The Problem with Behaviorism

Ultimately behaviorism provides a simplistic lens that can’t see beyond itself.

Why is the doctrine of behaviorism still being used, at all?

How can ABA be the gold-standard for autism when it ignores everything we know about autism?

Source: Behaviorism is Dead. How Do We Tell The (Autism) Parents? » NeuroClastic

Education and healthcare still don’t understand the problem with behaviorism.

Selections from “The problem with behaviorism – Alliance Against Seclusion and Restraint” on behaviorism, behavior, stress, and trauma:

Behaviorism is harmful for vulnerable children, including those with developmental delays, neuro-diversities (ADHD, Autism, etc.), mental health concerns (anxiety, depression, etc.).

The concept of Positive Behavior Intervention and Supports is not the issue. The promotion of behaviorism is the issue. PBIS.org focuses only on surface behavior, what one can observe. Whether this is due to lack of understanding of the complexity or an intentional omission is unknown. The focus on surface behavior, without seeming to understand or be concerned about the complexity, or even the simple dichotomy of volitional versus autonomic (stress response) and the use of outdated, compliance based, animal based behaviorism (which has no record of long term benefits) continues to fail our country’s students.

The documents on PBIS.org imply that all behavior is willful. There is no acknowledgement in the PBIS.org literature that behaviors can be stress responses (fight-flight-freeze responses). This is a profound omission that does great harm to children whose brains and bodies have highly sensitive neuroception of danger. To be punished for a stress response is harmful and traumatic.

The second concern about teaching replacement behaviors goes back to the lack of distinction between willful behaviors and stress behaviors. Teaching replacement behaviors is not possible for stress responses since they are automatic responses that occur beneath the level of conscious thought.

Rewards and consequences, even for children who have the capacity to meet the expectations, are short-term solutions that do not solve the root causes for behaviors and create additional problems, including decreased internal motivation, loss of interest in activities that had been interesting, competition between students, shame for students unable to meet the expectations, and more.

Rather than determining whether the behavior is volitional or a stress response, or even if the behavior could be a result of an expectation that is beyond the child’s capacity to meet, there is simply a decision between managing the behavior in the classroom or sending the child to the office. This is a false choice which misses the point of helping a vulnerable child who is having difficulty meeting an expectation.

There is no question that behavior is a form of communication. It does serve a function. However, the range of possible functions is much wider than simply trying to get out of something or trying to get something. This reduction of the function to a simple either/or option negates all the other equally possible explanations, including nonvolitional behavior and behaviors that were beyond the child’s skill level, trauma flashbacks, and more. The FBA involves analyzing the antecedent – what happened immediately before the behavior in question and what happened after the behavior and drawing conclusions based on what function the behavior was like to have served. The people participating in the analysis include the teacher, the behavioral specialist and any other adults working with the child. **There are several problems with this approach. It does not include the child’s perspective. It does not consider that many factors that are unseen, including sensitivity to light, sound, movement; or internal pain; or trauma flashbacks, worry about a grandparent who had a stroke last night, fear because he doesn’t know how to do the assignment he was just given, or a myriad of other potential factors not visible to the evaluators. **The FBA and indeed the entire positive behavior intervention and supports framework focuses on behavior, not on root causes.

The last concern is **the use of rewards and consequences to achieve the desired goals. This is a top-down, power over, authoritarian approach that is not in alignment with the rest of the goals of the educational system that is designed to teach children to think and learn. **The PBIS system expects students to comply. When they do, they are rewarded. When they do not, they are punished.

The information from the national Behavior Technical Assistance Center (PBIS.org) is contributing to the misunderstanding school leaders, teachers, and support staff have about behavior. Specifically, the repeated assertion that students use their behavior to get something or to get out of something, along with the lack of information about autonomic reactions (stress responses) is incorrect and results in children being misunderstood and punished for behaviors that are not within their volitional control.

Another major concern is the heavy reliance on rewards and punishment. Though the name, Positive Behavior Intervention and Supports, sounds nice, the children with or without IEPs who need support to help with their behavioral struggles are not getting those supports, and instead are being blamed for their behavior. Children are being punished (and shamed) through dojos and color charts, and by being left out of class celebrations and school activities, by being secluded and restrained, by being moved to more restrictive schools, or by being suspended, expelled, or referred to juvenile justice. Some are being handcuffed at school by police.

