What’s in a #stickerselfie?

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Photo: Jaqueline Moreno. Mowgli reminding me what I truly need after voting.

What our country has been witnessing over the past several weeks, leading up to the November 6th midterm election, is a massive behavioral intervention program.

I had a conversation with my dad exactly ten years ago, ~extremely~ proud of having received my first-ever “I Voted!” sticker. It was November 2008. I had turned 18 that spring, and had just voted for the first black president of this country in my first-ever election. “Although,” I said in my ‘I’m-18-and-legally-an-adult-thus-I-know-everything”‘voice, “you know that the ads aren’t ~exactly~ telling the truth. They say that each vote matters—well technically, that’s not true. If everyone who was going to vote today still voted, and you just take out my one vote, technically it makes no difference.” (I can be kind of unbearable sometimes.)

His patriotic pupils dilated and he immediately schooled me. “No,” he said, “you’re right in that each vote individually does not matter, IF you control for the rest of the ballots that would have happened. But we don’t live in a science experiment. You need to believe that every vote matters. That’s the whole point, that’s the beauty of the right to vote. You learned about the three-fifths compromise, right? People used to be counted as less-than-people. Thanks to those who paved the way in previous generations, your vote is not more or less important than mine, or more or less important than any other landowning male’s” (cue my ‘barf’ gesture). “And with everyone believing in the inherent value of their voice, the individual votes become the thousands of votes that DO decide elections.”

I was floored, impressed, and speechless. My parents had taught me from a young age that behavior has consequences. Behavior analysis taught me that adjustments and changes to environments we made affected behavior we wanted to see happen. Plus, anger and rage can be great motivators for change. Imagine if people hadn’t bothered to challenge the notion that they were less-people-than-people. Imagine if women hadn’t bothered to challenge the notion that what lay between their legs was more important than what lay between their ears. Imagine if I hadn’t had parents who understood that raising a responsible citizen involved demonstrating that my place in “the bigger picture” was a symbolic dot in this country’s grandest Monet.

What we have seen with ads and massive campaigns (hehe) to get people out and voting is a collective effort of enriching the environment to get people believing in their own voices. That’s such an abstract concept, and when dissected to a microscopic level, okay fine, one individual vote doesn’t decide elections in those dramatic, last-second-touchdown-in-overtime kinds of ways.

So what’s really in a phrase? What’s really in a sticker? What does that requisite selfie actually reflect? It reflects a belief in social change. It reflects a behavior intervention strategy that WORKS—hope. Every vote matters, every voice is important. It reflects a belief that small, individual steps contribute to our journey toward a kinder, more compassionate world. I smile at those selfies. Keep ’em coming! Where there is an ‘I Voted’ #stickerselfie, there is hope.

The Behaviorism of Hate

Today, the world witnessed what some might call ‘a white supremacist extinction burst.’

When a young child starts paying attention to items at the grocery store, he can suddenly notice the gleam of all the different items’ packaging, some items of which his parent places in their cart; others, she doesn’t. Perhaps there was one afternoon when his grandfather gave him a delicious chocolate treat, and it had this same outer wrapping as that TV commercial showed, and wait—there it is on the shelf, by the checkout stand! Grabbing for it, the child is rebuked. Father puts it back on the shelf. Mother says, “No, we’re not taking that.” But the child wants it! He liked it then, he wants it now — “I WANT CANDY!” he screams.

We’ve hit a watershed moment. The parent can give in, provide the child with the desired item, OR, the parent can firmly reiterate, “No, I hear you, I know you’re upset because you want it, but you can’t have the candy.”

More often than not, I’m called in to situations because the parents have taken the first route. Giving the child candy, for whatever reason — guilt, embarrassment, indulgence — now sets up a series of learning patterns, a behavioral dance, between child and parent.

More often than not, I’m called in to situations where these “behavioral dances” have gotten way out of hand. What happens when the child screams for candy over and over until, one day, the parent actually says “no,” and sticks to it? From the perspective of the child, this is a violation of their previous contract!

