When ABA was developed, one of its main goals was to make autistic people appear as indistinguishable from non-autistic people as possible through coerced behavioral changes. In many cases today, ABA therapists and families retain that goal. The “Father of ABA,” Ivar Lovaas, has been quoted saying, “you have to put out the fire first before you worry how it started.” This idea is generally regarded as correct in a literal sense, regarding actual fires. However, most behaviors – even those that can be dangerous – are not giant, glowing crises. Rather, they are communication. A more appropriate axiom for a situation involving a living person might be, “you have to figure out what the need is before you can meet it.”
The majority of communication serves one of three purposes: establishing joint attention, participating in social interaction, or communicating a need. Children learn as young as infancy that they have the capacity to manipulate their environments, both directly and indirectly. When a caregiver responds to a cry, it conveys a powerful message. “When I communicate my need, someone will help to meet it.” This natural incentive lays the foundation for future communication attempts.
Non-linguistic communication extends far beyond crying for all of us. In disability-related fields, it is not uncommon to hear people say “behavior is communication.” In the next sentence, however, many have already begun discussing ways to change a behavior. Often, this shift is met with justification. When parents are met with a growing child whose physical communication can harm themselves or others, many wonder, “what choice do I have?” Still, the choice is the same as with all behaviors. Work to understand, support, and guide the communication, or shut the message down.
With higher prevalence of alexithymia (difficulty identifying and describing one’s own emotions) among neurodivergent people, signals of discomfort and distress should be a sign that a person may need extra support, perhaps in figuring out the need they are having in the first place. This detective-work can be difficult, but in the same way that use of AAC can set the linguistic framework for other kinds of communication, acknowledging nonlinguistic communication supports the skills necessary for potential linguistic communication.
Simply teaching other communication and language skills while continuing to practice behaviorism is not enough. Honoring communication, rather than simply manipulating behavior, does more than just supporting future communication. It supports current communication. It provides an avenue for collaboration, in whatever form that takes, to find ways to get needs met and cope with the strong emotions and sensations that life brings. How many neurodivergent people have been taught to suppress their pain, discomfort, or needs in order to behave in a way that someone else deems desirable? What do these messages tell a person about the people who claim to love them, and about trusting their own perceptions, when they are being gaslit every step of the way? When we support communication, we support people and their perceptions in all the nuanced complexity that they encompass. We keep their glow alive.
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