Based on countless reports from families on social media groups, newspaper reports, government accounts and personal accounts, many of the disciplinary actions directed toward students with disabilities are for behaviors that are flight-fight-freeze behaviors. Teachers, paraprofessionals, school resource officers, and other school personnel do not recognize the difference between willful and involuntary stress responses – and it is **HURTING **our children.

Source: The problem with behaviorism – Alliance Against Seclusion and Restraint

Autistic communities understand all of this. Autistic parents and teachers are in our school systems warning against behaviorism. Heed us.

It’s not just autistic people sounding the alarm against behaviorism. Opposition to behaviorism is common ground for neurodiversity, disability, education, ed-tech, and tech ethics advocacy.

For example:

Behaviorism is old, outdated science and has been for a while.

It’s been decades since academic psychology took seriously the orthodox behaviorism of John B. Watson and B.F. Skinner, which by now has shrunk to a cult-like clan of “behavior analysts.” But, alas, its reductionist influence lives on – in classroom (and schoolwide) management programs like PBIS and Class Dojo, in scripted curricula and the reduction of children’s learning to “data,” in grades and rubrics, in “competency”- and “proficiency”-based approaches to instruction, in standardized assessments, in reading incentives and merit pay for teachers.

It’s time we outgrew this limited and limiting psychological theory. That means attending less to students’ behaviors and more to the students themselves.

Source: It’s Not About Behavior – Alfie Kohn

The bigger problem is using mummified science to treat a complex neurological condition.

ABA therapy is badly out of date, scientifically speaking.

Behaviorism as a science predates penicillin and the light bulb. Psychology moved beyond it and into the realm of neuroscience and cognition before we even landed on the moon.

Psychology just doesn’t consider behaviorism relevant in contemporary practice and research.

If the entirety of human knowledge on the mind and its workings were represented as a tree, behaviorism wouldn’t even be a branch. It would be a root at best, or maybe an acorn.

Behaviorism was old news by the 1960s.

Source: Behaviorism is Dead. How Do We Tell The (Autism) Parents? » NeuroClastic

So, how on earth have we ended up with this many myths continuing painfully from one decade to the next?

I’m afraid the answer is that too much of the training has been stuck in the 1940s. Too much is done by non-autistic people, often ones who happen to know an autistic person in some way (maybe a relative) but seemingly have never asked them about life. I mean ‘asked’ in any communication sense, not just speech. Over a million autistic people in the UK, and too often, such trainers have none of them as personal friends, none of them as colleagues. Isn’t that odd?

Such trainers pass on the ancient myths, generation after generation. They write them down, put them on Powerpoint presentations, and deliver them to you as if they are fact. Research based in part on materials from the 1990s and 1980s, which was based largely on watching groups of profoundly disabled young men in a care home, as far back as the 1940s. As far removed from a balanced view of autism as one can get, in fact.

Worse still, they often expect you to pay for this. It might look slick, with excellent graphics, and the trainer might look like they could pose for a fashion magazine . But…are you really wanting 1940s material?

Source: Ann’s Autism Blog: Autism. Is your training from the 1940s?

So, then, why is behaviorism everywhere?

Throughout all of this, Applied Behavior Analysis has stuck with their babyish ABCs of behavior, teaching the psychology equivalent of preschool to an ever-increasing number of people… and making a lot of money while doing it.

Unfortunately, treating autism makes big money. For all I’ve been talking about how real Psychology considers behaviorism to be a museum piece, there are plenty of colleges ready to rake in the cash and resurrect it.

Source: Behaviorism is Dead. How Do We Tell The (Autism) Parents? » NeuroClastic

Money. Behaviorism lends itself well to reducing human beings to monetizable data and deficits, thus its prominence in big tech and ed-tech.

None of us should be in the behaviorism business.

Until ABA updates its scientific methods, its functions of behavior, and incorporates modern day psychology – including neurology, child development, educational psychology, and other vital research – it cannot be considered to be a safe, effective, or ethical field.

