A Less Punishing World: Contradictions in Behavior Analysis, Autism, and Punishment
This paper reviews the research in punishment for specific behaviors of autistic children. I propose that the rationale for punishment contradicted previous behavior analytic research. I will juxtapose these against the arguments of B. F. Skinner who advocated against punishment.
In 1972 the American Humanist Society awarded B. F. Skinner, their “Humanist of the Year” award. It was dedicated for his efforts to show how “a less punishing world” was possible. It was a controversial choice to say the least. Skinner was after all, the man who had authored a book called “Beyond Freedom and Dignity” that had come out just the previous year (Skinner, 1971).
Skinner (1953) was strongly anti-punishment. He opposed it for five reasons. (1) Its ineffectiveness in decreasing inappropriate behavior (Skinner, 1953; Skinner 1971; Skinner, 1974; and Skinner, 1985). (2) Considerations that the negative behavior being punished is not operant, but caused by some other process (Skinner, 1953). (3) The production of side effects (Skinner, 1953). (4) The ethics of using punishment when other techniques are viable (Skinner. 1953; Skinner 1971; Skinner, 1974; and Skinner, 1985). (5) The quality of life that aversives adversely affect (Skinner, 1953; Skinner 1971; and Skinner, 1974).
With apologies to the opinion of many, B. F. Skinner was not THE behavior analyst; he was however the first among his peers to provide ethical precedent and not just the pragmatic consideration in his analysis of punishment. I argue that knowledge of the history of behavior analytic research into punishment is important as it discloses inconsistancies, in particular when compared to the ethical based arguments of Skinner.
Punishment in the behavior analytic sense, is not the same as in the broader English sense. In behavior analytic sense, punishment is: Any stimulus event or condition, who’s immediate response contingent presentation results in a decreased frequency of that response. So, that is the key, it has to immediately follow a behavior and it must be shown to decrease the behavior. Punishment in the broad sense of the word, might be to take a toy away. However, if that doesn’t decrease the behavior, it isn’t punishment in the behavior analytic sense. On the flip side if a teacher showers a child with praise, and that praise decreases the response that delighted the teacher, then the praise is punishment, in that case.
Review of Literature
Skinner’s argument that punishment doesn’t work has largely been rejected by the behavior analytic community, based on other research. It has been informally noted that Skinner disliked punishment based operants and he may have overlooked relevant facts. This might be so, but it is also a psychogenetic fallacy, to imagine Skinner’s thoughts and use this to explain his actions away. In any case the behavior analyst quickly adapted and adopted punishment.
Nate Azrin, one of the most prolific behavior analysts ever, was at the forefront of this shift. In fact psychology in general is in debt to him as he was part of a cohort of young psychologists from various schools of thought who were forcing psychology towards science and away from armchair analysis.
An early example was Azrin (1956) with pigeons. An early human example was Azrin (1958). Later he researched "time-out" which is easily (although anecdotally) the most popular punishing technique used for any sort of child (Azrin, 1961).
Azrin was not the only one looking at aversives. Todd Risely, is another famous old guard behavior analyst. Risley (1968) came on the scene for the first edition of the brand new Journal of Applied Behavior Analysis with a study of the effects and side effects of punishment for an autistic child. However, he wasn’t quite the the first to use punishment for autistic children. One earlier example was Lovaas, Schaeffer, & Simmons (1965), who used electric shock to build repertoires of social behavior in children who were diagnosed as childhood schizophrenics and who today, would have likely been diagnosed on the autism spectrum.
This research got into the media and caused a bit of a stir. Even Bettelheim has a few things to say about this on pages 410-411 of “The Empty Fortress” (Bettelheim, 1967) Moreover, an early cognitive/behavioral psychologist attacked this on ethical grounds. Bregar (1965) congratulated Lovaas et al. (1965) from freeing themselves from Skinnerian dogma, in terms of effectiveness of punishment, but attacks the ethical integrity of non-consent for use of aversives in this study.
