Monday, April 6, 2015

A so-called "deviant autistic child" becomes a multibillion dollar benefactor of Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA). Not.

— Is the little autistic toddler different in the way s/he behaves? What is a Mommy or Daddy to do? There’s no need to fear! ABA Man is here! (Featuring Todd Risley of Applied Behavior Analysis - ABA. This nut job really did call us actual autistics "deviants!" See Risley, 1968.)

Please follow along below:

B. F. Skinner, the founder and primary proponent of what would become of behavior modification, was right to warn the world about the problem of punishment (2014/1953, p. 183), but he was wrong to say it’s unnecessary to “quibble” about how we decide if a behavior is good or bad (1961/1955, p. 3, p. 6). He was on the first editorial board of ABA's flagship Journal of Applied Behavior Analysis (JABA) (Society for the Experimental Analysis of Behavior, 1968). This would eventually play out as a critical leadership mistake.

In JABA 1(1), Baer, Wolf, and Risley (1968) wrote their frequently cited Some Current Dimensions of ABA and set the tone and scientific guidelines for the ABA age to come. The popular-norm-of-the-day became and remains chief among ABA standards for their ethical judgments regarding what constitutes a "socially important behavior problem," what they had set out to solve. They valued heterosexuality in Current Dimensions to the implied degradation of gays. ABA had also been known to “treat” the “sin” of feminine boy mannerisms. (See Dawson, 2004.) In the same inaugural issue, the very same Risley (1968) published an experiment for torturing away the “autistic behaviors” of a so-called “deviant child.” What did she do wrong? He electro-shocked the young girl and told her mother to spank her for climbing upon the precious family furniture and she acted like a "freak," which is a cruel word from back in the day.

(This blogger recalls seeing a movie called "Freaks" from the mid-1970's at the Red Bank, New Jersey Carlton Theater, currently called the Count Basie Theater. It showed graphic images of disfigured human beings displayed at the side show of a circus. Risley writing this report to his peers in the technical language of ABA science leads the blogger to ask if he could ever view his "subjects" as real human beings.)

 — "Her climbing was a constant source of concern to her parents due to the threat to her life and limb (her body bore multiple scars from past falls; her front teeth were missing, having been left embedded (sic) in a 2 by 4-inch molding from which she had fallen while climbing outside the second story of her house), and the attendant destruction of furniture in the house. She had attended several schools for special children but had been dropped from each because of these disruptive behaviors and her lack of progress." (Quoted directly from Risley, 1968, p. 22.)

— "Punishment with shock for climbing in the laboratory: A hand-held inductorium was constructed which operated on a series of seven 1.5-v flashlight batteries. When a button was pressed this device delivered shock across two contacts ¾ inches apart. The coil, interrupter, and shock contacts were obtained from a commercially available device for shocking live stock (Hot Shot Products, Minneapolis 16, Minnesota). From oscilloscope readings it was estimated that the average voltage output was in the range of 300 to 400 volts, with occasional spikes exceeding 1000 volts. Subjectively, the shock produced a sharp, extremely painful sting, localized in the area of the body to which the contacts were touched, much like being struck with a vigorously applied willow switch. The pain terminated with the removal of the shock, with no after-effects such as redness, swelling of the skin, tingling, or aching. (Observers of the sessions in which shock was applied reported that, on the basis of observable autonomic responses such as flushing, trembling, etc., the subject recovered from the shock episodes much faster than the experimenter.)" ("Straight from the horse's mouth" (as Persico, 2011 likes to say) with Risley, 1968, p. 25 being the "horse" of this paragraph. Now give the beast stale Cheerios™ as its treat.)

— "In the twenty-seventh experimental session (first and second arrows, Fig. 3) when the bookcase had been present for 14 sessions (6.4 session-hr), shock was applied contingent upon climbing. When the child climbed on the bookcase, the experimenter would shout "No!", run to her, take hold of one leg, touch the shock contacts to the calf or lower thigh and depress the switch for approximately 1 second. The experimenter then returned to his chair, looked down at the table until S (Subject) returned to her chair, and then looked up and resumed reinforcing eye contacts." (Exactly as in Risley, 1968, p. 25.)