Source: Behaviorism is Dead. How Do We Tell The (Autism) Parents? » NeuroClastic

Titrating the Whelm: Perceptual Capacity and Autistic Burnout

This piece on “Doing More by Doing Less: Reducing Autistic Burnout” in Psychology Today has several relatable paragraphs. I particularly like this on perceptual capacity and titrating our “whelm” levels:

The divergent ways in which we process the world around us can also leave us fatigued and sapped of energy, as autistic people have “higher perceptual capacity” than our neurotypical counterparts, meaning that we process greater volumes of information from our environment. Autistic people commonly use the concept of ‘spoon theory‘ to conceptualize this experience of having limited energy resources. Initially theorized in the context of chronic illness, spoon theory can be explained as every task and activity (enjoyable or otherwise) requiring a certain number of ‘spoons’. Most people start their day with such an abundance of spoons that they can do whatever they choose, and rarely run low. We autistic folk start with a limited number of spoons, and when those spoons run dangerously low, we need to step back, rest, engage in self-care, and wait for our spoons to replenish.

Before our diagnoses of autism, we focused intently on trying to do more: to match the pace of our non-autistic peers; to fulfill our professional and personal obligations to the highest standard; to emulate the busy, full life that seemed so effortless for others around us. We ignored the signs of autistic burnout and continued to push ourselves because we lacked the framework to understand our experiences and to realize why seemingly simple tasks like attending a social gathering could leave us exhausted, unable to complete even basic tasks of daily living for days afterward. Post-diagnosis, and following a deep and thorough reframing of our life narratives, we now actively focus on doing less, which has helped titrate our “whelm” levels and reduce the frequency and intensity of autistic burnout, thus allowing us to do more.


I’m still recovering from my last and biggest burnout. Forty sevens years of existence in an intense world mainlined through a terrifying perceptual capacity has thoroughly burnt me out. I’ve spent my life feeling like a raw and vulnerable sensory attack surface. For forty of those forty seven years of existence, I had no tools for titrating the whelm. I had no vocabulary for the most important things about myself. I ignored the signs and continued to push because I lacked the framework to understand my experiences.

I pushed. I camouflaged. I burnt out.

We have developed skills and strategies to withstand the sensory, social, and executive functioning demands of working in non-autistic spaces at non-autistic paces. We have taught ourselves this neurotypical syllabus of behaviors to get through the day appearing “just like everyone else”. However, the hidden flip side of this well-crafted camouflage is that we regularly fall in a heap, utterly exhausted, once we are safely behind closed doors. The extra cognitive load and personal resources it takes to camouflage should not be underestimated or dismissed; the cost of camouflaging is immense. Just because we have developed skills to appear non-autistic doesn’t mean it is in our best interests to do so.

A recent study found that women with higher scores on a measure of camouflaging also experienced greater mental health challenges, suicidal thoughts, and-perhaps paradoxically-challenges with daily functioning. More strikingly, autistic traits were not positively correlated with psychological distress, but efforts to camouflage these traits were. This indicates that it is not the experience of being autistic that creates distress, but the pressure to conform, keep pace with our neurotypical peers, and hide our true selves that causes psychological distress. There are countless narratives of autistic adults that describe the act of camouflaging leading to periods of autistic burnout, which often incorporate extreme exhaustion, anxiety, depressive symptoms, and suicidal ideation, and are characterized by a drastic decline in capacity to function for days, months, or even years.

My drastic decline in capacity has lasted years. I went too long in ignorance. I now have the vocabulary and the framework to better titrate the whelm, thanks to other autistic people.

Related:

Autism, Trauma, and Stress

This recent study on autism and PTSD offers some relatable paragraphs about stress and trauma.

It is well documented that individuals with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) experience high rates of psychiatric co-occurrence, with other conditions—attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), anxiety, and depression being the most commonly diagnosed (Joshi et al., 2012). Recently it has been suggested that individuals with ASD are at an increased risk of experiencing potentially traumatic events and being significantly affected by them (Haruvi-Lamdan et al., 2018; Kerns et al., 2015).

