Log in

Behaviorism: "Mental State is Irrelevant"

Back in the '50s and thereabouts, when psychology was still by many definitions a nascent science, there was a new movement that we now call "behaviorism". Before that point, psychology had been mostly concerned with how people thought and perceived the world. The first experimental psychologists cataloged how people experienced sensory input; the first clinical psychologists were exploring the concept of the unconscious mind. Psychology itself had not yet quite parted ways with philosophy.

Enter behaviorism. In an attempt to explain how the body and mind were related--the "mind-body problem"--psychologists like Watson and Skinner (those are the two big names; there were many others) came to the conclusion that if psychology was to be a science, then only observable, material things could ever be contained within its domain of investigation. Behaviorists stated that if you wanted to be a scientist rather than a philosopher, the mind was irrelevant; it was only the observable--the body, the behavior of the organism--that could ever be relevant either to research or to clinical psychology. Mental states had nothing to do with behavior; the only thing that mattered was the environment that the organism was exposed to. According to behaviorists, you don't really "feel hungry"; you are simply in an environment in which you have not eaten in a while, and this environment prompts you to seek out food. Your mental state is irrelevant.

Since then, psychology has grown a great deal. While we are still very much focused on what we can observe, especially when it comes to animal behavior, we have also learned that the mental state of the human being is very much relevant. Cognitive psychology came into the forefront, and we began to understand that how people learn and what information they draw on has a lot more to do with behavior than the immediate environment. Maybe it has something to do with the information revolution: We now know that data is just as real as material behavior; an idea can be as powerful as a physical object. And psychology has come to take this into account.

Well, most of psychology takes it into account. There's one area that's still stuck back in the era of behaviorism, and that's therapy for autistic children. In teaching a child by using ABA, only behavior is taken into account; the mental state is treated as irrelevant. Rather than examine how the child thinks, the therapist observes what the child does. Rather than attempt to give the child relevant information which he can use to change his behavior, the therapist attempts to create an environment which will trigger the child's behavior into taking a particular shape.

Maybe it comes from the fact that it's difficult to communicate with an autistic child, especially a non-verbal autistic child. People do often assume that if they can't see it, it's not there, so it's natural that they would assume that the child with whom they have difficulty communicating has nothing to communicate. This assumption pops up in a lot of the language people use when they describe autism: The child is an "empty shell"; he has been "stolen away" by autism; he is "not there"; he is "in his own world"--assumed to be an empty, desert-like world in which nothing happens.

I think it's about time autism psychology left the 1950s and took advantage of some of the things we've learned since then. The mental state of the autistic child is absolutely relevant. The way we perceive the world, the way we think, and the things we know are crucial to how we learn. Using only environment and stimulus-response to teach a child is to ignore the child's mind and the child's experience of the world. Rather, we should teach communication first of all, by interaction and by participation in the child's life, so that we can transfer that crucial information which will allow the child to connect his mind to ours.


People do often assume that if they can't see it, it's not there, so it's natural that they would assume that the child with whom they have difficulty communicating has nothing to communicate.

...And yet, we're still the ones with no theory of mind.

Funny how double standards work, isn't it?
Rather, we should teach communication first of all, by interaction and by participation in the child's life, so that we can transfer that crucial information which will allow the child to connect his mind to ours.

I'm enjoying your posts very much. I do hope you'll expand on this, and how you think this can be accomplished. (I don't know much about it, but RDI seems promising, and more in line with what you're discussing.)
I really appreciate the way you analyze and explain things that other people do not even question. It's extremely important that it's an insider's perspective. Thank you!


Homosexuality vs Autism


I recently read an insightful article about attempts to cure Homosexuality (and behavior that doesn't conform to gender norms) via ABA, unfortunately the author claimed that Autism was different. That sort of thing is really disappointing, he could have made a great case for Autistic people and Homosexuals being victims of the same mistreatment which needs to be stopped for everyone. The above URL has a link to the article as well as quotes of the sections that offended me.

Russell Coker

Re: Homosexuality vs Autism

Seems like I'm not the only one who's getting annoyed at the behaviorism thing...

Curing homosexuality is like curing left-handedness anyway--there's no reason to cure it, it doesn't work, and when you're through, they're thoroughly confused. At least with left-handedness it only results in bad handwriting and writer's cramp.
ABA is a business. Its customers, generally, are the parents of autistic children. Behavior is the product it delivers. That's what the customer wants.
That's true, but there are many, many ABA therapists who genuinely do want to help autistic children learn, and who have been taught that ABA is the best way to do that. I think that these people--the therapists and parents who really want to teach, but just don't have a better way--would be the best people to help us all figure out how autistic kids learn best and how we can use that to teach them more effectively. If we could just set up some kind of paradigm shift away from ABA, we could start progressing again, I think.
Yeah, well... In a correspondence with my latest girlfriend, she asked me my greatest flaw. My honest answer was, "I assume everyone works from complete information and full understanding." Sure! After all these years, I've noticed that about myself, and I've noticed how poorly it sometimes serves me, but I haven't quite fixed it. That'll probably give you something of a perspective on my comments here.