Another problem pointed is the production of side effects. Thanks to the research of Ulrich & Azrin (1962) we knew early on that punishment induces temporary aggression in rats and gerbils (although not guinea pigs). There is a big step from pigeons to humans and humans do not necessarily instantly attack the nearest person when they are punished. However thanks to the efforts of another set of Doctors we know that seeing aggression can lead to aggression in children. The first (and no surprise) is Bandura (1961), but the second doctor whom we must credit and who also published in the same year, was Lovaas (1961).
Punishment based research on animals continued, but now the shift was towards a variety of human problems such smoking (Powell, & Azrin, 1968) and poor posture (Azrin, Rubin, O'Brien, Ayllon, & Roll, 1968). However punishment for autistic children also picked up steam. (Tate & Baroff, 1966; Azrin, Kaplin, & Foxx, 1973; and Koegel, Firestone, Kramme, & Dunlap, 1974).
A late occurrence was Lichstein (1976). This sparked some rejoinders. Most notable were from two a husband and wife who again addressed the ethics of non-consent and who also questioned the need for aversives in when other interventions were possible (Shea & Shea, 1976). This just preceded Wolf (1978), this was about the time when behavior analysts were figuring out that social validity was highly important in our research.
So, aversives were causing problems in terms of social validity for behavior analysts, but we knew via research that aversives were quite effective. Other alternatives were investigated.. Tanner & Zeiler, (1975) used noxious aromas. Moore & Bailey (1973) used social punishment delivered by the mother of the child. Foxx & Azrin (1973) used overcorrection. This is the concept that a person more than corrects (more than restitution) the relevant ill behavior. Friman, Cook, & Finney, (1984) compared a sprayed water mist spray to vinegar and lemon juice and found it just as effective. It looked like the perfect aversive for a while. It didn’t cause pain. It was just annoying. However, it too did not pass the test of social validity.
Klier & Harris (1977) did some truly fascinating research using three autistic children to see if an inverse relationship existed between self-stimulatory behavior and learning; that is, the authors tried to see if self-stimulatory behavior got in the way of a leaning task. For two of the three children the answer was no. The authors concluded that maybe we don’t have to get rid of self-stimulatory behavior. That seems like a doubly good thing, autistic persons write that self-stimulatory behavior is important as it allows autistics to cope with difficult or uneasy situation. That looks like the quality of life issue that Skinner brought up. One of Dr. Harris’s next research projects involved looking at ways to suppress self-stimulatory behavior in autistic children (Harris & Wolchik, 1979).
Sandra Harris later went on to investigate the relationship between allowing staff to use mild aversives and allowing them to strong aversives. They found that staff who were allowed to use strong aversives were more likely to remain with the center and had reported that they felt that they accomplished more. Harris, Handleman, Gill, & Fong (1991) write “Allowing staff to use a range of interventions including strong aversives may diminish job stress and enhance their sense of personal efficacy.” However, this article did not establish if such aversives truly were effective or justified in terms of helping the students.
In the mean time Dr. Lovaas was not idle and was still working with autistic kids as well as with effeminate boys. Rekers & Lovaas (1974) and Rekers, Lovaas, & low (1974) used spanking to modify the behavior of the effeminate boys to make them more masculine. Part of the critique offered by Nordyke, Baer, Etzel, & LeBlanc, (1977) concerned the use aversives.
Flashing forward, Lovaas, Ackerman, Alexander, Firestone, Perkins, Young,
Carr, & Newsom (1981) came out with “The Me Book”. This book was simple, straightforward and readable. It also advised aversives; generally (but not only), a single slap to the thing or buttocks. However, this still preceded the landmark study Lovaas (1987) in which following two years of treatment based on “The Me Book” 47% of the experimental group became indistinguishable from typically developing peers. I will not comment further on this study except to say that it is still the source of great controversy and that the active ingredient in it was contingent aversives.
Many of the late greats mentioned in this post like Baer, Wolf, and Skinner have shuffled off for the big experimental space in the sky. Nate Azrin is still teaching in Nova Southeastern University in Florida. Risley is now an advocate for exclusively positive practices and Lovaas has repudiated his use of aversives. Behavior analysts have almost entirely abandoned the use of physically aversive techniques for autistic children. Is this a happy ending then?
I would submit that the answer is “no”. Skinner argued five reasons exist that show punishment should not be used. One was shown to be false. The other four remain.
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