© David Sponder, L.E.P., BCBA, Floortime C3c
Executive Director, Sponderworks Children’s Services

Quality of Life is Always the Starting Point and the Ultimate Measure of Success

Whether we are intervening to improve and foster developmental skills, or we are trying to figure out and change problematic behavior, the ultimate and bottom line of everything we do is that it has to improve the quality of life of the individual and his or her family in a significant way. There are literally hundreds if not thousands of different types of skills that we can teach. Our first task however, is to find the skills and behaviors that will be most pivotal and enduring in improving quality of life.

ABA Forms the Framework and Cornerstones of Functional Analysis of Behavior

Actually, Functional Analysis of Behavior is the essence of what Applied Behavior Analysis is. Functional Analysis is a systematic and empirical process designed to develop hypotheses (theories) about why a person does or doesn’t do something, or in other words, why a behavior occurs.

An important guiding principle of behavioral analysis and functional analysis of behavior is that there can be no absolute certainty as to why any person does anything. Even when a person tells you the reason why he or she does something, you are hearing a theory. Even the person whose behavior is under analysis cannot tell you with absolute certainty why they do what they do. This is not a radical notion. It is a notion in fact, that most in the field of psychology, no matter what their theoretical orientation – agree with.

Behaviorists acknowledge that a person’s behavior is the result of a confluence of internal and external factors that are complex and influenced by emotions, thoughts, personal contexts and perspectives. But they resist speculating on these influences, preferring to develop hypotheses of behavior through empirical (observational/experimental) methods.

The field of Functional Analysis of Behavior and Applied Behavior Analysis is dominated by the traditions and values of Behaviorism. Behaviorism, according to its founding father, B.F. Skinner, is the philosophy of the science of human behavior.  Skinner, one of the most influential and renowned Psychologists of the 20th century, wanted the field of psychology to become a true science. Like hard sciences such as chemistry and physics, he wanted psychology to derive its theoretical principles from processes of observing and experimenting and withstanding the scrutiny of repeated testing and challenges to validity.

Because of Dr. Skinner’s commitment to empiricism, he was wary of theoretical explanations of behavior that could not be submitted to scientific examination. Therefore, the only outcome of functional analysis can be a hypothesis as to why a behavior occurs, or more properly, under what conditions is it more or less likely to occur. Behavior produces changes in the environment called consequences.  The person or animal that behaves is referred to as an “operant” because an Operant “operates” on the environment, producing consequences as she goes.

Somehow, within the capacities and limits on the learning capacity of the Operant, the Operant “learns” from the consequences, and these become part of the Operant’s “repertoire” of knowledge, or, what we can loosely refer to as “expectations.” In other words, from previous experiences with the connections between behaviors and the consequences they produce, the Operant learned what to expect when behaving in certain ways. This dynamic is in effect no matter whether the behavior under analysis is a rat pushing a lever, or the complex social behavior of people.

Very simply, functional analysis follows what is called the “three-term-contingency.” In the simplest form, there are “antecedents” or events that happen before a behavior, the changes in behavior observed, and the “consequences” or events that happen after the behavior.  In ideal (laboratory-like) conditions, you can readily observe all of the events and experiment on the different “contingencies” to see how these variables influence each other, and make a believable case as to how and perhaps why one of the variables influences the other.  If all of the antecedent and consequent events are readily observable and the changes in behavior occur within an immediate enough time frame, then you can make some reasonable assumptions and get to work.  In such clear, linear examples, you can also see clearly what types of events make behaviors more likely (reinforcing consequences) or less likely (punishing consequences) to happen again.  But there are real problems with using such a simple set of rules to understand the complexity of human behavior:

