Bubbles, The Blessing and The Curse

Before I even heard about Applied Behavior Analysis and before I knew the concept of the  reinforcer,  I used bubbles to increase one of Robert’s behavior- signing  “more”.  At that time, I didn’t know that teaching a child to use one sign to ask for everything he/she wanted was not a good idea. It was so much easier to teach one general sign than to teach many specific signs for specific items that many speech pathologists advised equipping a child with one word or sign to be universally used. The doubts about this approach, which I soon developed, were confirmed during my first workshop on Verbal Behavior more than 7 years later.  In first months of 1995,  I didn’t have any misgivings.

It took a few weeks of teaching (prompting)  before Robert used the sign for “more” independently. I was thrilled. This one, simple gesture from American Sign Language  offered Robert a tool to communicate his wants.

Robert brought me a jar of bubble solution and made a gesture for “more” ergo, he was communicating!!

It didn’t bother me that Robert signed “more”  while he asked for bubbles, or apple juice, or chips, or anything else. Since all his requests were made in the proximity of the desired object it was not surprising that he was successful in getting his wishes fulfilled.  I always  knew what he wanted because he let me know that without the sign for “more”. Yet the fact that Robert made a proper movement kept me happy.  He was “telling me” what he wanted!

What he wanted most were bubbles.  “More, more, more”.   I complied. I couldn’t refuse this first  communicative effort.  So I blew bubbles when I cooked.  I blew bubbles when I ate. I blew bubbles when I read or watched TV.  I blew bubbles when I mopped the floor  to immediately  mop it again and remove the slippery soap on which, not once, I slid.  My every activity was enriched (or interrupted)  by Robert demanding, “More, more, more.” More bubbles, of course.

I wasn’t happy any more.  We were stuck.  Robert wasn’t learning anything new.  All day, persistently,  he demanded bubbles.  It became a nightmare.  I didn’t know how to end it.  I considered refraining from buying bubbles.  But if I did that, Robert would not ask me for “more”.  That meant he would not communicate with me.  So I continued for a few more weeks (MONTHS?).  I didn’t feel like a caring mother or a clever teacher any more. I felt like a powerless slave, and a simple fool.

Luckily, after a few weeks, Robert learned to blow bubbles himself.  I was free!

Well, sort of.

At that time, I knew so little about teaching Robert so it should not be surprising that I clung to the only information I had. It didn’t occur to me then, that what Robert was doing was not communicating but participating in a rigid ritual. I felt I did everything I could to teach Robert and yet it was a clear nonsense. Moreover, the more dedicated I was, the more damage I might have caused.