ABAI 2012 Conference Highlights

The Association for Behavior Analysis (ABAI) Conference just continues to grow: last year the conference catered for 4,500 attendees and this year it was even bigger. It was held in Seattle, a very pleasant part of the USA.

International members of ABAI now outnumber the US members, and it is growing in all the corners of the world, largely I would guess as a result of the growing need that the expanding ASD population is creating.

No-one now gives excuses for the growing incidence rate of ASD and it is established as a fact. The official statistics in the USA (Federal Health) are now at one in 88 children – the text books cannot keep up with reprinting new figures as they come. I saw one comparison indicating that Autism outweighed the sum of
other childhood conditions, including Pediatric AIDS, Juvenile Diabetes, Leukemia and Muscular Dystrophy at 617 to 909.  A 2006 Harvard study estimated the cost of care for a lifetime for a person with ASD as being $3.2
million. No wonder governments are beginning to show generosity to families.

The growing panic generating a need to train staff and parents was demonstrated by the number of on- line providers which has proliferated. Competition is big and each wooed conference goers with pamphlets, chocolates and free pens as well as ‘show bags’. Despite all this, outcome data was not ‘yet’ available. However
this new industry now supports on line management of data collection, therapists evaluation, billing, and dealing with insurance claims. Yet another case of the cart pulling the horse down the hill, but pardon my cynicism. I still believe in the true essence of behaviourism, which is to seek individual solutions for individual cases, and though many common issues can be generically managed, the complexity and uniqueness of an individual’s take on ASD needs to be recognized.

More to the point, as always there were many good papers, much opportunity to think through approaches, challenge and evaluate ones own ideas, and as always a number of enthusiastic graduate student presentations describing their single subject experiments and indicating that there is still a lot of original thinking going on.

To me a major theme was the softening of the hard edges of behaviorism with recognition that the developmental Psychology field has something to offer. At ISADD we have always recognized the developmental sequences a child passes though, and it was good to see this explained and incorporated into a new approach to EIBI, particularly when working with babies.

I attended a workshop by Monika Suchowierska from Warsaw-Poland and Linda HeitzmanPowell from U of Kansas. This was a long treatise on what needs to be considered in writing a dynamic and individualized program. Learning was seen as a result of a complex set of  interacting influences on the child. Their approach was certainly refreshing and anything but mechanistic. Monika later gave an invited paper where rather than describing a child’s many behaviours, she saw ASD and its biological aspects through a behavioural systems’ approach, “ as organized patterns of characteristic behaviours that are shaped by multiple environmental factors in reciprocal interaction”. She focused on early mother child interactions and the early vocal and non-vocal patters of infants with ASD, thus emphasizing the role of early core skills such as joint attention, social referencing and relational responding. I found her work inspirational and providing a framework to explain why some infants “recover”. It also echoed some of our recent experiences in Perth, working with babies.

On the same theme another invited address on EIBI seen through developmental eyes was less powerful. One was left with the conclusion that if you cannot recognize the input of Autism, you cannot assess a behavior and the intervention will not meet its mark, though to lay eyes it will look as “nice”. I came away with renewed
awareness of the complex task we face. It is certainly important to have social validity and acceptance for the program, but ‘feel good’ is not enough and rigorous analysis is needed even if the final product will look like just a fun interaction between adult and infant. It is interesting that with all the proliferation of providers and programs, Lovaas’ work is not easily replicated.

I followed a set of papers from the Claremont McKenna College as I had previously found them valuable, focusing on aspects of social skills training via video modeling. It was interesting to note that videos can be simple and will be as effective using adult (and easily available ) models as well as children. There was a valuable lesson in teaching a child to persist in asking to play, as we all know that in real life our child will have to cope with rejection. Video modeling was also successful in decreasing obsessional behaviours and increasing play. The value of self prompting with video modeling on an iPad a child can carry about was also of
interest, and it certainly is easier to manage than the verbal prompts most teachers rely on or the written / compic prompts our therapists carry around while targetting social skills.

There was a good paper on the effects of  reinforcement on the brain, as demonstrated by brain imaging and MRIs, by Mauricio Delgado of Rutgers. He pointed out how the brain reacts to reinforcement/pleasure and creates cognitive associations via conditioned reinforcers which can then maintain a behavior. This explains
addiction, but also the obsessional nature of some of the self stimulatory behaviours we see in ASD and why once established they are difficult to eradicate. However understanding the cognitive association components important in programming.

But the most exciting session, to me at least, was Irene Pepperberg of Harvard talking about her work with Alex the grey parrot which in 20 years learnt to talk with meaning and in short sentences. I knew of her achievements and her work justified the approach to Compic that ISADD takes. But in this session she also
analyzed the thinking behind Visual Maths as we know it and provided several excellent programming steps to ensure that results are cognitively processed and not just rote learnt.

It was good to see that in this conference there were several papers taking us back to our roots in the animal behavior laboratories, and it was interesting to note that they are all well aware of cognition and its effects on learning, something Applied Behaviour Analysts must not forget.

Jura Tender

autism services and support, australia
autism services and support, australia

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