Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Grad school does strange things to your mind.

Now that I'm between semesters (school starts back up again on Monday), I have a bit more free time. I've been using some of it to read non-ABA research as, frankly, I'm getting sick and tired of certain tendencies in the ABA literature.

To this end, I picked up a 1982 paper by Kahneman and Tversky which was published in Cognition. The paper is entitled On the study of statistical intuitions, and is the earliest academic citation I could find for conjunction fallacy... although the usual "original experiment" is another paper.

In my reading, however, I came across the following:

Errors and biases in judgement under uncertainty are the major source of data for the mapping of the boundaries of people's statistical intuitions. In this context it is instructive to distinguish between errors of application and errors of comprehension. A failure in a particular problem is called an error of application if there is evidence that people know and accept a rule that they did not apply. A failure is called an error of comprehension if people do not recognize the validity of the rule that they violated.

An error of application is most convincingly demonstrated when a person, spontaneously or with minimal prompting, clutches his head and exclaims: 'How could I have missed that?'

I laughed.

Then I realized that I'd been finding a peer-reviewed journal article humorous. Gyah, does grad school ever mess with your brain...

Monday, April 27, 2009

On this day, the 27th of April, 2009...

I am now 27 years old. I remember looking forward to my birthdays when I was younger. I no longer do. It's... frustrating, in a way, to lose that youthful optimism...

And enough with the morbid crap. If I were to go on that line of reasoning, I'd just wind up depressed.

At least I had a productive weekend. Saturday deserves its own blog entry, but I spent all day yesterday (from nine in the morning till six thirty in the evening) getting pretty much every basic CPR/AED certification the Red Cross offers... plus first-aid certification, to boot... in a single class. Specifically, I took the standard first aid with CPR/AED - Adult, child and infant course. Really, really exhausting, that was.

On the plus side, I'm now fully certified in CPR and AED use, and first-aid certified to boot.

Now I just have to go back to the issue of finding a decent place in South Florida that does supervised independant fieldwork...

Friday, April 24, 2009

Words fail me.

I recently came across a blog post about a recent news story. The basic summary is that a Newfoundland police officer noticed an autistic boy's odd gait as he left a video store. The officer then reached the conclusion that the boy was drunk. When the boy didn't respond appropriately to the officer's approach... he was arrested and thrown into jail overnight, without so much as a phone call or a breathalizer test.

As the title says, words are failing me here. Someone needs disabilities training...

Tuesday, April 21, 2009

What. The. HECK?

Recently (within the last week or two), I got into something of a debate with Michelle Dawson regarding the internal validity of single-subject designs. As a result, I've been spending some time reviewing the literature and looking for a design to pick apart. While doing so, I came across a paper entitled "Functional analysis of stereotypical ear covering in a child with autism."

The abstract -- the entire abstract -- is as follows:
We studied stereotypical ear covering in a child with autism. Results of a descriptive analysis were inconclusive but revealed a correlation between ear covering and another child's screaming. An analogue functional analysis showed that ear covering was emitted only when the screaming was present.
Way to avoid citing other literature, people.

The rest isn't much better. To quote the last paragraph of the paper:
These findings suggest that ear covering was maintained by negative sensory reinforcement (noise attenuation) and illustrate the importance of linking descriptive and analogue functional analyses when idiosyncratic events are implicated in behavioral maintenance. Whether a similar relation between ear covering and noise occurs for other children with autism awaits further investigation. However, the current data set implicates a previously unidentified source of reinforcement as one possible cause of stereotypical behavior.
Umm... that is most certainly not a "previously unidentified source of reinforcement". Documentation on what we politely call "sensory issues" in autism goes back a biiiiit further than 2003.

Thursday, April 16, 2009

Modern Aspie Marathon?

I recently read an article on an Australian Aspie who decided to bike to Sidney (in Australia, 950 km from his home)... without telling his mother anything.

Wow. That brings back memories, but I don't think I ever ran off quite that far. The worst I think I ever did was walk to my mom's workplace because I was angry with my babysitter. That didn't involve crossing even a single city boundary....

Saturday, April 11, 2009

It's finals season!

There are many annoyances involved in a postgraduate education. One of them is the nature of finals season. Namely, rather than a simple exam, grad school "finals" usually involve take-home essay assignments when they're not outright final projects.

I've been working on mine for quite a while now. It's really annoying and takes away from my ability to work on other things... like this blog.

Given that my main perseveration is human nature and I'm in a psychology program, it's not quite as bad as it could be. Unfortunately, however, a lot of the questions have absolutely nothing to do with my areas of interest.

Or, simply put, I want to learn about autism, not encopresis.

I am, in the background, quietly working on a sort of all-purpose answer to the question of what my opinion of ABA is. I call it "A Tale of Two Doctors" and it's basically a side-by-side biography of Matthew Israel and Ogden Lindsley. It's pretty hard to find better exemplars of the worst and best (respectively) of behavior analysis.