— I'm helping her so much, she would benefit from a whole slew of various shock procedures. I'll keep it up for 125 days inside the lab and then back at her home. Sooner or later, she'll learn her lesson and then she won't fall off a chair and bump her nose. (Projected and dramatized from the content of the report. For the final day count, see Risley, 1968, p. 30)

— While I'm saving her life and protecting her from herself by shocking the hell out of her, she's also weird. Let me fix that, too. "Rhythmic twisting of the head was the criterion for recording a period of autistic rocking. This rocking usually included movement of the shoulders and upper trunk and was always accompanied by a monotonic humming. S's eyes were either closed or focused on her hand, which was held out in front of her face and rocked her upper body back and forth.... Midway through Session 108 (arrow, Fig. 5) the following procedure was introduced. The experimenter shouted "Stop that!", seized S by the upper arms, and shook her whenever she began rocking. He would wait until her eyes were closed or fixed on her hand before abruptly shouting and shaking her. This event invariably produced a "startle reflex" and flushing in S. This contingency, which terminated each rocking episode, of course, decreased the time spent rocking from 25% to less than 1% of the session (top graph, Fig. 5). More important, the frequency of rocking episodes also decreased steadily from 0.94 per min in the first session where this contingency was applied, to 0.03 per min in the tenth session. This indicated that shouting and shaking S was a punishing stimulus which decreased the probability of the behaviors...."(Quotes are taken word for word from Risley, 1968, p. 31.)

What did he conclude?

— "The benefits to the child, in fact, far exceeded the author's expectations" (p. 34).

He didn't discuss how, if she could learn from the pain of electricity, then she could also have learned from her own falls. To get her off the furniture, buy her a set of monkey bars and train her to join the trapeze act at the Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey Circus. Then tell Risley to shock himself.

So he and Skinner set the stage for misguided judgment. Punishment remains, to this day, the actual, if unapparent, bottom-line rage of ABA, despite their "dissemination" to the contrary.

An ABA promotion might say, "Most behavior analysts use only positive reinforcement in their programs."

If we accept this kind of statement or give them the benefit of the doubt, then we can fairly conclude that unless they are fully schooled in the kinder sister profession of ABA, Positive Behavior Support (PBS) (See LaVigna and Donnellan, 1986), then ABA practitioners are always armed and ready to fire a good shot should the felt need arise, because the Behavior Analyst Certification Board (BACB) contains exactly ten different job requirements containing the word "punishment" in its Task List of skills and comprehensions needed to become a Board Certified Behavior Analyst (BCBA).

They may go to punish with overcorrection, because it's not as severe as electric shock, which they "only" use in one institution any more, the Judge Rotenberg Center outside of Boston, with most victims arriving from the New York City public school district at the taxpayer expense of $30 million a year.

— In order to be ethical we must manage with contingency combinations of both reward and punishment. I say to Mike, the autistic boy, "Look at me," but he's not looking enough when I give him "a small piece of a specific brand of bologna... for each glance within five seconds of the verbal prompt." I even say, "Good, you looked at me." But he's not looking enough; he's not responding well to the cold cuts. I must "over-correct" him to make him keep looking. He must "move (his) head in one of three positions: up, down, or straight...and maintain each position fifteen seconds, after which" I tell him to look at me again. (Quoted and paraphrased from Foxx, 1977, p. 490-91, first sentence interpreted from implied meaning in the article. )

— But that doesn't sound so good, so instead of "overcorrection," let's call it "restitution training, positive practice of functional behavior, and guided movement training" (McDonald, 1990).

What the heck was she talking about? Looks like gobbledygook.

So now today, as new discoveries of different sets of contingencies accumulate through various configurations of aversive and appetitive consequences, punishment, as coupled simultaneously with reinforcement by the hard punishment advocates or as only the last resort by the genteel minimalists, is the ultimate method of control and compliance.

Also today, on the other hand, standing tall and proud, the Autistic Self-Advocacy Network (ASAN) has announced loud and clear, “Neurodiversity please!” The movement has begun! It's time to insist, "No more forced eye contact!"

Meanwhile, however, neurotypical BCBAs still “treats” autistic "stereotypy," even though it causes no harm. The "actually autistic" speech hasn't sunk in to them yet. If this what Skinner intended, did he hope this would happen before or after he wrote the book he called Verbal Behavior? (Skinner, 1992/1957)

— She must not be adept at flipping, running her finger in rapid succession across each and every page of a National Geographic in order to feel the gentle breeze of the maneuver brushing softly against her cheek. How can she read a magazine and flip it at the same time and place? This is impossible! They're incompatible behaviors!