Extinction bursts happen when we realize that what used to work for us no longer does. I get frantic calls from parents, telling me their child is now acting even more violent since we started behavior therapy, acting worse, and (one of my favorite phrases), “completely out of nowhere!” Of course he is! What used to work no longer does. Screaming at a high pitch no longer works, so now, he’s going to see if screaming at a higher pitch, with some good ol’ fashioned bites to boot, does the trick.

The key to knocking out these bursts is consistency. We have to be consistent, or we set up a new pattern for the child, effectively reinforcing her for even worse behavior. The rule must apply, no matter the way the behavior changes. I try to make it relevant to the parent, “What would happen if what used to work for you no longer worked anymore?”

We can observe this in our own behavior during everyday activities — we have our own extinction burts when we engage in road rage, get in fights with significant others, or steal office supplies from work. Suddenly, our environments (and the people/places that make them up) no longer create the behavioral contingencies, the behavioral dances, they used to, even though we continued with the same actions we always have.

Enter white supremacists.

One friend wrote on Facebook today, “I miss the days when everyone agreed that being a Nazi was bad.” An astute commenter noted, “I don’t want to be pessimistic, but we never all agreed that being a Nazi was bad — people just didn’t used to go around expressing it like they do now.” At least, not so much after World War II. So what changed?

A tenet of behaviorism is reinforcement — we do what works for us. After many years of being told “it’s not cool to be racist,” these supremacists suppressed, as much as socially possible, the outright demonstration of their hatred toward others. They would not be met with positive encouragement, i.e. reinforcement of their actions, to keep on doing what they were doing, because in this country, with a progressive outlook, attitude, and national agenda, it wouldn’t be tolerated. And to demonstrate that, a statue of General Robert E. Lee was to be taken down, the name of the park changed to Emancipation Park, effectively wiping off, as these people saw it, tenets of a past they held dear.

What worked for them no longer worked. Staying silent, these ~poor babies~ were witnessing the loss of a statue, the renaming of a park, the “erasing” of their past, and gosh darn it, they weren’t going to take it anymore!

NOW IS THE TIME TO BE THAT PARENT, TO REFUSE TO GIVE THE RACIST HIS CANDY. Now is the time to be that consistent “NO!” that condemns, criminalizes, and calls out their actions for what they are — hate, hate speech, terrorism. Letting them get away with this deplorable behavior, via a lack of legal action or a lack of definitive blame in a tweet, has set a new bar. It has created a new dance. The child is told, “your previous scream no longer works; but this louder one, with the hitting and the kicking, okay, I guess that will work.” Guess what he learned? Guess how far he might try to go next time?

 

Models Have Problems Too

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Okay, full disclosure, I’m not necessarily a model. But I could be! (Hit me up, Dove.) And YOU could be a model! And you! [Insert Oprah impression here.]

In an environment ~renowned~ for its empathetic approach to certain people’s struggles (I won’t say where or who or when), a discussion arose surrounding stigma toward people’s bodies. “Overweight, obese, large, lard, wide load, heavy, curvy, plump, jiggly, lumpy, bubblebutt,” and just plain “fat” were all given as examples of terms used for bodies of a certain stature. “Oh the struggles overweight people face in such a CRUEL and ASSUMING society!” was the cry of the downtrodden.

“But wait,” offered a dissenter, “there’s definitely a trend of ‘skinny shaming’ going around as well. Just look at Robbie Tripp’s ridiculous post that included a claim that models and actresses weren’t ‘real.’ Pretty sure they’d beg to differ. It’s caught on, somehow, assuming superficially thin people can’t have their own problems, or they’re not as bad.”

“Oh yeah, models have problems. Like whether to eat a cherry- or mint-flavored Lifesaver that day.”

“I mean, sure, they have their own problems, right??” *index finger mimed down her throat* “Bleeechh. Ahahaha!”

Cue some more laughter.

Ooooohhhh was I irate.

Far be it for this behavior analyst to say the fashion and entertainment environments haven’t shaped some behavior and unspoken ‘rules’ about how people SHOULD look, men and women alike. Enter the growing number of campaigns (love you, Dove) aiming to shed a light that anyone medically ALIVE is a real person, whether she be a size 0 or 10 or 26. (No, they’re not paying me, but oh boy, wouldn’t I love them to)!

