture and other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment. (Human Rights No. A/HRC/22/53/Add.4). United Nations: United Nations General Assembly Human Rights Council. Retrieved April 23, 2014 from

Premack, D. (1959). Toward empirical behavior laws: Positive reinforcement. Psychological Review, 66(4), 219-233. doi:10.1037/h0040891

The Problem with Punishment. (2007). Retrieved April 23, 2014 from

Repp, A. C., Singh, N. N., Olinger, E., and Olson, D. R. (1990). The use of functional analysis to test causes of self-injurious behavior: Rationale, current status, and future directions. Journal of Mental Deficiency Research, 34, 95-105. (In Weiss, 2002).

School to Prison Pipeline. (2013). Retrieved April 23, 2014 from

Weiss, J. (2002). Self-injurious behaviors in autism: A literature review. Journal on Developmental Disabilities, 9(2), 129-143. Retrieved April 23, 2014 from

Z., A. (2012). Finding home at the GALA. Autistic Self Advocacy Network Newsletter Retrieved from

Zurcher, A. (2012 ). Michelle Dawson: Tackling that troublesome issue of ABA and ethics. Retrieved April 23, 2014 from

Sunday, April 20, 2014

Today is Easter. I begin this letter with some philosophy of science and then of religion, which lead me to conclude something about Mom's afterlife.

Dear family and friends,

Today is Easter. I begin this letter with some philosophy of science and then of religion, which lead me to conclude something about Mom's afterlife. I hope it's understandable to anyone who can take an undergraduate course in philosophy. If not, it shows the writing problem of an author rather than the lack of anyone's reading skill.

Some Philosophy of Science

Karl Popper (Wikipedia), a leading twentieth-century philosopher of science, said a theory is scientific if it is falsifiable. A million positive factual confirmations can support a theory, but they can never prove it to be true, because one incident, as yet unobserved, can still prove it to be false, unless the speaker of the claim has verified the complete population of a given set of objects, which indeed would prove it to be true. On the other hand, the potential existence of one solitary contradictory fact, whether or not revealed in an experiment, packs a wallop of logical validity to any theory, by way of deduction, rather than through induction, the latter of which draws inadequate conclusions from incomplete sets of observations.

For example, in the centuries before they created the British Empire, Ancient and Medieval Brits had only seen the white swan (Wikipedia) of the Northern Hemisphere. It is likely that people used to say, "All swans are white." Later on, however, British explorers found the Black Swan (Wikipedia) of southern Australia which eviscerated the veracity of the claim that all swans are white. Even though the idea had eventually been falsified, the statement itself has always been a testable, falsifiable hypothesis. Therefore, it is a scientific idea. By sighting the black swan, a new bit of undeniable information was added to the ever-accumulating knowledge base of biology (from the North-Western rather than the Australian perspective, of course), namely: "Not all swans are white."

Alternately, a falsifiable claim can be supported by many positive confirmations even though it has not yet been falsified. Presumably, persistent observation has always verified that "the sun sheds light each and every day." A completely dark reading is actually possible. Over the eons, it looks like the sun's degeneration might obliterate its way down into complete obscurity1. Nevertheless, even though "solar light exists" remains an unfalsified, falsifiable statement, we can still heat our homes with solar energy panels, which would not function if the statement were false.

To illustrate again, if someone says, "My seven sisters stand taller than five feet," he can prove it to be true by measuring all of them. Nevertheless, such a statement, once proven true, is still scientific, because a four-foot sister, had she existed, would have nullified the sentence.

If an astronomer says, "All comets in the galaxy are bigger than one-inch square," she might have an idea that the statement is true. One billion confirmations and zero falsifications, out of a total of two billion potential observations, is pretty good evidence. Once again, the statement is scientific because there might be a one-millimeter square comet floating around, as yet unobserved.

An unscientific statement is one that cannot possibly be falsified. Popper said Freud was unscientific. The id, the ego, and the superego are unconscious, so they cannot be observed or measured by a scientific instrument. They might be real phenomena, and he might have heard some corroborating evidence, such as the tale of a dream about sex, but nobody can show them to be false. Psychoanalysis, therefore, is conjectural, as believable as saying "a well-intended rain dance makes the gods happy enough to bring the rain," neither of which are deniable. Perhaps some day an inventor will patent a scope of the mind and tinker inside the unconscious proceedings of a willing neurotic subject, and perhaps that day Moses II will record the voice of God and His miraculous bush being burned without consumption, but until it happens, neither psychoanalysis nor the Book of Genesis is a matter of science.

Philosophy of Religion

Although Popper's logic was directly concerned with epistemology, the theory of knowledge, or how we know whether or not something is true, he also spoke about religion.

Wikipedia (Karl Popper) said,
In an interview that Popper gave in 1969 with the condition that it shall be kept secret until after his death, he summarized his position on God as follows: "I don't know whether God exists or not.... Some forms of atheism are arrogant and ignorant and should be rejected, but agnosticism—to admit that we don't know and to search—is all right.... When I look at what I call the gift of life, I feel a gratitude which is in tune with some religious ideas of God. However, the moment I even speak of it, I am embarrassed that I may do something wrong to God in talking about God...." He objected to organized religion, saying "it tends to use the name of God in vain", noting the danger of fanaticism because of religious conflicts: "The whole thing goes back to myths which, though they may have a kernel of truth, are untrue. Why then should the Jewish myth be true and the Indian and Egyptian myths not be true?" In a letter unrelated to the interview, he stressed his tolerant attitude: "Although I am not for religion, I do think that we should show respect for anybody who believes honestly."
Agnostics believe God might exist, might not exist, and they cannot know for sure. When there is no possible terranean fact that can contradict a spiritual argument or a mythical belief, then it is okay to hold such a belief, but Popper couldn't support religious assertions which have been falsified by human exerience.

