The past and future of behavior analysis in developmental disabilities: When good news is bad and bad news is good


Nancy A. Neef

Ohio State University


This article provides a brief historical overview that outlines the temporal contiguity of developments in both behavior analysis and developmental disabilities, illustrating how each has contributed to the other. Consideration is then given to what the successes and failures suggest for the future. Behavior analysis has had a major impact in the field of development disabilities. This is readily apparent from an examination of the literature, where behaviorally-based interventions for individuals with developmental disabilities proliferate. This is also seen in the curricula of training programs in special education which typically contain course content and textbooks on behavioral approaches; in the number of advertisements for positions in developmental disabilities in which skill in behavior analysis is a qualification. More examples include the results of litigation mandating provision of services based on behaviorally-based practices, and from policy, regulatory standards, and legislation regarding use of behaviorally based assessment and treatment in various situations (e.g., Reid, 1991). That’s the good news. On the other hand, there have been, and continue to be, notable failures and sources of dissatisfaction. As will be discussed, that is also the good news. It can therefore be useful to examine the evolution, sources, and nature of this good news. This article, then, will (a) provide a brief historical account that outlines the temporal contiguity of developments in both behavioral analysis and developmental disabilities, and (b) consider what the successes and failures suggest for the future.

An open access article from The Behavior Analyst Today 2: 325-335, viewed from

Historical developments in behavior analysis and developmental disabilities

1940s. Behaviorism began emerging as a philosophy following Skinner’s The Behavior of Organisms (1938), as a result of dissatisfaction with the tradition of “seeking a solution for the problems of behavior elsewhere than in behavior itself.” (As a frame of reference, this development would have been described in the parlance of the times as “the cat’s pajamas.”)

At the same time, a custodial model characterized the field of developmental disabilities. Many individuals with mental retardation resided in institutions, where programs were directed almost entirely to providing basic physical care and general types of stimulation. Because persons with mental retardation were considered to be uneducable, systematic training was not provided.

1950s. Developments in this decade emerged from Fuller’s (1949) study with a young man with profound mental retardation who did little except lie on his back with minimal movement, and who was thought incapable of learning. Fuller injected a warm sugar-milk solution into the man’s mouth following any movement of the man’s right arm and, within four sessions, the man was moving his arm to a vertical position three times per minute. (To anchor it within a cultural context, Fuller would have been considered “a cool cat.”)

Following Fuller’s (1949) study and the publication of Skinner’s Science and Human Behavior in 1953, other researchers began to use the methodology of the experimental analysis of behavior to determine whether principles of behavior demonstrated by Skinner in the laboratory were valid with humans. The Journal of the Experimental Analysis of Behavior (JEAB) began in 1958 and published behavioral research (with both humans and other animals). Much of the research that occurred with society’s neglected and disenfranchised members contributed to the development of behavior analysis as applied to humans but was not designed for any socially significant purpose. Thus, persons with disabilities and mental illness contributed more to behavior analysis than behavior analysis benefited them during this time. However, this development set the stage for recognition that learning could occur and behaviors could be changed in individuals previously thought to be “hopeless.”

Author Note: Portions of this article were based on: Neef, N. A. (April, 2000). Contributions of behavior analysis to advances in developmental disabilities. Invited address at International Conference on Behaviorism: Theory and Philosophy, Morgantown, West Virginia.