I figure I'll have time to finish it approximately whenever I finish my finals... plus a week or so. Biographical information on Israel is not easy to obtain. So far, I've been mostly relying on his interview with Mother Jones Magazine.

Tuesday, April 7, 2009

On Aversives, Punishment, and Language

One factor that complicates many of the debates surrounding applied behavior analysis is the fact that its technical language groups things together based mainly on their effects on specific (and usually observable) behaviors. While this makes it excellent for its intended purpose (analyzing behavior), it also makes said language extremely poor for use in an ethical debate.

To illustrate, let's take the hypothetical example of a boy -- let's call him "Chuck" -- who likes to act out in class. Let's also take three hypothetical teachers, "Jane", "Matt", and "Alletta", each of whom decided to take a different approach to making him behave.

Jane decided to assign Chuck additional homework on days when he misbehaved, gently informing him of her reasons whenever she did so. After a bit, Chuck realized that acting out in her class only led to more work and started paying attention more.

The second teacher, Matt, decided on a simpler course of action. He hooked a cattle prod to a remote control and strapped it to Chuck's back during class. Whenever Chuck acted out (or attempted to remove the cattle prod), Matt activated the device. After a few jolts, Chuck realized that both actions only resulted in terrible pain and stopped acting out, paying attention in a manner that only the truly terrified can.

The third teacher, Alletta, was an advocate of corporal punishment, but had promised Chuck's father that she wouldn't hurt him. As such, she instead called Chuck's best friend, Bill, to the front of the class and spent a few minutes torturing him whenever Chuck misbehaved, making sure that Chuck knew why she was doing so. Not wanting to see his friend hurt, Chuck quickly fell in line.

In the language of behavior analysis, all three of these teachers implemented the same basic strategy: punishment by contingent presentation of an aversive stimulus. All three strategies were punishment because they directly targetted and decreased an undesired behavior class (acting out), they were contingent because the strategy was only implemented when the behavior occurred, they were presentation of a stimulus because all three strategies involved giving Chuck something (be it extra homework, a painful shock, or a traumatizing emotional experience) and those stimuli were aversive because Chuck moved to avoid them (1).

This is not, however, to say that all three of those strategies were equally ethical. Very few people (outside school-age children, anyway) would have problems with what Jane did. Matt's actions were a somewhat exaggerated version of a highly controversial technique used in certain behavioral institutions (2). Alletta's actions, however, haven't been considered even remotely acceptable since the 1700s and even then, they were confined to punishing certain royals.

For those historians reading this, yes, I did name Chuck and the people in the third example after certain individuals. And while Matt's method may have prevented Ollie's eventual hissy fit, just imagine Jimmy's reaction!

To get to the point, however, I also don't mean that these strategies would all have the same effects. While all of them decreased the target behavior, Jane's strategy would have had the fewest unpleasant side effects.

The strategy closest to what commonly comes to mind when the term "aversive" is mentioned to people familiar with today's ABA establishment, however, is Matt's.

If this were an isolated case of misused or misunderstood terminology, it would be a fairly minor problem. Unfortunately, that isn't the case. The language of behavior analysis is -- perhaps unsurprisingly -- designed for analyzing behavior. As such, methods are categorized based on their effects on (usually specific and observable) behaviors and not their effects on the person who is behaving.

Ethical considerations, on the other hand, are almost always based on benefit and harm to people, something which the language of behavior analysis is decidedly poor at describing.

If this was widely understood, it wouldn't be a problem. Unfortunately, many people who use the techniques produced by ABA don't understand the distinction. The debates surrounding their use are often muddied by this.

As a general rule, people with postgraduate educations in behavior analysis understand its technical language and use it to talk about ABA's techniques. Everyone else... doesn't, although there are exceptions. Things get more complicated when terms used in ABA have or acquire different meanings outside of that language.

The debates surrounding aversives are, quite literally, a textbook example of this.

(1) According to Cooper, et al. (2007), the most influential textbook on behavior analysis used today, an aversive stimulus is defined as "a stimulus change or condition that functions (a) to evoke a behavior that has terminated it in the past; (b) as a punisher when presented following behavior, and/or (c) as a reinforcer when withdrawn following behavior." In this case, it's (b) that applies.

(2) While modern accounts usually don't involve literal cattle prods, instead involving a variety of other shock devices, there are accounts of literal cattle prods -- and improvised devices made from them -- being used as late as the early to mid-'90s.


Cooper, J., Heron, T., & Heward, W. (2007). Applied Behavior Analysis (2nd Ed.) Upper Saddle River, NJ: Pearson Education, Inc.

