Today’s ABA in American Sign Language

B.F. Skinner believed that we could save the world with behaviorism… and so do I. There are so many issues facing our world and the way we treat people is one of them. The first time I read A Perspective on Today’s ABA from Dr. Hanley, it reminded me of all the good we can do. There are endless opportunities for our learners — whether they’re Deaf, Autistic, Language Deprived or something else. Translating his blog post into ASL was such a pleasure and I hope it serves as an example of what Applied Behavior Analysis can be. Please note that none of this should be taken as clinical advice and you should refer to a BCBA when implementing behavioral interventions.

Thank you from the bottom of my heart to everyone who took time out of their day to help me with this project:

Tiffany Joseph, BS, Paraeducator, @nigh.functioning.autism

Jessica Johnson & Ashten Johnson

Joshua Metellus BS, RBT FL

Christina Barr, BCBA Montgomery County Education Service Center

Ross Leighner, MA, CBA, IBA (Sydney, Australia)


Cori Wagner, M.A, BCBA – CEO & Co-founder of The ABLEities Foundation

Melisa Santacroce, M.S. SLP-CCC, BCBA Balance Speech and Behavior

Meredith Tucker, LTS Teacher, Maryland School for the Deaf and Master’s of ABA Candidate (Graduation- December 2022)

Caitlin Blake, MSW, BCBA, LBA – Maryland School for the Deaf

Nicole Paris MS BCBA Find Your Voice Behavior Services

Emily Kieffer, Psychology Undergraduate at Gallaudet University 

LaShawn Washington, Alabama Institute for the Deaf and Blind

Lacey Wood, MA Deaf Education, Creator of Little People, BIG Feelings

Video Transcript:: Today’s ABA in American Sign Language

Today’s ABA – Applied Behavior Analysis. This video will show what that is by example. It serves as guide so that you understand what today’s ABA looks like, how it works and how you can interact. But first, so when you meet an autistic person, do you meet them and automatically know everything about them? No. You could ask other people.
You could ask their parents and everything, but really that person. Do you know them? No. You must be continuously learning their predilections, what they like, what they don’t. And you have to be continuously be looking. And then, only then, we can build an environment by putting everything they love there to surround them with that love things. And then it’s a perfect environment and that’s the best place for them to learn new skill, acquisition, everything.

