I feel bad about that… Wait! Its okay! ABAI Convention #2 June 2013

Each year at the ABAI Convention the Conceptual Behaviour Analysis folks provide a thought provoking commentary on a complex behaviour (please note that conceptual behaviour analysts spend all their time thinking… no experimentation or people confounding their workdays), this year I was drawn to their presentation based on the topic: Justification and Guilt. We’ve all encountered Justification and his evil twin Guilt in our lives, and sometimes the timeline of measure for how frequently I contact these feelings/thoughts is greatly condensed… on a bad day I might wrestle these guys multiple times! Let’s be honest… have you cheated on a diet? Check, but I was great for 5 days in a row. Have you skipped a workout? Check, but I was tired, I can go tomorrow. How about that upcoming visit to see the mother in law?? No? – Had to work? Me too, (well not really, but she’ll never know, hope she doesn’t read this!).

Why do we do things that we know with certainty or at least high probability, are not going to work out well?? And why after we get caught doing something that didn’t go well or we stumble unwittingly and do something untoward, do we try to sweep it away?? Good versus evil, bad guys versus good guys, right versus wrong… daily we weigh the protagonists against the antagonists only to be undone by our need to get rid of the pesky feelings of guilt… The phenomena of justification and guilt are unique to the human species…my bulldog for instance ate a whole bag of Cheezies and did not bat an eye when scolded, no offers of excuse, no remorse (not even when the Cheezies wreaked havoc on his bowels… wait, that’s a whole other story…) life as a family pet may not be all that bad. But really, from a behavioural perspective, how does justification and guilt work?

Let’s look at an example or two. First, how about one where justification comes out on the side of good (because really why keep reading this if we’re all just going to feel bad)… Let’s say I’m getting ready to go get my bike to ride to work, I head into my shed and I encounter a snake. I am afraid of snakes…not just a little bit, full out screaming like a girl, no shame whatsoever kind of fear – this is a reflexive (uncontrolled) response, although it’s likely just a tiny garden snake, after all I live in Victoria, (there are no poisonous snakes here), but my brain is saying “it’s a humongous deadly cobra!”. Now let’s say I need to get my bike out because I have to get to work. I say to myself: “the snake is probably scared more of me than I am of it”; or maybe “the snake is harmless”; “when I open the door, it’s probably slithered away”… “I’m perfectly safe”; “I’ll be okay the mower and my bike are between me and that deadly creepy reptile”. Finally, I manage to make my way into the shed, elevated heart rate, cold sweat, where I retrieve my bike, slam the shed door and pedal off to safety as quickly as possible.

So, behaviourally, we act or behave due to our current circumstances (the presence of the snake) and to the “response products” to our current circumstances. These response products are “private events” (thoughts) in the form of talking ourselves into things or out of things. They may be memories that we recall, where the memories may be factual information or similar/related events. Often the response products are a form of negative reinforcement. What does this mean – if we are in an aversive state (in the presence of a snake) and the “self-talk” allows us to escape that (gain relief) we refer to this as “justification” and to the whole situation as negative reinforcement. In other words, to be negative reinforcement, the action (consequence) following the behaviour leads to feelings of relief, so that we’ll likely do that behaviour again. So in the case of my snake, my self-talk helped me get through the event, I obtained my bike, I felt relief, I’m likely to talk myself through future snake encounters (well in all honesty, I’d likely bail and take the car… but you get it).

So how about guilt… we’ve all felt guilty for doing something that hurts someone else. Guilt is a private perseverance on an aversive consequence (we keep thinking about something bad we did). People don’t like to feel guilt! Indeed, we like to get rid of that feeling as quickly as possible, and we will engage in behaviours that will allow us to eliminate that feeling and if it works, we’ll do it again (negative reinforcement). So let’s pull out a TOTALLY hypothetical example because I enjoy all my co-workers. Let’s say I’m at work and Mary asks me to go out for a coffee with her after work. I don’t really like Mary’s company, last time I went out with her all she talked about was ABA – actually it was more than talk, it was a monologue. So I say to myself: I could tell Mary I find her company boring and therefore I don’t want to go, or I could tell a little white lie – I could say something like “sorry Mary I already have plans” or “I have to get caught up on work tonight”. Why do this and not be honest? I know I would hurt Mary if I told her the truth and I want to avoid hurting someone else (avoid the feelings of guilt) so this leaves me two options (escape the situation by telling a fib), or suffer through Mary to avoid hurting her. Obviously, I don’t want to suffer through Mary (I’m not quite that altruistic), so I begin my self-talk about how its better to tell the fib than hurt her, I justify further by telling myself that’s what I’d want if someone were to find my company less than enjoyable (please keep in mind this is of course hypothetical I’m sure I’m totally fascinating). I call up previous learning and I utilize that learning to influence my current situation and avoid the feelings of guilt, because who doesn’t want to feel happy and guilt free?

