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.

Undoing operant conditioning trauma with autistic piano students

ABA for autistics is based on Skinner’s operant conditioning for dogs. In this video, you can see the lone dog waiting for permission to have fun. Watching this clip, I can almost hear the ABA kid saying, “Miss Ashley–what am I working for? After I swim for 5 minutes, can I have 15 minutes of iPad time?”

Many of my autistic piano students are ABA survivors. They have been led to believe that they have no original thoughts, intentions, or free will. Everything they do is scripted, and everything they don’t do is conditioned. It takes us weeks to begin undoing the damage. In the worst cases, it takes months or years, depending on their age and the length of the ABA-induced trauma.

To investigate child development, 19th century behaviorist Ivan Pavlov experimented on dogs. Back in the days before ethics banned such experiments, he assumed that dogs will comply with the training because they are motivated by food. Operant conditioning is a way to manipulate (condition) the environment (operation) to produce an outcome. If the behavior is rewarded with a good consequence, more of that good behavior will keep coming. Likewise, if a behavior is negatively reinforced, the behavior will dissolve.

Standard ABA reward chart

Standard ABA reward chart

ABA (applied behavior analysis) is considered an ‘evidence-based treatment’ for autism, only because the evidence is based on Skinner’s behaviorism on Pavlov’s experiments. When applied to humans, the parent who prefers a favorable outcome will be delighted that their child finally learned to go potty. The problem extends into the ethics of those in position of power who determine the goals. The therapist and parent get to decide on a list of behaviors to enforce, and a list of behaviors to diminish. This can include much-needed self regulatory stimming (Also read: Reframing Autistic Behavior Problems as Self Preservation: A Freudian View). As in child sexual abuse*, the victim will lifelessly comply if they are groomed with compliments and treats. Just like Pavlov speculated, we are more likely to repeat a behavior once we learn that it produces positive consequences.

In this video, you can see a non-speaking autistic piano student who was kicking and screaming straight through his first lesson. By the second week, he was playing and reading independently. By the third week, he was happy to follow my guidance to correct his fingering. One month later, this student is now playing with two hands and waits all week for his lesson time, ready to shine. In the first lesson, he had to be convinced to read and play only after the dreaded reward chart was shown to him. After the first month of lessons, he is happily seated at the piano without any rewards mentioned.

With my autistic piano students, the work starts from the first lesson when the student realizes that playing the piano is the ‘reward’ and not the ‘task’ with which to work on for a reward. Rather than dumbing the material down to rehearsing Twinkle-Twinkle, I start the first lesson with sophisticated music so they can hear the the sound of their own intelligence. This no-fail approach always leads to lightbulb moments where the kids begin to come back to life. For the parent witnessing their child’s strengths, the lessons are a dramatic change from the rest of the week’s structure.


* While I recognize the complexity of the psychology around sexual abuse, I am in no way implying that ABA is comparable to sexual abuse. Rather, I am troubled by the way in which they are similar: both are adult-imposed manipulation on a vulnerable person for producing an pre-planned outcome.

More Articles: A Dog’s Life: Pedagogical Flaws in Repetitive Piano Practice for Autistic Students