Monday, January 26, 2009

The origins of ABA-based autism interventions
When it comes to behaviour analytic approaches to autism, the paper that started it all, and set the tone for what was to come, was Fuller (1949), the first published report of operant conditioning in a human being.

Fuller opens his paper by noting that classical conditioning had been tested in "normal and subnormal" humans. For example, it had been found that "subnormal" children formed conditioned responses to shock faster than "normal" children. But so far, operant conditioning had only been tested in animals ("infra-humans"). Fuller was given permission--no mention of by whom--to experiment on a person he described as an 18 year old "vegetative idiot" incarcerated in a "feeble-minded institution."

This person, referred to as "S," is reported never to move his trunk or legs, though no reason is given for this. According to Fuller, S had limited movement of his head, shoulders and arms, but couldn't roll over or change his position from where he was left lying on his back all day. S was never given solid food; liquids and semi-solids were "stuffed into his mouth," Fuller reports, while S coughed and choked. While Fuller writes that S never made any sounds, "in the course of the experiment vocalizations were heard."

Fuller's experiment started by depriving S of food for 15 hours. A syringe full of warm milk-sugar solution, which was squirted into the corner of S's mouth, was the reinforcer. A bit of this solution was given to S when he raised his right arm.

Eventually, S was conditioned such that after being deprived of food for five hours, he raised his right arm 19 times in 16 minutes. After this he fell asleep. The next morning, he raised his right arm and opened his mouth simultaneously. And while S had earlier also raised his left arm sometimes, by this point, he only raised his right arm.

Fuller declared success at this point, and then extinguished this response by removing the food reinforcer. The extinction procedure took 70 minutes, at which point S stopped raising his right arm. This completed the experiment.

Fuller wrote about S:

"An interesting feature of this study is the example it affords of phylogenetic overlap. While of normal human parentage, this organism was, behaviorally speaking, considerably lower in the scale than the majority of infra-human organisms used in conditioning experiments--dogs, rats, cats."
The physicians in the institution in which S had been an inmate (this word is used) for a year had reported to Fuller that S had not, in all his 18 years, learned anything at all. Fuller simply accepted this as true, even though he had no relevant information about S's history and minimal information about S's present. This allowed Fuller, and many behaviour analysts to follow, to be very impressed with what Fuller accomplished in conditioning S. After all, Fuller is reported to have trained a vegetative organism to move, a stunning and unprecedented achievement.

Along these lines, here is Fuller's conclusion:

"For years, many psychologists have experimented exclusively with infra-human [subjects], and they have expressed a preference for the simple, less variable behavior of the lower organisms in the laboratory. Perhaps by beginning at the bottom of the human scale the transfer from rat to man can be effected."
Fuller's "classic" paper, a landmark in the history of ABA, resonates with the much later words of Ivar Lovaas and his colleagues, about autistic human beings:

"You see, you start pretty much from scratch when you work with an autistic child. You have a person in the physical sense—they have hair, a nose and a mouth—but they are not people in the psychological sense. One way to look at the job of helping autistic kids is to see it as a matter of constructing a person. You have the raw materials, but you have to build the person." (from an interview with Chance, 1974)
"In any case, what one usually sees when first meeting an autistic child who is 2, 3, or even 10 years of age is a child who has all the external physical characteristics of a normal child—that is, he has hair, and he has eyes and he has a nose, and he may be dressed in a shirt and trousers—but who really has no behaviors that one can single out as distinctively ‘human’. The major job then, for a therapist—whether he's behaviorally oriented or not—would seem to be a very intriguing and significant one, namely, the creation or construction of a truly human behavioral repertoire where none exists." (Lovaas & Newsom, 1976)
"To use another analogy, at the beginning of treatment, the children may be regarded as having close to a tabula rasa. In this sense they can be considered very young persons, as persons with little or no experience, presenting the teacher with the task of building a person where little had existed before." (Lovaas & Smith, 1989)
"Instead, the fascinating part for me was to observe persons with eyes and ears, teeth and toenails, walking around yet presenting few of the behaviors one would call social or human. Now, I had the chance to build language and other social and intellectual behaviors where none had existed, a good test of how much help a learning-based approach could offer." (Lovaas, 1993)
The currently predominant autism advocacy policy position that autistics can't learn, develop, communicate, progress, etc., or become human, except via ABA programs, reminds me of assumptions behaviour analysts have made about the nature of Fuller's S. They just know, like Fuller did, that S had never learned anything at all until Fuller came along. Fuller needed no evidence for this, or any information about S's past. He just knew there were subhumans in human form, including vegetative human organisms who were lower in the scheme of things than rats (and were treated as such). So all he had to do was to never, ever question any of this, and then go out and find one of these vegetative organisms and experiment on him. And so Fuller became famous, just like Dr Lovaas did later for "building" human behaviours in autistic children who he claimed had none at all, for "building" a person where he claimed none existed.


Chance, P. (1974). "After you hit a child, you can't just get up and leave him; you are hooked to that kid": A conversation with O. Ivar Lovaas about self-mutilating children and why their parents make it worse. Psychology Today, 7, 76-84.

Fuller, P. R. (1949). Operant conditioning of a vegetative human organism. American Journal of Psychology, 62, 587-590

Lovaas, O.I. (1993). The development of a treatment-research project for developmentally disabled and autistic children. Journal of Applied Behavior Analysis, 26, 617-30.

Lovaas, O.I., & Newsom, C.D. (1976). Behavior modification with psychotic children. In H. Leiteberg (ed.), Handbook of Behavior Modification and Behavior Therapy. Englewoood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall.

Lovaas, O.I., & Smith, T. (1989). A comprehensive behavior theory of autistic children: Paradigm for research and treatment. Journal of Behavior Therapy and Experimental Psychiatry, 20, 17-29.