BCBAs need parents of autistics to worry they won’t fit in with their childhood peers and sustain themselves into and beyond adulthood, somewhat independently. Just as the parental group, Autism $peaks (A$), raises its abundant funds with no "actual autistics" speaking, so do lucrative BCBA salaries depend upon the same cancer analogy that A$ uses. This is one reason why ASAN boycotts A$:

— Autism at age two? Tragic disease. Cure it now and prevent the divorce!

As for BCBAs walking in stride with A$, Lerner (2011) reported, "Eric Larsson...who founded the Lovaas Institute Midwest, an autism treatment center.... says ABA is more than just a treatment — it’s a way to rescue children 'from the ravages of autism.' He tells parents that nearly half of children can recover if they start ABA soon enough.... 'They’re coming to us because they want to cure their child,' he said. 'Just like you or I would do if we had cancer.'"

— So target Bx (behavior) for elimination. We've heard a grunt! Experiment upon this subject. Sit her down for intensive therapy! So what if she's overstimulated! She's not looking into my eyeballs! I'll teach her this or else— She's pushing me away! If we can’t fix it with lemon on the tongue, then send for the patty wagon! Lock her away!

(Nothing would satisfy this blogger more than to discover how this criticism is completely inaccurate, but he fears for its truth. If they don't like to hear this kind of feedback, then it's easy to conclude that they can dish it out, but they can't take a taste of their own medicine.)

Meanwhile, at their own gatherings, autistic groups actually embrace ABA's "God-awful stereotypy,” but they don’t call it abnormal. Instead they might call it communication and say to ABA, "Leave us alone when we cause nobody harm!" They’re even holding “Stim-Ins” with stim toys to educate members of the public that self-stimulation stim is okay during under-stimulation.

So can a special education teacher of a self-contained class do the same as ASAN and teach his students to embrace the "deviant child's" unconventional activities rather than aim with the slings of behavior reduction? Can we move her out to the mainstream class and teach her typical peers to support her even when she doesn't sit as still as them while she studies along at an exceptional rate, either faster or slower? Does the BCBA say, “Quiet hands, stop flapping?” Does a university diploma really care whether or not a "noisy" hand reaches out to accept it on Graduation Day? Does Oracle really care if she's rocking her trunk while she generates code and maximizes the return on their investment in her?

Therefore, please allow the disabled peer advocates to present to the public the “deviant” child of 1968, now the virtual autistic elder stateswoman of 2015, the next Bill Gates of the autism spectrum, a member of the group so bold at times as to call themselves evolved, the next multibillionaire to fill every library on the planet with a network of PC's, whether or not Gates truly does have Asperger's Syndrome. You see, he's only worth about $80 billion. His lifetime giving, about $30 billion.

Maybe some day she'll even donate to another worthy charity: Lobby groups paid to persuade politicians to legislate insurance coverage for autistic children to receive ABA "treatments."

— Lucky stiffs!


Baer, D. M., Wolf, M. M., and Risley, T. R. (1968). Some current dimensions of ABA. Journal of Applied Behavior Analysis, 1(1), pp. 91-97. Retrieved from

Dawson, M. (2004, January 18). The misbehavior of behaviorists: Ethical challenges to the autism-ABA industry [web log post]. Retrieved from

LaVigna, G. W. and Donnellan, A. M. (1986). Alternatives to punishment: Solving behavioral problems with non-aversive strategies [Reprinted 2007]. New York, N.Y.: Irvington Publishers

Risley, T. R. (1968). The effects and side effects of punishing the autistic behaviors of a deviant child. Journal of Applied Behavior Analysis, 1(1), 21-34. Retrieved from

Skinner, B. F. (1961). Freedom and the control of men. Cumulative record [First published 1955] (Enlarged Edition, pp. 3-18). East Norwalk, CT, US: Appleton-Century-Crofts. doi:10.1037/11324-001

Skinner, B. F. (1992). Verbal behavior [First published 1957]. Cambridge, MA: B. F. Skinner foundation.

Skinner, B. F. (2014). Science and human behavior [Original work published 1953]. Cambridge, MA: B. F. Skinner Foundation. Retrieved from

Society for the Experimental Analysis of Behavior. (1968). Administrative content: Journal masthead, notices, indexes, etc. Journal of Applied Behavior Analysis, 1(1) Retrieved from

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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.