1960s. Research in behavior analysis rapidly progressed from extensions of behavioral principles to persons with developmental disabilities for the sake of showing generality, to applying those principles to the analysis and treatment of important problems. Much of the research in developmental disabilities during this transition was therefore an outgrowth of basic research. It was a logical extension, fueled by Skinner’s extrapolations, that if behavior could be systematically changed through applications of the principles of behavior, it could be changed for the better. The Journal of Applied Behavior Analysis began in 1968 as the applied counterpart to the basic research reported in JEAB, and Baer, Wolf, and Risley (1968) articulated the defining characteristics of applied behavior analysis. Research in developmental disabilities established that basic skills and adaptive behavior repertoires could be taught. Token economies were commonly used. (These developments would have been called “groovy”.) Within the field of developmental disabilities, social movements established the right to receive treatment and education. This was significantly influenced by pioneering behavioral research that challenged myths regarding the educability of persons with mental retardation. With the successes demonstrated in behavioral research, there was increased recognition that individuals with developmental disabilities could benefit from educational programs. This was associated with a change from custodial to habilitative programs; principles of behavior were applied to teach adaptive skills such as toileting, feeding, dressing, and language skills, and to treat problem behaviors. The developments during this decade ushered in the deinstitutionalization movement.

1970s. A major event in developmental disabilities was the passage of the Education of the Handicapped Act (PL 94-142), which included a mandate to develop individualized education programs. (This development would have been called “far out”.) The focus on objective measurement of behavior clearly reflected the influence of behavior analysis, and concern with individualization was consistent with the emphasis of behavior analysis on single organisms. Individualized education programs required specification of present levels of performance, short-term instructional objectives presented in measurable terms leading to annual goals to be achieved, and evaluation of procedures with objective criteria for determining progress toward goals.

This corresponded closely to approaches in applied behavior analysis, except that applied research was concerned not only with whether the individual had learned the target behavior, but whether the procedures produced that outcome. The emphasis, however, was more on demonstrating the effectiveness of procedures in changing behavior than on understanding their operations. At the same time, applied behavior analysts were finding less of relevance to their interests in the basic research literature (Baer, 1981; Michael, 1980). JEAB published substantially fewer studies on the experimental analysis of human behavior, which declined in 1970 and reached its lowest point of 4% of all its studies in 1980 (Buskist & Miller, 1982). The increased technological focus of applied research, on the other hand, appealed to the demand for practical solutions to human problems (in fact, JABA circulation was at its highest point during this decade), but was lamented by some behavior analysts (e.g., Michael, 1980; Pierce & Epling, 1980). Despite the recognition that behavior was learned through a history of environmental contingencies, the reinforcement histories that led to the development of behavior were generally disregarded in developing interventions. Instead, it was assumed that etiology was irrelevant because immediate history could override the effects of prior history. Unknown prior histories were therefore treated as inevitable sources of variability. As a result, research and intervention in developmental disabilities involved teaching new repertoires or altering existing ones by superimposing reinforcement and/or punishment contingencies onto whatever unknown contingencies currently maintained the behavior. The effectiveness of those procedures therefore depended on their either being sufficiently powerful to override whatever variables were maintaining problem behavior or on serendipitously addressing the maintaining contingencies without knowing what they were (Lattal & Neef, 1996). As a result, efforts to address habilitative or educational goals of individuals with developmental disabilities often relied on default technologies of punishment or contrived reinforcement.