Sunday, April 5, 2009

A Book Review

As a grad student, I do a lot of reading. Some of it I enjoy. Some of it... not so much. Some of my reading is assigned for my classes; some of it is purely to help with my assignments. And, every now and then, I get to engage in that most rare of reading activities: reading for my own pleasure.

Don't get me wrong here. I love psychology. I even have a T-shirt that says so (with the elaboration, "It's a conditioned response"). It's just that ABA isn't my main area of interest... and many of the articles are simply appalling. Overall, it's fun, mind, and some of the articles are very interesting, but I find that I have to remind myself why I love psychology from time to time. If I didn't, it'd become a "mere" perseverative interest, and I don't want that.

Not that I don't love my perseverations. I do. It's just that perseverations shift. Psychology is something that I never want to get bored with.

Sunday, through a series of coincidences, I found a book that helped me to remember why I chose this field.

The book, entitled The Psychology of Harry Potter, is a gleeful romp through J. K. Rowlings's fictitious world. Each chapter, written by various experts in a wide variety of fields of psychological science, applies a different aspect of psychology to various parts of Harry's world, including:

  • Why wizards lack ability with logic and common sense (Chapter One; you can blame it on Hogwarts)
  • The ways the House system encourages conflict and divison (Chapter Three)
  • The woeful inadequacies of Hogwarts's career councilling services (Chapter Four)
  • The romantic attachment styles of the main trio of the book, as interpreted under the lens of attachment theory (Chapter Six)
  • The ways in which Harry's various losses have helped him grow as a person(and why he's not an utter wreck after growing up with the Dursleys; Chapters Seven amd Eight)

And, of course, many others. There are, in fact, a total of twenty-two articles in the volume.

In addition to simply being fun, however, the book serves as an introduction to many basic psychological principles and research. I can think of few texts that illustrate the application and real-world relevance of psychology in such an entertaining manner.

This isn't to say, however, that the book's a substitute for formal instruction. It isn't. But, for anyone who wishes to learn about the discipline, I find it difficult to think of a more entertaining way to get acquainted.

This is, oddly enough, especially true for autistic individuals. I do not (for obvious reasons) have figures on how many of us have perseverated on Harry Potter or related phenomena.

It's my firm belief that the discipline of psychology could use more autistic psychologists. Books like this are a great way to develop a love of the discipline. They are also a fun way to come to understand some of the things about NT behavior that have confused us throughout our lives.

That's not to say that this book is perfect. Some of the chapters (e.g. Chapter Two) are worse than others. As educational entertainment, though, The Psychology of Harry Potter is top-notch.

And if anyone wants to debate any of the points made in any of the articles... I'm game.

Saturday, April 4, 2009

Stimming, autistic and NT

Autisics stim. If you've ever spent time around autistic people -- especially autistic children -- this is pretty much a given. What most people don't seem to consider is that NTs stim, too.

In fact, there are circumstances under which NTs even use many of the stereotypical autistic stims (or, more technically, "self-stimulatory behaviors") and under which those stims become generally understood -- and even almost expected.

Admittedly, most of those circumstances are pretty extreme, emotionally speaking, but one of the (many) hypotheses floating out there about autism is that it's (at least partially) caused by a deficit in the ability to self-regulate emotions. In many ways, this is an argument which helps support that theory.

On the other hand, there's also evidence against that idea. There are certainly difficulties with emotional self-regulation in autistic individuals -- and even Aspies such as myself -- but issues of causation are complex.

In any case, as I mentioned before, there are certain types of stimming that NTs regularly engage in. Many autistics engage in these same stims as well, but they're not usually pathologized unless there is an issue with the context. For instance, some autistic individuals have been known to masturbate in public because they don't understand why they shouldn't.

While that particular societal more may seem silly when looked at by someone without our cultural baggage, it is rooted in many deep-seated beliefs about sexuality. As such, it is unlikely to change anytime soon.

And yes, masturbation is a type of stimming... or, more accurately, a category of types of stimming. It involves repetitive movement intended to stimulate the senses of the person engaging in it in a specific manner... which is pretty much what the definition of stimming is.

While that particular type of stimming is pretty easy to find among NTs, the stereotypical autistic stims (e.g. rocking, head-hitting/banging, hand-flapping, spinning objects...) are somewhat more difficult to find.

Discounting children's use of rocking horses and adults in rocking chairs, there's one circumstance in which NTs frequently rock. When they're given extremely distressing news (e.g. the death of a loved one), many individuals will have a reaction that's quite familiar to many autistics. Specifically, they will start crying, almost hold themselves, and start to rock back and forth. Despite the extreme circumstances, this rocking serves almost the exact same function as it does in autistics: it's a soothing motion, one that helps the individual cope with an extreme emotion.

In NTs, head-hitting and head-banging is usually reserved for moments of extreme frustration or what I like to refer to as "D'oh!" moments. While NTs usually don't engage in this behavior with the same intensity (or frequency) that many autistics have been known to, that is a quantitative, not qualitative, difference.

