Reinforcers

In one of the first days of September 1996, Karen, a new teacher assigned to work with my son was heartbroken.  She cried! According to what she told her fellow teachers, she felt like a failure.  She had worked intensively with Robert for the whole week and the only thing she taught him was to aurally discriminate between two commands: “Touch a cup” or “Touch something else” (I forgot what that “something else” was.  But it was another object.)  Nothing more! She doubted her teaching abilities!

Of course her clinical, PhD level, supervisor explained to her that she managed to teach Robert what other teachers were not able to do for the last 12 months.  That her success was really a huge breakthrough.  For the first time Robert accessed …language.  He understood sounds as words – sounds with meaning.

The question which was never posed loudly but, nonetheless, reminded on everybody’s mind was, “Why was Karen, a person new to ABA and autism with no more than one week of training, able to get results that  her more experienced colleagues could not?  Caroline and Evelyn were both very good at what they were doing.  Caroline in the first half an hour long session with my son transformed this constantly moving  ball of mercury into an attentive preschooler.  She had warm personality and iron will and used them skillfully.  I credit Evelyn with teaching  Robert to imitate other people’s gestures.  She switched from the  least to the most intensive prompting schedule to assure errorless teaching and eliminate “magical” thinking.  That was the first huge breakthrough. There is no doubt that Evelyn and Caroline were great teachers, and yet it was novice, Karen, whom I credit with opening a new world to Robert.  All three teachers used reinforcers. After all, the methods of teaching derived from the principles of Applied Behavior Analysis rely heavily on reinforcers as a way to increase the frequency of the specific behaviors including correct responses to teacher’s directions – and hence – increase learning.   The reinforcers used with Robert were mostly pieces of candies, cookies, or chips.  Access to preferred toy, video, or computer game can also be a reinforcer if it is something a child wants strongly enough to pay for it by following teacher’s instruction.  The ABA crowd believes in power of reinforcers.  And rightly so.  Although not once reliance on reinforcers in teaching has been criticized by humanitarians believing in altruistic motivation of higher ethical standard, there is no doubt that reinforcers are involved in daily lives of each of us.

So Caroline, Evelyn, and Karen used reinforcers – the same M&Ms, potato chips, or sips of grape juice. Moreover they all were teaching using the same format of discrete trails.  The same objects placed in front of Robert and the same short directions, “Touch this, touch that”. The only difference between Karen and Robert’s previous teachers was that Karen couldn’t hide her emotions.  She couldn’t help being happy, really happy (not just showing sort of artificially sounding approval) whenever Robert answered correctly.  She couldn’t help feel hurt when Robert was wrong.  She was new, she was sensitive, she took it personally.

Her reactions were giving Robert directions.  He wanted to avoid Karen being sad, as if the air escaped from her.  He wanted to see Karen’s eyes lighten up.

Of course nobody answered the question this way.  Well, nobody even posed that question.  I came up with this answer after many years of learning about my son, of discarding all the misconceptions that were brought by the diagnosis of autism. It is so easy, when confronted with someone who seems so different, to negate his/her humanity, the ability to be sensitive, observant, and simply… a good human being.

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