Book report, part 2: The Science of Consequences and autism

I hope the first essay about Susan Schneider’s The Science of Consequences — dealing with the ostrich effect — doesn’t turn out to be a spoiler for this one. I wasn’t reading the book for my day job, yet there were many cross-overs.

That’s always nice.

At the end of the book, Schneider shows how we might solve problems on a grand scale with consequences (global warming, overcoming prejudice) and, as I was reading that, it occurred to me that many parents of kids with autism — especially the young parents — don’t realize the power of consequences.

Ivar Lovaas had put together a program of consequences (they called it Early Intensive Behavioral Treatment) that raised the IQ of kids with autism, on average, by 20 points back in the 1980s, not long before Sam was first diagnosed. We helped bring his program to Sacramento, even though we didn’t understand it very well and Sam would never directly benefit from it.

Back then, we couldn’t see how learning to imitate, or learning to pick up a red block, or learning to talk in increasingly longer and more complex ways was going to help Sam in a substantive way. He had autism. We thought that this kind of work wasn’t a cure, it was a way to adapt. Why would any parent think that applied behavioral techniques could make substantive changes in the brain of their child with autism?

But, as I have seen and learned, they can.

Schneider doesn’t set out to show us that in the book. In fact, she doesn’t tackle autism until the final chapters and its quite a brief passage. But, by then, I understood what she was laying out — how consequences have shaped the world.

The book is a review of the scientific literature for the lay reader. Schneider helps us understand the concepts of reinforcers and the variety of behaviors they can shape, including complicated ones. She helps us understand how negative consequences aren’t always, and how positive consequences can be negative.

She shows us that genetics are affected by consequences, and almost in real time, not just through evolution. And while scientists have long known that an enriched, language-filled upbringing is best for young children, they have also determined that enrichment later in life can make up for a young life that missed out. What parent of a kid with autism wouldn’t find hope in that science?

I actually got more out of the chapter on “Thinking and Communicating” and its implications for autism, than I did on the autism section. To wit:

“Simply listening to language is clearly not enough to pick it up. Interactions — and the consequences that necessarily go with them — are critical. For example, a hearing child raised by deaf parents spent most of his time at home. The TV was kept on for him on the theory that this exposure to spoken language would suffice for his language development. By age three, he had readily learned the sign language that his parents used but could not understand or speak English. There had been no consequences for learning English, but there had been plenty for learning sign language.” (p. 151)

So, turn off the TV and create a rich environment for your child.

There are social elements in all language, and Schneider helps us see how that plays out. Requests, for example, benefit the speaker, while descriptors benefit the listener.

I know. Duh.

Bear with me.

When you are putting together a program to help a child with autism learn language, you have to be able to harness scores of facts like that, because as Schneider writes, “understanding what’s happening and why, and taking advantage of all the positive consequences available” (p. 241) is what you need to make that change. As she cautions us, “the basics seem like simple common sense but are not as easy to do as they sound.”

Just ask any parent of a kid with autism.


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