Bill Ahearn, Ph.D., BCBA-D

Bill Ahearn Ph.D., BCBA-D

A Radical Behaviorist


Isn't Behaviorism Dead?

autism is a disorder that is very different from person to person

Posted Jan 12, 2010

A radical behaviorist, you may be thinking to yourself, why would they let one of those in here?  Behaviorism was thrown to the curb long ago.  What could this outdated perspective possibly add to our understanding of autism?  Well, Skinner's Radical Behaviorism is thriving and the application of behavior analysis for the treatment of autism is the main reason for this.  Early intensive behavioral intervention for children diagnosed with an autism spectrum disorder (ASD) has proven to be of great utility. 

The best known studies of early intensive behavioral intervention have been conducted by Lovaas and his colleagues (Lovaas, 1987; McEachin, Smith, & Lovaas, 1993; Sallows, & Graupner, 2005; Smith, Groen, & Wynn, 2000). The initial Lovaas studies (1987; McEachin et al.) showed that about 50% of the young children who received around 40 hours per week of intensive instruction were successfully transitioned into a typical school setting. Subsequent research suggests the percentage of children who successfully integrate into the public school setting is probably a bit overestimated; however, tangible benefits seem to occur even for those children who do not meet the optimal outcome of successful integration into the community.

One criticism of the Lovaas work was his reliance on aversive procedures for treating problem behavior.  Indeed much of the early published research (from 1960-1980) for treating severe or life-threatening problem behavior in all populations heavily relied on techniques that involved either preventing problem behavior or providing aversive consequence following it.  The development of functional assessment techniques for severe self-injury (like head banging, eye gouging, and self-biting) by Brian Iwata and his colleagues at the (then) Kennedy Institute at Johns Hopkins produced a new technology for dealing with problem behavior.  However, the more intensive part of the early intensive behavioral intervention involves teaching children the skills their typically developing peers display but that they do not.  

This is particularly challenging for educators as the skill deficits of children with ASDs are very different from the focus of curricula in the public schools.  The most marked deficit with autism is social interaction.  These deficits may be present from birth and some research conducted at the Yale Child Study Center suggests that such problems might be reliably detected in children as young as 6 months old.  Most children with ASDs also have deficits in play skills and impaired communication.  Additionally, autism is a disorder that is very different from person to person.  Behavior analysis is a unique psychological perspective in that it is a science of the individual and it is this quality that places it in a position to specifically address each child's needs.

I am the Director of Research at the New England Center for Children and the majority of our work is focused on identifying the best practices for teaching children with ASDs.  Our students are fantastic people who are a joy to work with and we learn from them on a daily basis.  Some of our most interesting research involves teaching social interaction, play skills, and promoting independence.  My goals for this blog are to share with you our experiences.  I will also comment on issues relating to autism, behavior analysis, and learning.  Thanks for stopping by and hope to see you again soon.

Lovaas, O.I. (1987). Behavioral treatment and normal educational and intellectual functioning in young autistic children. Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology, 55, 3-9.

McEachin, J.J., Smith, T., & Lovaas, O.I. (1993). Long-term outcome for children with autism who received early intensive behavioral treatment. American Journal on Mental Retardation, 97, 359-372.

Sallows, G.O. & Graupner, T. D. (2005). Intensive behavioral treatment for children with autism: Four-year outcome and predictors. American Journal on Mental Retardation, 110, 417-438.

Smith, T., Groen, A.D., & Wynn, J.W. (2000). Randomized trial of intensive early intervention for children with pervasive developmental disorder. American Journal on Mental Retardation, 105, 269-285.