A review that examined trauma and PTSD among adults with intellectual impairments discussed the difficulty to differentiate between stressful life events and traumatic events, and argued for broadening the examination of different types of events and experiences that may potentially be perceived as traumatic (Martorell & Tsakanikos, 2008). Another review, by Kerns et al. (2015), indicated that individuals with ASD may experience a variety of stressful situations (e.g. intense sensory stimuli, changes in routine, medical ordeals) as traumatic. Various characteristics of sensation, perception, social awareness, and cognition, which are unique to individuals with ASD, may determine which events would be experienced by them as traumatic. A recent article discussed this issue and focused on traumatic subjective perception of three groups of patients who are at risk to developing PTSD, one being ASD (Brewin et al., 2019). The authors argued that these groups’ PTSS are often overlooked and suggested adding an “altered perception” subtype to PTSD criteria in the future. Specifically, it is possible that social stressors are a significant source of vulnerability for individuals with ASD (Haruvi-Lamdan et al., 2018; Hoover, 2015). Several studies suggest that social demands are more often appraised as stressful by individuals with ASD compared with typical individuals (Gillott & Standen, 2007; Jansen et al., 2003). Individuals with ASD experience greater social isolation and distress compared with their typical peers (Tani et al., 2012). Therefore, it is reasonable to assume that some social interactions are experienced as particularly stressful, and even traumatic, among this population.

Source: Autism Spectrum Disorder and Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder: An unexplored co-occurrence of conditions – Nirit Haruvi-Lamdan, Danny Horesh, Shani Zohar, Meital Kraus, Ofer Golan, 2020

Via:

Glad to see a topic important to the community getting some research and validation.

Related:

In other words, autistic people are indeed traumatised by a wider range of things than the teams were expecting. And diagnostic teams should be considering PTSD after a wider list of possible triggering events.

Source: Ann’s Autism Blog: Autism, Bullying, Post Traumatic Stress Disorder and Behaviour. The links?

People who enter services are frequently society’s most vulnerable-people who have experienced extensive trauma, adversity, abuse, and oppression throughout their lives. At the same time, I struggle with the word “trauma” because it signifies some huge, overt event that needs to pass some arbitrary line of “bad enough” to count. I prefer the terms “stress” and “adversity.” In the book, I speak to the problem of language and how this insinuates differences that are not there, judgments, and assumptions that are untrue. Our brains and bodies don’t know the difference between “trauma” and “adversity”-a stressed fight/flight state is the same regardless of what words you use to describe the external environment. I’m tired of people saying “nothing bad ever happened to me” because they did not experience “trauma.” People suffer, and when they do, it’s for a reason.

Source: Psychiatric Retraumatization: A Conversation About Trauma and Madness in Mental Health Services – Mad In America

This scene is quite similar to how I experience an autism sensory overload. When sounds, lights, clothing or social interaction can become painful to me. When it goes on long enough it can create what is called a meltdown or activation of the “fight-flight-freeze-tend-befriend” (formerly known as “fight or flight”) response and activation of the HPA axis; a “there is a threat in the environment” adrenaline-cortisol surge.

This makes seemingly benign noises a threat to my well-being and quite possibly real physical danger to my physiology. Benign noises become painful, and if left unchecked, enough to trigger a system reaction reserved for severe dangers. This is what days can become like on a regular basis for myself and many on the spectrum.

“Let me stick a hot poker in your hand, ok? Now I want you to remain calm.”

That is the real rub of the experience of sensory meltdowns. The misunderstanding that someone with Autism is just behaving badly, spoiled or crazy. When the sensory overwhelm is an actual and very real painful experience. It seems absurd to most people that the noise of going to a grocery store could possibly be “painful” to anyone. So most people assume the adults or children just want attention, or they can’t control their behavior. In work situations I get accused of all kinds of things. And when I leave a noisy situation like a party to step out to take a break, people will notice that I’m “upset”. They will assume or worry that I must be upset at something or someone. And that’s just if I do take a break. If I can’t take a break or get my life out of proper oscillations and can’t avoid noise or sensory/emotional overload, then I can get snappy, defensive, irritated and under very unfortunate circumstances even hostile.

What the stress of noise means, in the autism’s world of an over-sensitive physiology and ramped up stress experiences, is that that pain is warning of us of real damage being created in our bodies. So this anxiety and reactivity isn’t necessarily just perceived but is actually happening. We are not being overly dramatic or a brat (what those with Autism are often accused of). Damage to our physiology is what noise can actually do.

Source: Autistic Traits and Experiences in “Love and Mercy” The Brian Wilson Story – The Peripheral Minds of Autism