  • Behaviors are affected by many variables that compete with each other and interact in myriads of complex ways.
    • The analyst will not be privy to many, if not most of them.  Skinner fully acknowledged that “internal events” as he called them, influence behavior.  He identified many that we believe should be considered in functional analyses:
      • The evidence of sensory, perceptual and conceptual processing differences in individuals is readily observable and testable.  Since Skinner’s last writings, amazing advances in our understanding of how the brain and development and learning work have occurred (from biological perspectives) and should be considered as sources of hypotheses and the choice of intervention to be tested.
      • The connections between species-specific attachment behavior and exploration can tell you a great deal about what is likely or not likely to be reinforcing (what Skinner referred to as “the capacity to be reinforced”; and what T. Berry Brazelton and Stanley Greenspan refer to as the “Irreducible Needs of Children“)
    • We have learned how the very complex, emotional phenomenon of human intersubjectivity develops from foundational behaviors such as social attention-shifting, tracking, and monitoring, gestalt thinking (seeing the connections between parts and wholes; seeing not only individual behaviors but being able to conceptualize them as patterns that permit humans to interpret the intentions of others, anticipate, and otherwise develop concepts of other people’s thinking), that when underdeveloped are at the root of disorders of relating, such as autism spectrum, reactive attachment, personality and schizophrenic disorders.
      • We know which types of neural circuitry manages the emotional and learning processes related to relating and developing emotional and interpersonal skills, which has led us to very different forms of teaching that are consistent with how those pathways on the brain learn.
      • We now know what the most pivotal responses to teach are those that help a person learn in more normal ways
      • What skills are needed in order to develop dynamic intelligence, or the tools we use to function within spontaneous and ever-changing and multi-layered social interaction

ABA is and Should Remain an Open System

We believe that neither Skinner nor the founders of the ABA field ever meant for it to become a closed system that can only reference Behaviorist research.  The most robust body of literature in psychology is actually in the field of “Attachment Theory,” something we find enormously helpful in understanding behavior.  Systems theory is also an extremely robust source of empirically tested research, as well as neuroscience and neurodevelopment.

We believe that when properly understood, the principles of Applied Behavior Analysis form an open system that allows a complex and multifaceted view of the whole person. It can help us understand the contexts in which he or she experiences life, how they affect the person, and to be able to make better choices about how we choose to go about teaching.

We believe that the openness and the standards defined by the founders of the field (Baer, Wolf, Risley; 1968) permit the use of a wide range of valid research findings beyond just the traditions associated with behaviorism or the methods developed by Behaviorists.  And indeed, the science of human behavior is making increasing use of systems theory, biology (including the branches of biology related to infant, child and neurological development, interpersonal neurobiology, evolutionary psychology, ethology and attachment), neurological processing, among others.

ABA Properly Understood

We believe that when properly understood, the first ‘A’ in ABA, which stands for “Applied” forms the “validity” criteria for the field and for our method. The concept of validity is very much tied to quality of life, and that is, it answers the question of whether or not our methodology is indeed going to improve the quality of life for the individual. There are many skills that we can teach that may be impressive or that may produce more immediate results and perhaps cleaner data, but they may not make much of a difference.

The ‘B’ in ABA stands for “Behavioral,” and these criteria form the “reliability” axis for the method. In practical terms this means that whatever changes or improvements that occur must be reliably demonstrated and readily observed and measured. Either change has occurred or it hasn’t, and results cannot be believable unless you can show quantifiable as well as qualitative changes in skills.  Further, the skills have to be useful for the person where and when they are needed.

The final ‘A’ in ABA represents the “Analytical” or “quality control” aspect of the method.  We need to understand in as precise of a manner as we can possibly can, whether the means of change are actually effective.

In the decades that followed the establishment of the field of Applied Behavior Analysis, many different methods now exist for treatment.  In fact, the field of behavioral intervention for autism is currently embroiled in “Autism Wars” that resemble the “Reading Wars” that went on from the 1950s all the way through the 1990s. This impacts families already reeling from the diagnosis of their child and the real-life consequences of living with and raising a child on the autism spectrum (or with any other type of severe behavioral or developmental disorder), by asking them to make choices about methods in which well-educated and well-meaning professionals can’t agree. Unfortunately, this problem is because what is actually meant by Applied Behavior Analysis is often misunderstood and misused by professionals (please see our article on The Autism Wars, “Evidence Basis” and ABA as both an Open System and a Bottom Line for Judgment of Effectiveness).

When we stand back and look at the controversies and the evidence, we have come to the following conclusions and predispositions:

No method of autism intervention stands alone and is adequate for every person and every family. Trying to use a single method to solve every problem for every person is bound to lead to an overextension of that method.

There is no single science or technology of human behavior.   There is an abundance of empirically valid research in a wide range of fields that not only can be useful but should be used to enhance and elaborate on our understanding of behavior and what works and doesn’t work in intervention. Further, any branch of human behavior science the claims exclusive evidence basis should be viewed with suspicion.