For example, the statement that "God is all good and all powerful" was falsified by Hitler's extermination of Jews. Therefore, Popper would argue against a supernatural belief in the stand-alone claim that God is all good and powerful. However, the Church has amended the dogma with the notion of a phenomenon that operates independent of the will of God. Hitler chose to do evil on account of the free will of man2, regardless of His superior strength. Since nothing we can see, hear, or smell can falsify this more complete Catholic teaching of His omnipotence, Popper would concede the possibility of the amended version.

Our Mom and the Big Blue Yonder

Right now, an agnostic can say, with the legitimate strength of a Popperesque argument, that Mom could be tugging on the strings of heaven making sure we'll be okay. Some years ago I asked her one time, "If you die before me, please send me a clear sign that you're out there, rather than a subtle hint, something like a text message in the clouds saying, 'Hi, Dave, this is Mom. Find a place for everything and keep everything in its place." She said she would if she could.

So was it a coincidence or a sign from her spirit last week when my handyman helped me out of a serious personal problem? While he was here I learned that his designated first name is the same name as our deceased brother's middle name, which is an uncommon name. I will never know for sure if she sent him here to help, because if she did, it was too subtle of a sign to be certain. Pondering the notion, however, gave me the Goosebumps. Sometimes I feel like we all have a guardian angel.

Happy Easter.




1 The sun fuses hydrogen to make energy. Physicists say it will run out of hydrogen, start to collapse, re-heat, grow into a red giant, "succumb to gravity again," blow off its outer layer, and shrink down to a glowing white dwarf "surrounded by an expanding shell of gas in an object known as a planetary nebula (White Dwarfs, High Energy Astrophysics Science Archive Research Center, retrieved April 20, 2014)."

"A white dwarf fueled by proton decay generates approximately 400 Watts, enough power to run a few light bulbs, or, alternately, about 1/2 horsepower (Adams and Laughlin, 1996, p. 22)."

"It may take 10 billion years, but our Sun will someday reach the end of the line and quietly become a black dwarf (White Dwarfs, High Energy Astrophysics Science Archive Research Center, retrieved April 20, 2014)."

Eventually, as the galaxy evolves, "neutron stars, white dwarfs, and brown dwarfs (will remain) at the end of stellar evolution.... (The) galaxy gradually depletes its stars by ejecting the majority, and driving a minority toward eventual accretion onto massive black holes. As the galaxy disperses, stellar remnants provide a mechanism for converting the halo dark matter into radioactive energy.... After accounting for the destruction of the galaxy, we consider the fate of the expelled degenerate objects (planets, white dwarfs, and neutron stars).... After white dwarfs and neutron stars have disappeared, galactic black holes slowly lose their mass (Adams and Laughlin, 1996, p. 1).

"Eras of the Future Universe....

"Our current understanding of the universe suggests that we can organize the future into distinct eras, somewhat analogous to geological eras:

"[A] The Radiation Dominated Era.... This era corresponds to the usual time period in which most of the energy density of the universe is in the form of radiation.

"[B] The Stelliferous Era.... Most of the energy generated in the universe arises from nuclear processes in conventional stellar evolution.

"[C] The Degenerate Era.... Most of the (baryonic) mass in the universe is locked up in degenerate stellar objects: brown dwarfs, white dwarfs, and neutron stars. Energy is generated through proton decay and particle annihilation.

"[D] The Black Hole Era.... After the epoch of proton decay, the only stellar-like objects remaining are black holes of widely disparate masses, which are actively evaporating during this era.

"[E] The Dark Era.... At this late time, protons have decayed and black holes have evaporated. Only the waste products from these processes remain: mostly photons of colossal wavelength, neutrinos, electrons, and positrons. The seeming poverty of this distant epoch is perhaps more due to the difficulties inherent in extrapolating far enough into the future, rather than an actual dearth of physical processes (Adams and Laughlin, 1996, p. 45-46)."

"In spite of the wealth of recent progress in our understanding of cosmology, the future evolution of the universe cannot be unambiguously predicted.... The universe can be closed...flat...or open.... If the universe is closed, then the total lifetime of the universe, from Big Bang to Big Crunch, can be relatively short in comparison with the characteristic time scales of many of the physical processes considered in this paper.... We also note that a closed universe model can in principle be generalized to give rise to an oscillating universe. In this case, the Big Crunch occurring at the end of the universe is really a 'Big Bounce' and produces a new universe of the next generation.... The universe will either continue expanding forever or will collapse back in on itself, but it is not commonly acknowledged that observations are unable to provide a definitive answer to this important question (Adams and Laughlin, 1996, p. 32)."

Popper might have asked Adams and Laughlin how their observations might falsify their theory of an oscillating universe. Perhaps they already know.

2 I never heard a woman object to masculine nouns and pronouns when speaking of the evils of war.

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I am an advocate for people with disabilities certified to teach special education with a Master of Arts in Teaching. I am not a Licensed Psychologist or a Board Certified Behavior Analyst. When in doubt, seek the advice of an MD, a PhD, or a BCBA. My ability to analyze the ethics of ABA stems from the fact that I am disabled and ABA interventions are often done to people like me, which I voluntarily accept, but only when I alone am the person granting consent, and not a parent, sibling, guardian, or institution.