Pigeons and Dog Training Inspired Classical Conditioning for Behavior Modification of Autistics

Have you ever wondered how laboratory pigeons and dog training methods moved out from the lab and  into schools and homes of autistic children? Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA) is the most frequently recommended intervention for newly diagnosed autistic children. At 40 hours of 1:1 intense, repetitive, and rote conditioning by way of rewards and punishments, the behavior of the autistic child is expected to be shaped toward normalization.

Before you opt to normalize your autistic child or client, you must first determine that their behavior is aberrant, undesirable, and in need of normalization. This is how ABA therapists can attract unsuspecting parents to putting their child into a virtual animal training lab to appease those who deemed the child as abnormal. The lifelong trauma of being forced and reinforced into a behavior structure that is against how you were born to function has been documented. Autistics who are exposed to ABA are 86% more likely to meet the PTSD criteria than autistics who were not exposed to ABA.

Professor Lewis P. Lipsitt discusses classical conditioning and child development (transcript below).

Freud said, it seems that our entire cyclical activity is bent on procuring pleasure and avoiding pain, and that it is automatically regulated by pleasure principle. He said that 1920.

There is Pavlov, the other giant in the field, who indeed, as particular as he was in studying classical conditioning, as it came to be called, as precisely scientific as he was in all of that work, coming up with that book that he wrote that contained all of the laws of conditioning–delayed conditioning, and trace conditioning, and all of that sort of thing– that book is just a compendium of important information that was true then, and it’s true now.

And he got into it sort of serendipitously.That’s a good term for those of you who are young folks to remember because serendipitous inferences, from what you may see, can influence an awful lot of what you do with your lives. I’m talking about your professional lives here mostly, but it has to do with your personal lives as well.

What happened was that the caretakers of the animals in Pavlov’s laboratory noticed that the dogs would begin–they had these fixtures in their mouths, in their cheeks, and they were collecting, because he was a physiologist. He wasn’t a psychologists. He was a physiologist doing work on the salivary glands and trying to find out how the salivary glands work. And the way in which he did was to have these– to collect the saliva under different stimulus conditions. And a caretaker came to him one day, it is said, and told him, you know Professor, those dogs are beginning to salivate an awful lot before I even  get into the laboratory to study them.And they salivate more and more and more the closer and closer I get to the cage where they are being kept.Well that was conditioning.I

n later terminology, one might have aid that those dogs were showing– are you ready for this– fractional anticipatory goal responses, classical conditioning, classically-conditioned, anticipatory, appetitive, learned responses.They were beginning to engage in the classically-conditioned response before the stimulus arrived.We all do that.We begin, long before we get to the door that we’re going to open, we begin to posture ourselves to reach the door in just the right way with our arm.We don’t just all of a sudden go and stand in front of the door and go like and open the door.There’s lots of pre-behavior behavior going on that leads up to it.That’s an important part of the stuff of learning.

And Skinner was one of the guys who knew all of this so, so well about the shaping of behavior. Skinner was noted, and it’s true for his work on schedules of reinforcement, and these very precise curves, cumulative curves, showing the way in which animals of different sorts behave under different schedules of reinforcement. But he was an expert shaper of behavior before he started studying the consequences of different schedules of reinforcement. He knew just when to administer the food.

And he trained other people to do it too.But every student that he ever had said, well, I could never get as good at it as he was in shaping the behavior of a pigeon. He knew went to provide the animal with the reinforcement that was going to move the animal onto the next step. It’s very important in education of children.

Lipsitt, L. P. (Academic). (2008). Lewis P. Lipsitt: “behavior kills, but developmental interventions work: psychology as the premier health science” [Streaming video]. Retrieved from SAGE Video.

Reframing Autistic Behavior Problems as Self Preservation: A Freudian View

Autistic disruptive and injurious behaviors are often seen as problematic. Sensory overload significantly distresses the autistic brain and triggers a halt in all cognitive abilities. Oftentimes, such ‘shutdowns’ might even be undetected sub-clinical seizures. Physiologically, the abrupt onset of sensory overload shutdowns are characterized by eye twitching, headaches, rage, and episodes of staring blankly into space.   

Freud observing autistic girl case study. Artwork by HennyK.com

Freud observing autistic girl case study. Artwork by HennyK.com

The overloaded system will attack with a fight-adrenaline for the purpose of staying alive. The threat of the fire alarm assaulting the autistic nervous system is greater than a herd of wolves chewing away your camping tent. We cannot measure a panic response that is driven by a system made hyperresponsive by extreme perceptual distortions, which are highly individualized. We also cannot judge a behavior as abnormal or a problem, when the survival and sanity of the autistic person is dependent on the behavior’s execution.

Sigmund Freud argues that man learned to survive by making use of all utilities and resources accessible to him. For the continuity of the species, “with every tool, man is perfecting his own organs, whether motor or sensory…[enhancing or] removing the limits to their functioning (Freud, 1989, p. 43)”. For example, early humans extinguished fire with the stream of their urine. The extinguishing of fire is not a problematic behavior when understood as a purposeful act with an intention to advance the needs and functioning of the individual.

For autistic people, stimming and flapping are tools for self regulation. The more they do it, the more they are listening to you, or concentrating on the task at hand. The more sensory information you force them to integrate simultaneously, the more you are forcing them to revert to their primal need to just survive. When the mammalian brain goes into survival mode, you no longer reserve the right to pathologize the response as a behavior problem.

Source: Freud, S., Strachey, J., & Gay, P. (1989). Civilization and its discontents. New York: W.W. Norton.