Real women ALSO have brains, would you believe it?? Shoutout, Tory Burch. Some campaigns have also pointed out that size isn’t the be-all, end-all determinant of perfection. A size 6, able-bodied woman would traditionally be picked over a size 0 woman confined to a wheelchair, or a size 2 transgender model. (Ahh! #AllMeansAll and I love all of you, SmartGlamour!) Especially in my field, I’m always advocating that “real people” exist by virtue of, ya know, being people.

And HERE were others, on the flip side of what entertainment and fashion industries have traditionally sold, reducing the problems of others who didn’t look like them to inconsequential quips. Or worse, reducing life-threatening issues to laughable pantomimes. Granted, this group has their own histories of being bullied and marginalized. But does that give them license to marginalize and bully back?

Spoiler alert: No.

Models and actors are people paid for jobs, like bankers or teachers. Last I checked, it’s our indulgence in their industries that’s kept them afloat. Some #woke organizations are also taking on a greater definition of the role itself — ‘plus-size’ models, special-needs models, LGBTQ+ models. Guess what, models literally come in all shapes, sizes, colors, and textures. Attacking (because that’s what they were doing) thin people as a whole, as a culture or type, does what Robbie Tripp so infamously did last week — objectifies and judges people based on their bodies.

In that room, I would venture to guess 0% of those people were ever personally victimized by an individual model on a set. (Except by Regina George, we’ve all been personally victimized by her.) But in all seriousness, ridiculing or invalidating “models” as a collective group of people whose issues range from “zero” to “meh” creates much of the backlash seen with the popular, but still problematic, “white people problems.”

What’s the behavioral contingency behind all this shaming? Attention from others? Self-soothing of our own problems by making others’ so much less problem-y? Escape from anxiety? Because yes, life is behavioral af.

Of course, the behaviorist in me acknowledges that empathy has so much of a greater response effort than ridiculing. If we feel we have little connection to people, we’re so much more likely to invalidate their feelings, as it raises OUR problems to a priority, both to ourselves and in our social circles. Here’s the thing, though — invalidating ANY problems of ANY group reduces empathy. Period. That’s it. Full stop.

“Nope, she’s a murderer.”

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I’m a lover of true crime.

“And the award for ‘Greatest Understatement in a Personal Narrative goes to . . .”

I have been one since I was a little pre-tween, sneaking into the kitchen to watch early episodes of CSI: on my family’s meager television set. Now, with a world of podcasts thrilling my ears to the sounds of secrets, screams, and murders most foul, I all but live in a world constantly reinforcing this cathartic hobby. Is it a hobby? We’ll say it is. My hobby is ‘staying sexy and not getting murdered.’

But as a true crime lover, a Murderino if you will, does my macabre interest also spell the end of my faith in humanity??

Okay, why the dramatics? Here’s what happened:

As a Behavior Analyst, I supervise behavior interventions for people with special needs and the therapists who run those programs. Today, my behaviorist underling and I went on a walk with our 10-year-old male client and his mother to Target. En route, our client (we’ll call him Tituss B.) began to have a meltdown. IN. THE. MIDDLE. OF. THE. STREET. He fell to the ground, started biting his hand, kicking his legs toward his mother, therapist, and myself, while he screamed FOR ALL THE WORLD TO HEAR, “No don’t touch me! Let me go!” Oh, and threw leaves at us (for good measure, I suppose). We were SO CLOSE, almost to the block where Target was, I could smell my money evaporating already.

The therapist and I went into “Safety before Sweetness” mode, bolstering him under our arms and carrying him across the street. Well, trying to. Little booger kicked his legs out in attempts to trip us as we walked along. Still screaming, by the way. And at that moment, a middle-aged woman driving toward us asked from the driver’s seat of her minivan, “If you want me to give you a ride, I can take you wherever you want, and you don’t have to worry about struggling with him.”

As the Supervisor—and the MOST legally liable person there—I immediately thanked the woman and rushed the entire party across the street as quickly as I could.

“Aww, that was sweet of her,” my therapist underling said, wiping sweat off his brow, clearly wishing I’d taken up the woman on her offer so we wouldn’t have to endure Tituss’ tantrum.