Historically, Behaviour Analysts have gotten a bit of a bad rap from the general psychology field because of a misconception stating we don’t care about feelings. Of course we care about feelings, we fully acknowledge that people feel things, but we also know that these feelings are a result of a current situation and the related response products. This pesky human ability to recall past events and justify our behaviour may occasionally lead us down the wrong path (or sometimes to self improvement); but regardless, since I currently don’t enjoy the life of a family pet, and demolishing a bag of Cheezies would lead to feelings of regret, they sure are handy when I’m feeling bad about something I did. Unfortunately, as long as justification is part of my behavioural repertoire, I’ll likely do the same behaviour again. D’oh! Pass the Cheezies!

Minneapolis or Bust! ABAI #1 June 2013

So, I’ve just come back from the 2013 ABAI (Association for Behaviour Analysis International) Convention, along with my colleague BCaBA Practicum Student Lexie Kosick, which was held in Minneapolis Minnesota this year. Always held on the US Memorial Day long weekend, this Convention brings 4 to 5 thousand Behaviour Analysts from around the world together, to share the latest information in one of three behaviour analytic realms:

  • Applied behaviour analysis,
  • Experimental behaviour analysis, and
  • Conceptual behaviour analysis.

I’ve been asked to produce some blogs with regards to the Convention, but before I start to get into sharing my learning from that setting, I wanted to share a bit about the convention location that was chosen this year. Annually the convention is an opportunity to share the latest information in the field of applied behaviour analysis, but in addition to this, the host city for the Convention provides an opportunity to take in local culture… so why Minneapolis… not to be disparaging of the residents of the Twin Cities, but as far as being a tourist location, Minneapolis… not so much.  Minneapolis may not be a tourist mecca, except perhaps for hard-core Behaviour Analysts, why you might ask… Skinner used to work there.

Seventy-five years ago, BF Skinner (the Father of Behaviourism) began his career at the University of Minnesota, where he devised a plan to defeat Nazi Germany in World War II that was so unusual it just might have worked. Skinner arrived at the University of Minnesota in 1936, fresh out of graduate school at Harvard. Skinner’s most famous work in Minnesota began in the spring of 1940. It is reported that while on a train while travelling to a conference in Chicago, he was pondering the war in Europe. He recalled the recent massive Nazi air raid on Warsaw, in which the Germans had employed hundreds of old and obsolete planes with no expectation that they would return, instead ending their flights as bombs in the destruction of the city. Suddenly a flock of birds appeared outside, wheeling in formation as his train car passed by. “Suddenly I saw them as ‘devices’ with excellent vision and extraordinary maneuverability,” Skinner wrote in his memoirs. “Could they not guide a missile?”

Now thinking about our current levels of technology, one could not help but snicker when considering the utility of training pigeons to guide missiles – really? Remember, Burrhus Frederic Skinner’s work thus far in his career had been that of operant conditioning involving animals (rats and birds); he could teach them to perform complex behaviours through shaping and reinforcing discriminations – it wasn’t that far fetched that a group of pigeons could be trained to peck a sequence or light and guide a missile. Furthermore, at the time many countries were involved in training animals for aid in the war effort – dogs for detecting explosives or seals for defusing mines. Needless to say – there were a few kinks that could not be worked out, which compounded by the skepticism of the wisdom on trusting a bomb to a bird brain (or 3), eventually led to the disbandment of “Project Pigeon” in 1944. Luckily, for the science of applied behaviour analysis, BF Skinner’s failure to develop a “smart bomb” led to his return to academic work and to the identification of learning principles that have become the foundation of the scientific principles we utilize daily in improving the lives of individuals and that of society as a whole.

Elizabeth Sparling, BCBA

Clinical Director

Pivot Point FGC Inc.

Getting To Know You – Lisa Ferrier

Pivot Point Victoria Regional Manager – Lisa Ferrier

Name: Lisa Ferrier

Location you live in: Victoria

How long have you been with Pivot Point? 1.5 years

What is your region? Victoria

What is your training?

-Level 1 Sign Language Certificate

-Autism Intervention Training Certificate, Queen Alexandra Centre for Children’s Health, Victoria, British Columbia.

-Verbal Behaviour Therapy, Applied Behavioural Analysis, Intensive TLC (Talking, Language, Communication Inc.), Whitby, Ontario.

