There is more to understanding behavior than an analysis of antecedent-consequence contingencies. To maximize positive outcomes, ABA intervention needs to be contextual, with a focus on the whole person and their relationships in critical environments.

Working with an autistic individual in a group home in Oakley, California.

Regardless of one’s theoretical orientation, human behavior occurs as a function of complex psychosocial variables, and while behavioral change may be the treatment objective, understanding the interpersonal and social dynamics of behavior is essential. Issues of trust, autonomy and control play often play a defining role when working with individuals of any age or diagnosis. We should also not forget that socio-cultural models shape behavior in subtle ways such that we cannot be limited to understanding behavior merely as a function of obtaining and escaping. At times behavior may be best understood by way of psychological insight and empathy, and modified most effectively by practitioners who are observationally attuned to the diversity of temperament and milieu.

Although a great deal of lip service is given to Skinner’s acknowledgement of internal events, current ABA research does not address this aspect of his work in any significant degree. We can all be grateful to Jack Michaels for elaborating the role of Motivating Operations, but the internal events commonly referred to are primal, that is, hunger, thirst, temperature, etc. For the sake of treatment efficacy it behooves us to therapeutically engage operationally challenging internal events such as anger or sadness, or the often vilified experience of self-esteem. Real world behavior analysts deal with individuals in context, their thoughts and feelings, their families, social circumstances and challenges, as well as the politics of community care.

In supporting military families whose children have an ASD diagnosis, many cases involve both tutors and BCBA’s. While a definitive Functional Assessment is the centerpiece of support plans, there are considerations of temperament, timing, the stress of deployment, sibling interactions, parenting styles, severity of challenging behavior, BCBA attitudes and orientation, , and a host of other unpredictables. For a BCBA to be effective in this environment, interpersonal skills, maturity, fluid communication and social awareness are a must. Establishing positive rapport with caregivers is the sine qua non of effective training. This is particularly true in residential care where one encounters diverse cultures, values, and belief systems, as well as the standard refrain: We’ve already tried that, and it doesn’t work!

While genetic research and brain science appear to hold some future promise, there is no magic bullet at the present time to cure autism. Therefore families and professionals alike are advised to refer to the work of the DPDC** and the National Standards Report of 2009 which lists the established and emerging evidence-based treatments for autism. The eleven “established” treatments are grounded in ABA principles, so there is no need to quibble about their relative efficacy. Swimming with dolphins may not be on the list, but why not enhance the lives of disabled individuals with fun and adventure. People having a good time do not typically emit challenging behavior. Thus while one hundred per cent success may not always be possible in helping individuals on the spectrum reach targeted behavioral and adaptive living skill objectives, we can certainly create a roadmap for a more enjoyable future based on a deeper understanding of who they are and what makes them happier human beings.

Alex Campbell, PhD, MFT, BCBA-D
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**National Professional Development Center for Autism