“Oh my gosh no, murderer in a minivan, tale as old as time.”

“What??” he asked, “but she’s just one woman, and we’re four people!”

“Yeah but she sees we care about Tituss and could easily control us by threatening to kill him!”

He looked at me like I’d pushed the Pope under a tractor.

In that moment I wondered, “Wait . . . was I overreacting??”

Most people who know me might say, “Probably most definitely.” But that’s what immediately came to mind! Murderous people and their murderous cars! I mean, haven’t we heard that story a million times?! Starts with “T,” ends with “ed Bundy?”

Or.

Had I been jaded by all the stories of murderers and unsuspecting victims? Had warnings about accepting rides from strangers gone WAY too far, and projected onto a situation that was simply altruistic?

Let’s think. What’s the likelihood that this woman IS a serial killer who wanted to kill the four of us? Two of the adults had clearly visible, official-ish looking badges. The mother was of average height and weight, and this 10-year-old boy was clearly in distress. And violently acting out. Would a serial killer take on such a risky situation, the definition of unpredictable, uncontrollable? Thinking back, I can’t imagine she would! If she were alone, that is . . .

Who knows. Has all this true crime made me see monsters under my bed, or was I simply more observant and in tune with a (more) potentially dangerous situation? In some ways, I’m glad I’ll never know the answer.

Denial River

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I have VERY strong feelings about denial—and no, I don’t mean the river in Egypt (lol, puns).

In as ~gentle~ of a way that I can, I try explaining to my clients’ families that denial only serves as a temporary band-aid, a fake escape from whatever might be unveiling before them. Parents and families with kids who have special needs may be in denial about their kids’ capabilities at present, their kids’ capabilities in the future, MY capabilities about what I can do about their kids’ capabilities in the future, and other such concerns.

I love Olivia Pope’s wardrobe, but no, I’m not that kind of “fixer.” Oh, but can I get her white coat though??

At my core, however, I’m afraid of denial.  It’s a tempting lull into a false reality where we can convince ourselves of anything! We can convince ourselves that what matters to us or our children no longer does. We can convince ourselves that the world has stopped to allow us to wallow in some discomfort.

Every day, I walk into situations full of denial. Families resist and refuse to make changes in their home environment because their kids should just know what the rules are. They convince themselves it’s their kid who’s the problem, denying their own roles in shaping future behavior. It’s denial that continues spurring this whole anti-vaccination nonsense!

“Jackie, do you believe this whole vaccination conspiracy theory thing?”

“Omg that’s just ridiculous. I can’t believe there are people out there who believe it.”

“THANK YOU! It’s so refreshing to hear a behaviorist say that vaccines cause autism.”

“Wait, wait oh no, wait WHAT??”

“This anti-vaccine conspiracy theory is crazy.”

“Wait, oh no, vaccines DON’T cause autism. Ohemgee, um, your kid’s not vaccinated? HE COULD DIE OF MEASLES!”

“But you work with autistic kids, you know. Kids could get autism.”

“THEY COULD DIE OF MEASLES AND BE DEAD, THOUGH.”

I’m constantly asked by new clients’ parents if I have any kids myself. UGH I hate that question! If I DID have my own kids, they’d be completely different! They wouldn’t mirror what’s going on with their kids, so as a comparison sample, they’d be shaky at best. But because I DON’T have my own kids (they laugh and say, no, my cats don’t count, whatever), I’m seen as some twentysomething Millennial who thinks she can just come in to their house and tell them what to do.

But I am, though.

I AM a twentysomething, a Millennial who came of age in the 2000s, who studied herself into the wee hours of many mornings, who earned the degrees and completed the trainings that mean, yes, I can tell them what to do. Because I study behavior. Because I’m not in denial about what behavior patterns look like, what they can predict and tell us about future behavior patterns.

Does this make it hard to do my job sometimes? Duh. Parents don’t like being told how to parent—go figure. But I’ve had to check myself on the resistance these parents initially show me.

