eliminating mentalisms and noncompliance as social justice for autistic people

If one thing was clear when I started reading about “neurodiversity,” it was that opposition to ABA therapy was a prominent theme. Lee Mason is a BCBA and special ed professor, who wrote an article called How special education impedes social justice for students with autism. I’m not sure what he meant by “social justice,” but he says some stuff about stereotypes that any liberal would agree with. What’s remarkable is the appropriation of the social model of disability and neurodiversity rhetoric at the end:

Having a disability has less to do with a physical impairment than is does with how an individual has been treated because of this physical impairment. People are different to the extent we make them dissimilar from us. As members of each other’s environments, we have the power to exacerbate or mitigate these differences.

Terms like “disability” refer more to an individual’s environment than an inherent characteristic of the person. Rather than singling out the special education student, the onus of learning is placed upon the teacher, who constructs the classroom environment and manages contingencies.

In a neurodiverse society, education is not an attempt to “cure,” “fix,” “repair,” “remediate” or even “ameliorate” a child’s “disability.” Through a functional contextual lens, neurodiversity promotes a deep, abiding respect for each child’s unique differences, resulting in an individualized education in which the environment, not the child, is corrected.

This is poison, because he’s using the neurodiversity movement’s rhetoric to call for more ABA, of all things! He’s saying it’s wrong to think of autistic people as stereotypes. Rather, we should think of them as automata responding to environmental contingencies. He gives the impression he’s talking about accommodation, but that’s not what he’s talking about at all. Professionally, he’s interesting in reducing noncompliance, i.e., the opposite of liberation.

Here’s a sample of his academic writing: Mentalistic explanations for autistic behavior: a behavioral phenomenological analysis. Note that “behavioral phenomenology” is an oxymoronic term. BF Skinner and Edmund Husserl cannot be reconciled.

The paper begins with gloating about how sophisticated ABA therapists are compared to parents with their circular reasoning:

Effective intervention on challenging behavior begins with accurately identifying the contingencies of reinforcement maintaining such behavior. Once the function(s) of a problem behavior have been identified, individualized treatments can then be developed to extinguish the challenging behavior (cf. Fisher, DeLeon, Rodriguez-Catter, & Keeney, 2004) differentially reinforce a replacement behavior (cf. Watts, Wilder, Gregory, Leon, & Ditzian, 2013), bring the behavior understimulus control (cf. Thomason-Sassi, Iwata, & Fritz,2013), or suppress the rate at which the problem behavior occurs (cf. Lerman & Vorndran, 2002). Although technologies have been developed to identify such contingencies of reinforcement (Iwata, Dorsey, Slifer, Bauman, & Richman, 1982/1994; Lambert, Bloom, & Irvin, 2012; Northup et al., 1991; Sigafoos & Saggers, 1995), such functional analyses must be conducted and interpreted by professionals with sufficient training in behavior analysis.

In contrast, primary caregivers of children who frequently display problem behaviors (i.e., parents, teachers, and personal care assistants) often rely on hypothetical constructs to describe the cause of problem behavior. Mentalistic approaches to understanding behavior frequently rely on tautological statements in which the supposed explanation of the behavior is simply a restated description of the behavior. Often referred to as circular reasoning, the mentalistic cause and effect are not independent of one another (Baum, 2005; Vargas, 2013). For example, a child may be diagnosed with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) because he or she exhibits weak communication and social skills, and engages in a particular repertoire of restrictive and repetitive behaviors. These problem behaviors are then said to be caused by the child’s autism. Rather than identifying the contingencies of reinforcement maintaining the problem behavior, a hypothetical construct – in this case a diagnosis – has been created to “explain” it.

It’s true that “autism” is frequently used as a circular explanation for behavior, but Mason doesn’t explore when that happens. It happens when behavior is being explained dismissively, without reference to the phenomenology of being autistic. “He’s throwing a tantrum because autistic kids are like that” is NOT, in fact, a mentalistic explanation. It’s definitely a tautology, though.

The implied community of readers, parents and professionals alike, are interested in dismissive, dehumanizing explanations of one kind or another.

Reimers, Wacker, Derby, & Cooper (1995) identified a significant, negative correlation between parents’ ratings of physiological attributions of their children with behavior problems and the acceptability of behavioral treatments. That is, the more they attributed challenging behavior to the child (as opposed to the environment), the more likely they were to dismiss behavior analytic intervention. Such representationalism becomes problematic when attention shifts to food sensitivities, toxins, sensory dysregulation, or neuro-chemical imbalances conjectured to be responsible for the child’s autism, rather than examining the contingencies maintaining the problem behavior. Mentalisms therefore function to obfuscate the environmental stimuli that would have allowed for more effective action to be taken.

It’s not wrong that it matters why someone is melting down, and it’s important to figure that out before indulging in pseudoscience about vaccines. What’s more interesting here is the concern with overcoming parental resistance to ABA therapy.

Getting down to the business of the paper, there’s a study with N=1 of some kid and the kid’s aunt, doing a bunch of ABA stuff. The aunt’s job was to write down explanations for the kid’s freakouts. They made a chart:

And here’s what the aunt recorded:

Mason italicized phrases like “excitement,” “didn’t hear correctly,” “not listening,” “doing what he wants.” Concern with the child’s inner states is a problem to be eliminated.

Blah blah blah and they did more of the same with two more children. Giant leap to conclusions:

As evidenced by the proliferation of mentalisms in the explanation of problem behavior reported here, the verbal community of parents of children with autism likely reinforces discussion of autism as an inner dimension or hypothetical construct that either directly causes or mediates challenging behavior.