A Touch of Alyricism

Dedicated to the equally fascinating topics of autistic advocacy and the 'sisterly sophistries' of radical gender feminism. Other topics may occasionally crop up. Contactable at alyric@gmail.com


Polemicist since Grade 8

Thursday, January 03, 2008

Research Priorities

The National Research Council, 2001 review of developments in autism research titled “Educating Children with Autism” noted the following:

“Although several of these literatures [developmental, neurological, behavioral, epidemiological] appear to be internally well integrated, there is remarkably little integration across literatures. For example, the information from the literature describing characteristics of children with autistic spectrum disorders is often not linked to treatment programs. Likewise, the developmental literature, which is descriptive in nature, has only rarely been integrated into individual intervention practice research, which tends to be behaviorally oriented”

Since 2001 there has been nothing in the literature to suggest that the intervention research community has taken a cooperative turn and adorned their efforts with results from areas in psychology other than their own. Factionalism remains rife and for good reason. Not one of the interventions on offer to educate autistic children has a sound theoretical and conceptual framework based on replicable scientific experimentation such that the results remain undisputed by the research community as a whole. Most (more likely all) are essentially based on some plausible concept that started as somebody’s bright idea and never developed empirical legs further. That applies to applied behavioral analytic approaches as much as any other. Professor John Mill’s scholarly tome, “Control - A History of Behavioral Psychology” carefully elaborates the scientific pretensions of the field [1]. In short, as far as research directions in autism are concerned, there are PhD theses aplenty in simply examining the lack of empirical foundation of any of the interventions currently on offer.

I propose that there is a far more urgent necessity to address a practice in the field that is currently used in practically all interventions no matter the label, has an enormous potential to inflict damage considering the very young ages at which intervention is now targeted and is based on no empirical foundation whatsoever. It is practically axiomatic in the field of special education and foundational in behavior analytic approaches that all teaching tasks are broken down into discrete steps, at least initially, and carefully delivered to the student in a highly controlled step-wise manner. In behavior analytic terms this allows for controlled reinforcement at each step of the process. The justification for this is that autistic students have a problem with over-selectivity, that is, they focus on details at the expense of the larger picture and irrelevant details at that. However, the literature, such as it is, does not support that position at all and there is data, both research and anecdotal that suggest the universality of this approach is not warranted.

Most studies on stimulus over-selectivity have found some people with autism who have not responded overselectively (and yet have all/most of the above features of autism). It has also been found that many people without disabilities show evidence of overselective responding but none of the features of autism (e.g., Koegel & Wilhelm, 1973 [2]; Lovaas & Schreibman, 1971[3]). Over-selectivity is not a consistent feature of autism. Anecdotally, it appears that autistic children can and do learn very well in the absence of intervention as the following parental accounts relate, thus negating an often used rationale of interventions that autistic children (all of them) cannot learn at all without such careful scaffolding.

“Every single thing she knows, she learned from ABA. This is fact. Except for the things that seem to be her gifts. She spelled words with refrigerator magnets long before ABA therapy. She plays the piano almost in spite of ABA therapy. She taught herself to read without the use of ABA therapy. Adding and subtracting. She was obsessed with numbers and sequences of numbers before ABA.” [4]

“Between 18 months and 2 years old Jaden started doing some pretty amazing things. Like just about every kid his age, he had one of those foam alphabets that fit inside a foam frame. One day on a whim Debi took the frame away and left him with just a jumbled pile of letters. Jaden proceeded to put the letters in order just as fast as we would do it the very first time.” [5]

A second research effort suggests that rather than being limited to a detail oriented approach to learning it may well be that autistics have the option of using a top down as well as a bottom up approach. On perception tasks involving categorization, Soulieres et al 2007 [6], concluded that the influence of categories may be optional in autistics, while being mandatory in non-autistics.

The evidence behind what appears to be a very sensible approach to learning in autistic individuals is not what it should be and there are plentiful indicators that the appearance of sense could be misleading. I would like to see some real dollars spent on this one area. It really is time that ‘evidence-based’ had some basis in fact. Consider that it is generally recognized that pattern recognition is a relative strength for autistic spectrum folks and that the piecemeal dissemination of material effectively deprives those folks of access to sufficient material to access the pattern. Ideally, it would be of considerable benefit if research could identify for the child whether or not their learning style is congruent with a step by step approach before that approach is implemented.


[1] Mills, John A., Control: A History of Behavioral Psychology, Paperback Edition, New York University Press 2000
[2] Koegel & Wilhelm, Selective Responding to the Components of Multiple Visual Cues by Autistic Children. Journal of Experimental Child Psychology, 15, 3, 442-53, Jun 73
[3] Lovaas & Schreibman, , Overselective response to social stimuli by autistic children Behav Res Ther. 1971 Nov;9(4):305-10.
[4] Comment from a parent Jez Rourke to the topic “What I think about ABA and Recovery” on the Autism Vox website blog. Web reference: http://www.autismvox.com/what-i-think-about-aba-and-recovery/#comment-73433
[5] Mike Lake, MP - Canadian House of Commons 39th Parliament, 1st session edited Hansard Number 087
[6] Soulières, I., Mottron, L., Saumier, D., Larochelle, S., 2007. Atypical categorical perception in autism: Autonomy of discrimination? J. Autism Dev. Dis. 37, 481-90.


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