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A Functional Understanding of Autism

In a session entitled “How ‘Special’ Education Impedes Social Justice,” Alonzo Andrews, director of the University of Texas-San Antonio’s Center for Autism Studies, outlined his understanding of autism within the context of Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA). To wit:

– He contrasted ABA’s understanding of autism with what he called ‘mentalist’ descriptions. Where ABA offers a rigorous scientific understanding of how autistic students interact with their environment, mentalist descriptions fall into a trap of tautology (“Why is the student doing X? Because they’re Y. How do you know they’re Y? Because they’re doing X!).

– Focusing on the functional aspects of autism allows ABA researchers to answer questions around what autistic students are managing with a given behavior or reaction.

– What is autism, then, within the behaviorist context Andrews outlines? Simply put: a behavior set that lacks verbal reciprocity, among other things. Helping young people (especially little kids) with autism acquire skills around eye contact and verbal interaction is key, he believes, to realizing the social justice/equity goals behind its enabling Federal legislation. Changing the students is not the goal; rather, it’s about giving them tools that will open doors for them that might otherwise remain shut.

– His final point contained a point of mordant humor. Addressing a critique of ABA’s use of punishment – a relic of its Skinnerian past, he claims, discontinued after the 80s – he averred that negative reinforcement in the realm of teaching autistic students is self-defeating. “Why use punishment when positive reinforcement works so much better? Besides, interacting with non-autistic folks is punishment enough for most of my students.”


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