(Feb. 22, 2018) – Lee Mason, associate professor of special education at The University of Texas at San Antonio (UTSA), is a Board Certified Behavior Analyst-Doctoral and director of the TEAM Autism Research Center at the UTSA Downtown Campus.
The Autism Research Center is composed of multiple laboratories in which UTSA faculty and student develop treatments for children with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD). This free applied behavior analysis (ABA) clinic serves the needs of children with autism and other intellectual disabilities in the Greater San Antonio community.
We asked Mason more about his research and the work his team is doing to help children with autism communicate more effectively.
How would you describe your current research? Why did you decide to focus on this topic?
My present work in the Autism Research Center's verbal behavior lab is on assessing the functional language deficits of children with autism spectrum disorder (ASD).
The psychologist B. F. Skinner identified six ways in which the environment affects language, which he referred to as the elementary verbal operants. Over the past 60 years, four of these six have been shown to be particularly important for remediating the language of individuals with ASD: tacts and mands, as well as two subtypes of intraverbals, the echoic and the sequelic.
Skinner's work was revolutionary in identifying the functional independence of these operants; that is, each can be taught (i.e., reinforced) independently of one another. Our work continues in this vein by examining the strength of these verbal operants in relation to one another.
We hypothesize that neurotypical speakers show proportional strength across these four areas. However, children with autism and other language disorders show deficits in one or more of these areas. By comparing the results of our assessment to a hypothetical norm, we can quantify the language delay of the speaker with autism.
Our assessment, the Stimulus Control Ratio Equation (SCoRE), is a valuable tool for measuring present levels of functional language performance, and documenting the efficacy of intervention efforts as a pre/post measure. Moreover, it can also be used to identify specific language deficits and design individualized treatment plans for children with autism.
Our work in this area came about very organically. My colleague, Alonzo Andrews, and I have been working in the field of autism for a combined half century. In this time, we've seen scores of children with ASD who can tact everything in sight and echo every word they hear, but they have no ability to request (i.e., mand) access to specific objects and don't respond conversationally (i.e., sequelic).
Instead of continuing to treat these operants as functionally independent objectives, we focus on transferring stimulus control through a procedure we called referent-based instruction. In doing so, our goal is to balance the client's verbal repertoire across these four operants.
It turns out, if a child is already proficient at tacting and echoing, continuing to strengthen these areas makes him sounds more autistic. On the other hand, if we use these strengths as the basis for prompting the deficit areas and focus on the goal of verbal operant proportionality, the children with whom we work begin to sound much more neurotypical.
What is the most important thing going on in your field that no one is talking about?
Behavioral phenomenology is something no one is talking about. The majority of behavior analysts focus on shaping new behavior. Behavior phenomenology, however, is like the algebra of behavior analysis. Given x, solve for y. Given the behavior, identify the relevant contingency history. It's a very exciting field of study that was first proposed by Skinner in the 1930s. Each vignette is like a Sherlock Holmes mystery, in which the researcher must deduce the relevant variables using classical qualitative methodologies. Behavioral phenomenology epitomizes the idiographic nature of our science. Many of our student researchers are excited about this methodology, and one of our former doctoral students, Don Davis, used it to guide his dissertation research.
What makes the UTSA Autism Research Center unique?
We like to call our center the world's first ShaperSpace, a play on the name MakerSpace that specifies our approach to training graduate and undergraduate behaviorists at UTSA. Typical training in behavior analysis embodies the saying, "Do as I say, not as I do." As behavior analysts, we know the best methods for shaping novel behavior, and we're more than happy to tell you about it! But telling others what to do, whether it’s giving a lecture or providing instructions, is about the worst possible way to change people's behavior. We of all people know better than that! That is why our center focuses on the acquisition of behavior-analytic skills through contingency shaping and selection by consequences.
Tell us about an experience that has inspired you.
A few years back, we were mid-way through the semester when one of my brighter graduate students came into the lab and said, "What do you want me to do today?”. She had been working with this child for the past six weeks but was still relying on me for guidance on how to pursue treatment. I realized right then that my approach to training graduate students was all wrong. This student, like others before her, was highly capable of doing the work. The problem was that I had to ask her to. She had become reliant on instruction from me, rather than on the data she was producing from her research participants.
Once I started employing inquiry-based learning techniques, I saw a dramatic shift in the stimulus control over the research behaviors of my graduate students. Not only were they able to come up with novel ways of answering my research questions, they also started coming up with research questions of their own.
What advice do you have for a student considering joining your field?
There's no magic to behavior analysis. No magic at all. Anyone can do it.
I started out my career in the special education classroom and became a behavior analyst the minute I started collecting data on my students' academic performance. Teachers, both in special education and general education, are perfectly situated to take the next step towards becoming a behavior scientist. Your students will thank you for taking the time to collect a little data.
Do you have a favorite quote?
If I haven't made myself clear by now, communication is everything! Vygotsky acknowledged the importance of language in the process of understanding, but personally I prefer Richard Matheson who said, "With words I have knit my shroud and will bury myself therein."
Language doesn't beget understanding, language is understanding. And we've got a lot more to understand about language.
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