Hand-flapping also follows this pattern. If you've ever watched videos of people as they are informed that they won the lottery (or Publisher's Clearinghouse sweepstakes, etc.), you probably know what I mean: many people in such circumstances jump up and down, waving their hands excitedly... in a manner quite familiar to most in the autism and autistic communities.

Finally, object-spinning is mostly a matter of autistic children (which is to say that autistic adults don't do it nearly as much). Parallels in NT children are pathetically easy to find. Simply put, neurotypical chlidren like spinning toys. Autistic kids like to spin toys... including spinning toys.

Edit: Corrected a typographical error.

Thursday, April 2, 2009

Why I rarely write the way I think

My writings on this blog are rarely my actual thoughts. Oh, they share some parallels, but my experience has been that very few people understand me when I say what I'm actually thinking. I usually have to oversimplify a bit and find an efficient way to shoehorn them into the English language. I could, of course, simply translate, but that introduces its own share of problems.

To illustrate this, I'm going to write down a fairly simple thought in three ways. One is as close as I can approximate my actual thought processes in writing. Another is as close as I can approximate in English. The third is the way I would usually write it.

And if anyone can help me figure out why the formatting keeps getting shot to Hell, it would be greatly appreciated.

Way One

int tuna.centVal = val(tuna, fresh);
while(tuna.sold != 0)
wait(about one minute);
tuna.centVal *= (1 - percentLoss);

Way Two

The value of a caught tuna approaches zero with the passage of time, following a progression that approximates a hyperbola (the limit of the value as the time from catch approaches infinity being zero) that is implemented starting the moment it is caught and compounded approximately every minute.

Way Three

The value of a tuna decreases for every minute that passes between when the fisherman catches it and when he sells it.

Still more on Ozanoff et al., 2005

As I've said before, one of the major advantages of being a grad student is access to the faculty. I finally got to speak to someone familiar with the MMPI about Ozanoff et al., and several interesting things came from the discussion.

First off, the L scale (one of the validity scales, intended to detect attempts to represent yourself as "better" than you really are) probably isn't valid for assessing autistics. I commented on that a bit in my previous post, but I wasn't fully aware of the sort of questions that were involved in the L scale.

Simply put, autistics would legitimately answer many of them in a different manner than neurotypicals.

What I found out about the restructured clinical (RC) scales, however, calls into question a number of things about my first set of observations. At least some of the effects I noted are probably explainable by the differences in scores on the RCd, or demoralization, scale, which measures common factors that influence all of the original scales.

For the record, the autistic group scored higher on that one.

Of course, even within the RC scales, there were effects. Aside from the aforementioned effect on the RCd scale, the autistic group scored higher on the RC2 scale, which measures low positive emotions. This is probably explainable by the fact that nearly a quarter of the selected sample had a diagnosis of major depression... and the change in the statistics when these persons are factored out supports this conclusion.

Finally, autistic individuals scored lower on the RC9 (hypomanic activation) scale, which basically measures hyperactivity. I'd comment on how interesting this was if the effect was anywhere near substantial.

You see, even with everything I've mentioned so far? None -- none -- of the autistic means were in the clinically significant range. While there was one scale (8/8-K, officially known as the schizophrenia scale, which measures odd thinking and social alienation) in which 40% of the sample was in the clinical range, this only really means that 40% of the sample thought "strangely" enough and were socially alienated enough for the result to attract a doctor's (or a psychologist's) attention.

Wednesday, April 1, 2009

Autism and violence? Or is that drugs?

As I spent a while this morning, I came across this article. I find it rather difficult to express the sheer horror I felt as I read it.

The story is an account written by the mother of an autistic child, a Ms. Ann Bauer. Beyond pointing to some earlier commentary by her, I won't try to analyze the causes of her son's violent behavior. I lack enough details to form proper conclusions.

I will, however, point to the conclusions that Ms. Bauer herself reached and challenge the validity of her conclusions. I will also point out that she is hardly the first person to reach this sort of conclusion.

Psychoactive drugs, as a class, are dangerous. Abilify, the first medication that she mentions, has been known to induce diabetes and cause strokes, among an extensive list of other, frequently nasty, side effects. Compared to most antipsychotics, that's actually fairly prosaic. When I did a brief clinical practicum at a gateway program to a South Carolina mental hospital, I saw a level of drug-induced brain damage (usually in the form of tardive dyskinesia) that would have stunned most people.

What's more, her son's rage, violence, etc. appears to be highly ego-dystonic. As has been repeatedly observed, autism is anything but.

Ms. Bauer has my most sincere sympathies for what happened to her and her son. I do not, however, believe that it is appropriate for her to blame autism for it. But, then again, emotions are rarely the language of reason. I cannot blame Ms. Bauer for lashing out, even in writing. I just wish she'd chosen a different target.