Ari Ne’eman, Behavior-Modding the Lovaasians

The showbiz maxim “There’s no such thing as bad publicity” is one that was nicely illustrated less than a month ago at MTV’s Video Music Awards, when Taylor Swift gave over her entire spotlight to a song about someone who had, right there in front of God and everybody, been rude to her at the previous year’s show. For all Swift accomplished with her performance, she might as well have gotten up on that stage and married the man whom even President Obama had called a “jackass.” It simply doesn’t matter how savvy an insult the song delivered; the larger and by far more salient fact is that Swift went out of her way to pay attention to a jackass and his misdeeds in the first place—giving up the opportunity to deliver something, anything else which might have been more engaging, more heart-rending, more thrilling, more along the lines of what we typically pay her to do.  As writer Linda Holmes put it, the lyrics of “Innocent” came off as “jaw-droppingly self-involved.”

So.  Thank goodness we have celebrities to act as foils for folks like Ari Ne’eman, who seems to have long ago absorbed the notion that there’s no such thing as bad publicity, employing that lesson to the hilt in this week’s excellent Wired Science interview by Steve Silberman, Exclusive: First Autistic Presidential Appointee Speaks Out.  As it happens, there’s science behind that showbiz maxim, science that packs an ironic, oddly satisfying twist, at least as Mr. Ne’eman employs it. First, a little unpacking:

My introduction to Behavior Modification came as a result of my chasing a girl.  While it might be said this is a claim that can be made by many young men, in my case it came of the fact that she was studying to become a music therapist.  The director of the program she was in had observed that female students were handicapped by a lack of support from their boyfriends, due to the fact that we callow youngsters had no earthly idea what it was the objects of our desire were studying to do.  The solution, then, was to invite the boyfriends to enroll in an introductory semester of Music Therapy 101.

I soon lost the girl; however I am still in contact with the professor, Dr. Mary J. Nicholas, who emailed me last August to mark the passing of Dr. Ivar Lovaas.  Dr. Nicholas was all about “Behavior Mod,” as she called it, and Lovaas is a founding father of behavioral intervention especially as applied to autistic children.  Dr. Nicholas was, moreover, an extraordinary educator, the sort who motivates by sheer presence, whose students find themselves taking on her mannerisms and speech habits as the semester progresses.  She had had every opportunity to move up and beyond the chore of daily interaction with freshman, but teaching is what she did, what she felt called to do, and she was ferociously effective.

So it is that I still clearly remember standing and talking with her in the classroom after class, thirty years ago this coming spring, when she held out to me a four-page summary of a research paper we had been studying, on the subject of what could be accomplished in terms of behavior modification simply by withholding “non-contingent reinforcement” for undesired behavior.  Her exact, memorably melodramatic words were, “This is all I know, Mark.  This is all … I … know.”

The takeaway from the paper was that attention is attention, and whether that attention is positive or negative matters far less than does the fact that it can be commanded by an actor, be that actor a child, or an entertainer … or an organization dedicated to eradicating autism.  Any act which commands attention is one that is thereby likely to be repeated, regardless of whether the attention given is intended as a positive reinforcement or a negative reinforcement.  The operative word is reinforcement.  Even negative reinforcement, for instance shouting “Stop!” is first and foremost reinforcement before it is negative.

This doesn’t necessarily make sense; nor does it necessarily need to.  In certain arenas, when certain dynamics are in place, that’s just how it works.  Whether the undesired behavior is stereotyping, dehumanization, or the spreading of misinformation, you stop it not by locking horns with it, or by focusing on it with judgment or outrage, but by withdrawing any consequent attention from it.  It seems outrageously irresponsible, I know, to turn a blind eye to such things, but this is nonetheless what you do.  You make the bestowal of attention contingent upon the behavior that is desired; you deny the “bad” behavior its “bad” publicity … and you watch it wither on the vine.

How apropos then to see Mr. Ne’eman doing exactly this, dosing the Behavior Modders with their own medicine in the Wired interview from this week.  Time and time again, he denies his opposition their publicity. He simply notes their offending positions as they are brought up by Silberman, and then immediately and consistently shifts the focus to saner, more helpful positions.  Negative attention when it is offered passes quickly and is tempered with dry humor, as when he dismisses the vaccine wars with, “There’s a disturbing lack of attention to science in that conversation,” or labels another question as “intensely silly” before linking it explicitly to Lovaas.

To be sure, when and where one has the goods on the opposition, the thing to do is to confront them directly and unsparingly with all the negative energy inherent within those goods.  I’m all for framing the debate, deciding the time and place, and engaging with others on our own terms, with an eye toward putting and keeping them on the defensive.  I’m all for setting the better example, one not driven by fear or created as a photo-negative image of a poor example, and then trusting coming generations to make the better choice.

What I’m talking about not doing, and what Mr. Ne’eman succeeds so admirably at avoiding here is being drawn into battle on the opposition’s terms, feeding, strengthening, and reinforcing their behavior with one’s own misspent negativity.  What I’m talking about not doing is becoming “jaw-droppingly self-involved,” thinking we are acting in the world when we are actually only reacting to our antagonists, acting out what are in fact our “personal problems,” and in a way that is unlikely to engage anyone but our most loyal fans.

For that end, the Silberman/Ne’eman interview is a template, one from which there is much to be gleaned alongside and apart from the actual content, which is itself full of well-considered pearls and gems.

on 10/8/10 in featured, Politics | 4 Comments | Read More

Comments (4)


  1. Mark Stairwalt says:

    Just to be clear, any truths claimed above are metaphorical in nature and offered in a spirit of poetic justice. I make no warranty express or implied that Ari Ne’eman is in fact “doing behavioral psychology” on his critics; I’m certainly aware of no evidence that this is how he views his approach to autism advocacy.

    I’m simply amused that the interview can be interpreted as a turnabout in fair play, and wish to offer that turnabout as an antidote to some of the pitfalls autism advocates — and country music stars — have a way of falling into.

    Anybody who sez otherwise is itching for a fight.

  2. What Ari Ne’eman does so well is to take control of his part of the discourse about the Autistic community. He can’t take control of the whole discourse, of course; no one in any community can do that. But he consistently keeps the conversation on his terms, and he does not give into pressure to respond to every bait that is thrown out at him. (He has many detractors, and not just from the cure/vax side of the debate). As I read the article, I had the feeling of someone speaking on behalf of a community just finding its voice, and saying many of the things that so many of us have felt and said for some time. It was a very positive and empowering article to read.

  3. Mark Stairwalt says:

    Exactly, Rachel. Ari is only one, but he is modeling behavior that can be learned by others. When enough do learn it, there will be successive points of critical mass after which it will become more and more difficult to hold on to, or more to the point, to acquire views which have always depended anyway on fear, shame, and silence in order to maintain their momentum.

    Granted, when we arrive there will *still* not be enough rainbows and unicorns to go around, but it’s bound to be a better place than where we’ve been recently.

  4. Stephanie says:

    Another way to look at it is that Ne’eman stayed focused on his message-which is something self-promoters of all types are encouraged to do. When you have something to say and you’ve got an opportunity to say it, everything else is kind of a distraction.

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