The claims and opinions of a practitioner about methods that they have not studied extensively and practiced under supervision should be interpreted with extreme caution.

ABA is not a method per se, it is merely a set of criteria and a system for evaluating the effectiveness of intervention.  Just because a methodology was developed by researchers not traditionally identified as “Behaviorists,” or the method uses a different set of terms, does not mean that the method is not Applied, Behavioral and Analytic.  In fact, there are methods that were developed by other branches of behavior science that can be more valid, reliable and high-quality than those that come from traditions of Behaviorism. What matters is not who developed the method or what terminology they choose to use, but the characteristics of the individual, the family and the context in which the method is applied.

A “Developmental Psychopathology” Approach

Developmental Psychopathology is a relatively new field.  It’s purpose is to examine scientifically how typical development works, as a basis for understanding how atypical development works.  The field draws from research among a wide variety of other fields, but it is mostly useful for looking at the disorders we treat as happening with real people, and not just a set of behaviors to change.  It is useful for giving a multidimensional view of behavior and its precursors, as well as the biological, genetic, and environmental factors that affect development.

We see the whole personnot just the behavior

The person, or “identified person” is inseparable form her family and her surroundings.  We seek to honor and acknowledge the subjective, phenomenological experience of the person and the family, which is often not considered in traditional Functional Analysis of Behavior. While it is true that behavior you can see and measure produces reliable means of analysis, it may not always be the most valid form because human behavior is too complex to rely upon that alone. As analysts and helpers too, we are human beings. We are endowed with intuition, and every analysis starts with a hypothesis as to why behavior occurs. That is what is subject to verification.

We want to know why you think that a behavior occurs – what is your theory? your gut feeling? because that probably has a lot to do with how you deal with it.  Any insight that we can give you about the neurological, emotional or subjective aspects that are possible will help you to help us to form our hypotheses of behavior.

We find that the most effective means of intervening is for everyone to have a deeper understanding of why the behavior occurs. When you can reframe behavior in this new light, you find yourself less stressed by it, and you will be better equipped to deal with it, without so much help from professionals.

It is also be vital for us to know what Quality of Life means to you and what you think it means for your child.  So we always define your role as the Expert on Your Child and Your family.  Your responsibility is to let us know what makes sense and what doesn’t to you, and what you think is reasonable for your family.  Recommendations that might sound fine to us may not work for you – so we always want to know the viability of our suggestions.

We see behavior as part of a complex, dynamic system

We investigate behavior thoroughly and avoid simplistic, linear explanations of behavioral cause and effect. While our job is to try to make the complex understandable and not overwhelm parents with jargon and technical data, we cannot simplify things by just looking at observable antecedents and consequences and ignoring perspective and subjective influences on behavior. We cannot ignore the internal experiences of the person and the family simply because we cannot see it, or because it is based on the individual’s point of view. Those things are important.

A very useful way to look at behavior problems or developmental deficits is as the discrepancy between the capacities of the person and what the environment demands.

We seek to establish understanding and cooperation, not control

An individual’s development affects how he or she perceives the world, and how he or she perceives the world influences behavior.   Our approach towards intervention is thorough assessment, so that we can help increase caregivers’ knowledge and possibly change their attributions of the individual’s behavior.

We believe that the more we can understand the world from individual’s perspective, the more significant others’ will automatically change their behavior in effective ways.

We typically intervene by helping the individual understand his or her world better and their significant others by helping them understand how the individual understands the world.  It is human and not entirely unscientific to consider each other’s perspective and to strive to improve that as we move forward.  Therefore, the goal of behavior change is to increase communication and better self-control.  The goal is cooperation, and not “compliance.”

You will find that the word “compliance” is way over-emphasized in the field of ABA,

Because of the above tenets of our philosophy, we rarely need to use coercive measures to “control” Student’s behavior.  We use the term “coercive” in the manner described by Alfred Adler.  According to Adler, coercion includes rewarding as well as punishing when used by one person to change another person’s behavior.  It is not our goal to help caregivers become better manipulators of their children.  While we occasionally use artificial reinforcers and token economies as a tool, these techniques are essentially coercive and have a distancing effect in relationships.  Further, they are rarely found in natural, spontaneous and dynamic social settings.  These techniques are not a first or a last resort for us — but they are indicated in very specific situations that have nothing to do with the severity or difficulty of the behavior.