That’s where it’s going to happen. And those skills aren’t for the entire team to decide. They’re really for that specific person, their environment, that’s for them. It’s really individual. And so this video will be kind of a guide, what to look like and how it works.
Learn by listening. Ask the autistic person and or people who know and love the autistic person about what he or she or they loves and hates. Be sure to review the love, aversion and indifference is towards activities, objects, furniture, contacts, and especially social interactions.
Ask that person about the autistic person’s voice. How do they routinely communicate? And especially what are they communicating with their behavior? In other words, today’s ABA starts with asking questions, listening and learning about the autistic person by the people who know and love the autistic person.
Learn by creating joy.
From that conversation, put together a context in which the autistic person will be happy, relaxed and engaged, and one in which they will feel safe and in control.
Then enrich this space with all of the objects and activities that they love. Don’t be stingy with the things. More is better. Better to include all the things that they have lost in the past because they couldn’t handle the removal or because they engage with them in unique, stigmatizing ways, or disruptive ways.
Do not restrict their freedom in any way or movement. Leave the door open. You should follow their lead, both physically and conversationally. The Autistic person can bring the other materials into this context. They can remove materials from this context. They can put their objects wherever they want. And people– they can! Means if they tell you to sit there or sit here and move this, that– apple goes here.
The apple goes there. They can. They have the power. They have the control, the environment, everything.
Be sure to create clear signals of your submission.
Remove all signals of dominance like hovering too close or standing above them during this time. Avoid all acts of redirection, prompting, teaching, questioning and language expansion.
You need to be 100% available to the autistic person. But do not add your $0.02 to the situation unless asked. Reserve giving praise unless the autistic person initiates by sharing what they are doing or just did with you and you are authentically impressed. Do not supervise the experience– share it without taking it over in any way.
Respond to all attempts to communicate. This will happen the sooner you stop trying to lead the situation. Help them, for instance, not when they struggle, but when they indicate they would like assistance. The earnest in your attempts to help. Even when you are not sure how to do so. Do not let any behavior towards you be ignored. React to their behavior in normal ways.
Just do not attempt or inspire the next interaction. Let them lead.
Continue revising the context and your manner of interaction until the autistic person does not want to be anywhere but there.
Let them vote with their feet. Besides being dignifying and avoiding regrettable physical management, allowing them to leave the space provides good information. Leaving means something important is missing or something aversive is present.
Keep working on building and refining the context. And so the autistic person is happy, relaxed and engaged for an extended period. Recognize that happy, relaxed and engaged looks very different for different autistic persons, which is why it is essential that someone who knows and loves the autistic person is present at this and the next step of the process.
In sum, teach the Autistic person that you know them, you see them, you hear them, and you are there for them. This is the first and crucial step in today’s ABA. Learn by empowering. After you are confident that you can create a safe and engaging context and zero probability of any severe problem behavior in this context, it is time to empower the autistic person further and establish trust between you and the autistic person
It starts by clearly signaling that the prevailing conditions are about to change for the worse. But be clear and be kind about it. Through normal actions and words, make it clear to the autistic person that you would like them to stop what they’re doing. Set aside their materials, move in a different direction, inhibit any self stimulatory behaviors, and transition to an area in which developmentally appropriate instruction and expectations will commence.
Be sure this area of high expectations is set aside to some extent and populated with all the challenging activities and expectations reported by those who know and love the autistic person as important for his or her or their development. If the autistic person shows any explicit sign or distress, discomfort or protests in the form of either minor or severe problem behaviors, all transitioning from essentially their way to your way, acknowledge it immediately and relent.
Let the autistic person return to their way and resume following their lead until he or she or they gets back to their version of Happy, Relaxed and engaged for a short period. Repeat this process until it is obvious that the autistic person is empowered and understands that they do not need to comply against their will and they do not need to escalate, to escape, or to avoid the things they don’t want or obtain the things they do want.
It’s important to teach them that you see them, you hear them, and you understand them even more now. Despite sometimes the lack of precision or the general acceptability of their communication with them.
Teach them to trust you. In this period, be clear, be alert, be quick and be consistent. From this resetting of the relationship, you will eventually restore balance and be able to reintroduce the ambiguity and challenges of life without problem behavior returning.
Learn while teaching.
The journey for a joyous lifestyle for families with autistic individuals is paved with skill acquisition. The big pavers are play and leisure skills, communication, toleration and cooperation. When these are set, the branching paths are endless. Today’s ABA process continues by replacing behavior that was revealed in the empowerment phase with one that is easier and will be better received by others.
The process involves gradually introducing ambiguity as to whether the new communication skill will work and by expanding the time in which they need to cooperate. The pace and goals of this treatment process are continually informed by feedback from the Autistic person for what they should say and do. Gone are the days of working through problem behavior and negative emotional responses. Those are indicators that the treatment process needs to be changed and not at the team meeting.
But in that moment.
This treatment process is one in which the starting point is a happy, relaxed and engaged autistic person. The themes of I see you, I hear you,
I understand you, and I’m here for you, persist throughout the entire process.
It bears repeating that there is no obligation to teach while children are upset in any way or any under duress. Hasty efforts at promoting compliance or assessing the developmental status of an autistic person are not championed in this process. That is which champion is establishing trust engagement, authenticity and agency. Preparation and shared experiences follows. Acknowledgment in the process is that skills will be learned both during therapist, teacher and parent led times, as well as during times in which the autistic person is leading.
Also recognized is the understanding that developmental assessment is the best undertaken once trust and persistence and difficult task has been established.
Today’s ABA is trauma informed. It is to be assumed that any person in the care of behavior analyst for problem behavior has experienced multiple adverse events, with many exceeding the criteria for acknowledging that trauma has been experienced.
Today’s ABA is trauma informed because of the following things. First, we learned through listening. Second, we enrich the therapeutic context.
We build trust and contexts in which people are happy, relaxed and engaged.
We attend to every communication attempt. When someone is stressed or have shut down. We are tolerant, supportive. And we listen to what they want. They can decide for themselves if they want to join us or leave, come back or not. That’s their job.
Our world, our country. And yes, our little field of ABA are all at their own crossroads. The time to reconsider the status quo is now whether it be as mundane as how you work in an office and socialize in restaurants, or as profound as dismantling systematic racism. Our issues in ABA are somewhere in between. But I daresay that our issues share challenges associated with getting back to work in the midst of the coronavirus and addressing injustices for people of color, especially black people in America.
Let’s learn from others, especially those experts in public health policy, human rights and criminal justice as we make our way. But let’s not wait any longer to get on the right side of history.
Ours is not to dominate, but to de-escalate, or better yet, prevent escalations in the first place. Ours is not to coerce, but to listen, to learn, to guide, and to coach. Ours is not to redirect, restrain or merely manage and modify.
Our goal is to understand, to share, to shape, to support and encourage, to develop, grow. Our other goals are to prioritize safety, to build connection, trust, to build rapport, and to show the televisability of what we do everywhere. That the whole world can look at us and be okay with it. We already know that when we see the outcomes and when we prioritize these, that these are meaningful. The results are worth it and they will be empowered.
To those who do not know this as ABA or who downright despise ABA, I hear you and I understand where the confusion or the hatred comes from. I acknowledge that our field has been associated with wrongs on its journey of helping autistic people and members of an underserved population such as those with intellectual disabilities. Our collective attempts at helping are better now than they were before, and both research and practice revealed to me that behavioral analysts doing better is continuing.
I also recognize that improvement is not inevitable just because we embrace a form of scientific method. Values-based movements have been displaced from ABA in the name of science for as long as ABA has been in existence.
This is the sad and uncomfortable truth, but one within our power to address. If we listen to the voices of dissent that have been marginalized for way too long. ABA has the potential to inflict trauma, and it has the potential to alleviate trauma. I don’t want to wait for a horrific incident being recorded for fundamental change to take place.
I’ve been attempting to correct my mistakes and improve the way I do the research, authentic practice, consulting and especially listening to other voices outside my choir for many years. I won’t make excuses for my behavior or that of other BCBAs.
I simply apologize. I apologize for not doing more, saying more, pushing more or disrupting more. Consider this step in the direction towards self-awareness improvement, transparency, accountability, and an obvious commitment to protecting the rights of those we serve. I hope you’ll join me on this quickening walk towards a more perfect idea to help families of autistic persons whose lives are negatively impacted by problem behavior.

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