You're right, of course: There are some misguided therapists out there, as distinct from greedy or sadistic therapists who have made a conscious decision to do wrong, which is what I tend to see where the evidence is ambiguous. Perhaps you'll persuade a few to adopt a more benevolent approach.

is it possible to do good ABA?

The objections to ABA seem mostly based around bad aims (such as "curing" homosexuality), inhumane practices (such as electric shocks), and treating people like animals.

Would it be possible to have some useful therapy that includes some ABA ideas with a humane implementation, a reasonable aim, and the understanding and consent of the person involved?

I know of cases of NTs who had habits that they had difficulty breaking who asked other people to firmly remind them whenever they did the undesired thing. Basically that seems a lot like a self-directed form of ABA. I'm not sure how effective such things are (colleagues, friends, and relatives seem averse to implementing such things), but it seems to clearly avoid ethical and moral issues.

If an adult Aspie wanted to sign themself up for an ABA program to make them emulate NTs better would there be an effective and ethical way of doing it?

Re: is it possible to do good ABA?

I'm not really addressing the issues of aversives here--yes, they're horrible things, but most modern ABA, with some exceptions, doesn't really make heavy use of them. My main point is more that ABA is not a particularly effective or efficient way to teach people because it is not designed to teach the meaning behind things, the big picture, or any kind of flexibility.

An adult Aspie could not really benefit from ABA. The things he needs to learn are just not the kinds of things that ABA is good for teaching. Far better would be a social-skills class, combined with some theoretical and practical instruction on communication, social interaction, cultural norms, and possibly language use.

ABA is useful in some isolated areas. Its strength is in communicating skills that can be learned by rote memory and are done the same way every time. For example, it could be used to teach a child how to brush his teeth. The useful part is the practice of breaking a task down into small pieces and teaching one piece at a time. Another strength is that it is easy for the person to tell when they are doing the task correctly, because they get a reward. However, I think it's very important that the reward is not intrinsically highly desirable--it should function mostly as feedback, rather than as motivator. Otherwise you risk reward-motivated behavior which vanishes as soon as you are no longer forcing it.
OK- I am a teacher for kids with autism----and I am a student of behaviorism.
I have to say that interventions I use base on observable, measurable behaviors are much more effective EVERY time over interventions I do based on assumptions over how the child is feeling.
I do not make assumptions not because I believe there is nothing in there, but because I do not believe I am in a position to make assumptions. Those assumptions of mental state are wild guesses...speculation which gets me no where.

(My students are 2nd/3rd graders with moderate to severe autism. And everyone of them has made tremendous growth while in my classroom and many of them move on to much less restrictive placements - my ultimate goal for each and every one of them- along side increased academic and social skills).

New research in the field of ABA is amazing- please look more in Pivotal Response Treatment (PRT) among others. Behaviorism is an ever evolving science...with new research constantly coming out. Much of it is agreeing with idea that internal motivation needs to be taught and used. The natural environment is where instruction needs to take place. And while, at first, external motivators need to be used, we must do everything we can to teach students to be reinforced by natural contingencies that are already in place.

Unfortunately there are companies and practitioners out there that are running programs for students that look like the same ones from the 60's...however talk to the parents involved. You will find them frustrated and depressed that little progress is being made.
But, there are many, many effective practitioners and ideologies that are now coming out to be effective- still based on the original work of Skinner, but taking it to the next level.

Be patient with the field (I have to remind myself of this with the entire field of special education and not just autism intervention), as it is still really new in the scheme of things.

Thanks for sharing your perspectives- I really do appreciate it and take the viewpoints of adults with autism who are now sharing their experiences to heart as I work with the younger generation.


"I do not make assumptions not because I believe there is nothing in there, but because I do not believe I am in a position to make assumptions."

See, that's how pre and post behaviorism research differs. Pre-behaviorism, psychologists made assumptions about mental states without much evidence. Post behaviorism, psychologists assess mental states through careful observation of behavior. For example, we have two separate counting systems, an automatic one and an effortful one, and the automatic one can only count up to 3 or 4. They figured this out from studying reaction time when asked to say how many of something there is.

When I work with kids who can't communicate their feelings, I make guesses about what they're thinking, and then draw predictions from that. If my predictions are right, then I've probably guessed right. If not, I revise my guess based on what I've just seen.