I’ve been asked by many professors and other clients, how do I address parents’ denial? There’s no set way, but the first thing any behaviorist must understand is that the denial is a symptom of underlying emotional conflicts. The parents didn’t just wake up one morning and decide, “I’m going to make myself think that my 13-year-old child, who can’t use more than 10 words to communicate, will graduate from medical school!”

Behaviorists can get sticks up our butts when it comes to the emotional conflicts underlying many families’ issues. We ourselves can get into our own denial, thinking that the world turns in the same logical, behavioral equations as the ones we use in intervention plans. That’s something I’ve tried imparting to the therapists on my teams—the training and mindset that enable us to see patterns in people’s behavior is trained. It’s not innate, and it CERTAINLY isn’t as simple when one’s own child is thrown in the mix.

Professionals in our field need to remember that denial is simply a coping mechanism against the harsh realities of what their lives and their loved ones’ lives suddenly become. Denial is absolutely dangerous to a child and family’s progress, but the onus also lies with us professionals. When we create such binary worlds for these families, with stark and sharp realities harsh and cold, families’ defaults will be a retreat into something that doesn’t hurt to the touch. And then professionals complain that families won’t meet them halfway—but have WE met the family halfway? Or did we draw a black-and-white picture, a stoic portrait of a devoid future because, well, it’s easier for us that way?

Kindle Announcement!

For those of you (like myself) who can’t imagine a day without the use of electronics, I’ve got good news.  My autobiographical book, Pieces: My Sister, Her Autism, and Me, is now live and available on Amazon Kindle e-book!!!

Get your copy here!

And thank you to the Sibling Leadership Network for helping me share this milestone.  It’s truly an honor to work with all of you!

Cheers to you, Sibs 🙂

Belles in a World of Gastons

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On the eve of the 25th Anniversary Special Edition release of MY ALL-TIME FAVORITE DISNEY MOVIE OF ALL TIME (fyi, it’s Beauty and the Beast), the sweet motif woven throughout my childhood of Good conquering Evil appears ever-increasingly distant.

In 1991, probably for the first time in its history, Disney created a villain that wasn’t obviously evil; and in its portrayal of The Beast, gave me an small inkling of the notion of irony.  Gaston was, by all Parisian accounts, the man every woman [should have] wanted.  The Beast was, and not simply nominally, an absolute brute.  A kidnapping brute, no less.

The haunting melodic introduction warned the viewer, from the beginning, that looks often deceive.  A beastly brute and a handsome hunter transform throughout the movie into revelations of their true forms based on their characters and their actions.  Evil does not actually win, no matter how handsomely disguised.  Good will triumph, no matter how rough and uncut its origin.

What I only realized as I grew older and re-watched (and re-sang) my favorite story was that Beauty and the Beast is a warning to us that Good’s triumph over Evil is not very pretty; it may in fact, nearly kill us.

I do remember feeling the injustice of the final scene, even as a toddler.  The Beast lay bleeding, dying, on the cold stones of a rain-soaked balcony.  Belle, desperate and pleading, had come back for him!  They had fought off Evil for each other; they had saved each other, if only figuratively.  She LOVED him!  But Gaston had still struck.  Love was not an actual shield, it did not have the immediate restorative powers that other fairy tails boasted.

The injustice of the final scene may have been a warning, however brief, that the fight between Good and Evil will not be so transparent.  It will not be so swift, as the sword that struck Maleficent.  It will not be so grand, as the boulder that crushed the Evil Witch.  The villains in our lives may not even be so obviously villainy-looking as the purple and black-tentacled Ursula.

What happens when we face those opaque, subtle, disguised villains in our lives?  In our society (looking at you, Brock Turner and Kraigen Grooms)?  What do we say to the friend who’s been diagnosed with a completely preventable disease because of a selfish stranger?  Or the friend who’s been torn and bruised and violated, but is instead being painted with a scarlet letter?  How do we sing along to favorite tunes and revisit favorite childhood fairy tales whose messages seem irrelevant in the face of our own injustices?  When the justice system fails to provide just that (looking at you, Pasadena officer who said fingerprinting my jewelry box after a robbery was “really just something I probably got from a TV show”)?

We can only say what Belle said.  We say, “We’ll love you, from now until the last petal falls.”