-Non-Violent Crisis Prevention/Intervention

-Verbal Behaviour for Children Diagnosed with Autism training, Training provided by Behaviour Institute of California via Toronto Preschool Autism Services, Toronto, Ontario

-Intensive Behavioural Intervention Training, Training provided by Behaviour Institute of California via Durham Region Behaviour Management Children’s Services.

-Children with Challenging Behaviour Workshop, University of British Columbia, Vancouver, British Columbia.

-School-Aged Childcare Certificate, Vancouver Community College, Vancouver, British Columbia.

What do you like about working for Pivot Point? I like that we are family centered, and the sense of team. It really feels like a family.

What’s your favourite part of your job? My favourite part of my job is seeing the kids interacting at our clinic space. It is exciting seeing their progression!

What group programs do you offer? We offer Social Success, Finding a Voice thru Song, Purposeful Play, and Kindergarten Readiness.

What are your goals for your region? Presently we are in the process of moving into a new clinic space. I can’t wait to see it functional, with much more space to host groups, tutoring, workshops and intervention. I would like to see how we can involve our community partners


Getting to know you – Virginia Renaud

Pivot Point North Fraser Regional Manager – Virginia Renaud.


Name: Virginia Renaud

Location you live in: Mission

How long have you been with Pivot Point?: Since last September, 2011

What is your region?: North Fraser

What is your training?: Journalism, Advocacy, Group Facilitation, Characteristics of Autism, Autism Behaviour Intervention, Case Management

What do you like about working for Pivot Point?: The versatility and transparency of the organization. I also love the way we are all so connected and that everyone is on the same team, no matter what region we’re in.

What’s your favourite part of your job?:  Meeting with families. Whether it’s meeting them at the beginning of their Autism Journey, or helping them create the turning point in their child’s life by embracing a new therapy or approach, that is a very empowering thing. I am very passionate about helping families get on track and stay there. I have a son with Autism as well – he’s now 21. My own struggles over the years have taught me so much, I feel very blessed to be able to pass on this knowledge and experience to others.

What group programs do you offer?: Just finished “Managing Emotions” and we are currently running “Focus on Friendship with a group of young men (pre-teen). They are having a blast! More Social Success groups to come!

What are your goals for your region?: I’m interested in getting the word out about Pivot Point as a viable choice for parents, and to help get more parent support for the region. Very little is known about our organization in this area and I’m working hard to change that. By meeting with Social Workers, liaising with other non-profit groups and becoming involved in community events, I believe we can show parents and other decision-makers that we are different on a good way! I would also like to develop an ongoing workshop series with the Fraser Valley Autism Society and Pivot Point, using our own staff as presenters. There is very definite need for this in my region and I hope to make that a reality soon!


Family Experiences of Obtaining a Diagnosis of Autism Spectrum Disorder

Family Experiences of Obtaining a Diagnosis of ASD

A lot has changed since my son, now age 16, was diagnosed with “Infantile Autism” at age 3. The 30 seconds it took the pediatrician to scribble that fateful diagnosis on his letterhead after two office visits, is etched in my mind forever. Since then the diagnostic criteria (and names) have changed; we now have a provincial diagnostic standard (ADOS and ADIR); larger communities have assessment teams; and a whole myriad of services are available, some evidence based and some… not so much. But despite the improved diagnostic and treatment services, how have families’ experiences of the process changed?

Both as a parent and professional in the community, I hear many stories: some families talk about how responsive their family doctor was helping to make a referral, while others were told to “wait and see” – the death knell of early intervention services. So what factors influence a family’s experience? In a recent study by Sansosti et al (2012); slow response to parental concerns, leading to a delay in diagnosis was identified as the key factor leading to frustration with the process of obtaining a diagnosis. But why do some families experience a slow response while others do not?

Some factors were rather obvious; for example, rural families experienced challenges as professionals were difficult to access. Lack of experience of the physician and the similarity of symptomatology with other disorders were also cited as leading to the reticence of physicians to refer families to other services. Interestingly and alarmingly, a number of studies in the US and Europe acknowledged additional factors that affect poor response:

  • level of education of the parents;
  • socio-economic status; and/or
  • belonging to an ethnic/racial minority.

The importance of early diagnosis and treatment cannot be understated, yet many children receiving an ASD diagnosis are closer to school age rather than 3 or under. Greater awareness, support and advocacy for families that are trying to obtain a diagnosis are critical, especially for rural, disadvantaged or minority families. How can we help families trying to make their way through this process? I invite you to share your story or ideas as your encouragement or thoughts could change family’s life. If you are a family going through the process now, I encourage you to continue to advocate and to seek the support other families and community agencies.

Elizabeth Sparling, BCBA

Clinical Director