This posed several problems in interventions for problem behaviors of individuals with developmental disabilities. First, by superimposing contingencies onto unknown operative ones, there was no consistent basis for being able to predict their effectiveness. Second, once the superimposed contingencies were removed, the operative unchanged contingencies would likely reassert their influence, creating dependence on default technologies for maintenance and thereby rather short-lived benefits. Third, this reliance often led to procedural descriptions of form rather than function, which contributed to the difficulties in predicting or producing consistent effects. In addition, it often led to a sequence of increasingly intrusive and controversial interventions, which were unsatisfactory to consumers (Lattal & Neef, 1996). 1980s. Research on functional analysis revolutionized the conceptualization and treatment of behavior disorders. Iwata et al.’s study (1994/1982) formulating a comprehensive, conceptually systematic, and standardized assessment of the function of individuals’ problem behaviors signaled a major shift in behavior analysis with developmental disabilities. The focus changed from being predominantly concerned with experimental demonstrations of behavioral operation (i.e., asking “does this procedure act to change behavior?”) to a concern with behavioral process and analysis (i.e., asking, “how does this procedure act to change behavior?”). This led to a change in approach in which treatments for problem behavior were selected and matched according to identified function, and to an emphasis on establishing or strengthening alternative appropriate responses that served the same function as the problem behavior. In addition, there was increased attention to antecedents and stimulus control. In the field of developmental disabilities, there was also a shift from teaching in a developmental sequence to a pronounced focus on functional skills. (These developments would have been described as “hip.”) 1990s. In the 1990s, the analytic trend in applied behavior analysis continued. A review by Pelios, Morren, Tesch, and Axelrod (1999) of research published in five journals showed that the use of a pretreatment functional analysis appeared to increase the likelihood that treatments for problem behaviors would be based on reinforcement versus punishment contingencies. This conceptual focus was accompanied by a renewed interest in once again applying methodologies and findings from basic research to the area of developmental disabilities. This included, for example, applying basic research on behavioral momentum to interventions that alter the persistence of desirable or undesirable behaviors (e.g., Davis, Brady, Hamilton, McEvoy, & Williams, 1994), and the use of establishing operations to enhance reinforcer efficacy (e.g., Vollmer & Iwata, 1991). Other examples include examining modality effects in stimulus equivalence class formation as applied to socially significant behaviors (Kennedy, Itkonen, & Lundquist, 1994); and applying basic research on matching theory in identifying preferred stimuli, examining reinforcer and schedule effects, and in treating problem behavior based on examination of the reinforcement for desirable versus competing undesirable behaviors (Fisher & Mazur, 1997).

In developmental disabilities, research on functional assessment had a strong influence on policy, including recommendations and endorsements by national organizations such as the National Association of School Psychologists, the National Association of State Directors of Special Education, and the National Institutes of Health. Importantly, it has been mandated through federal legislation; the 1997 Amendments to the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act require the use of functional assessments under certain circumstances. Schools experienced difficulty implementing or interpreting functional assessments with integrity, however, and the lack of local expertise and resources has given rise to alternative functional assessment methods.

The present. Behavior analysis has had a major impact in developmental disabilities, perhaps more so than in any other area. Treatment procedures based on behavioral principles are now widely recognized as the most effective forms of psycho-social intervention. This is especially the case with autism, where the effectiveness of behavioral interventions has created a demand by parents for skilled behavior analysts that exceeds current resources. In addition to contributing to the development of an increasingly effective technology, the focus of behavior analysis on objective measurement has exposed those practices that are ineffective, such as facilitated communication and sensory integration. The natural science of behavior has allowed the field of developmental disabilities to withstand the encroachments of such questionable treatments and practices.

From 1962 to 1967, there were fewer than 50 studies involving applications of behavior analysis in the major journals concerned with developmental disabilities. Today, over 600 studies involving applied behavior analysis with developmental disabilities have been published in JABA alone; other journals have been established as publication outlets for such research in addition to the common appearance of behavior analytic studies in journals specializing in developmental disabilities. This research encompasses basic learning processes, self-care and daily living skills, language acquisition and communication, leisure and recreation, academic performance, vocational skills, community preparation, functional assessment and treatment of severe behavior disorders, and others. The same principles that were applied in Fuller’s (1949) study to increase arm raising of a young man with disabilities while lying in a bed have been applied to teach arm raising of others with disabilities to signal a bus on their way to work, to get a waiter’s attention in restaurants, and to answer teachers’ questions in the classroom. (Some might call that, “like, totally awesome and way cool.”)

Future development in behavior analysis and developmental disabilities

The above history is one of which we can be proud, but never satisfied, because every change has the potential to be both praised and lamented. But even changes that are lamented might be welcomed because they serve as the stimulus for further development. Petroski (1992) likens the critical role of failure in the evolutionary process to a dentist fitting a crown, where carbon paper is used to identify points where there is not a good fit of form to context, and where change is therefore needed. It is these incongruities or irritants that occasion variations until the variations produce the desired outcomes. This is similar to a selectionist perspective (Skinner, 1953) in which variations are selected by their beneficial consequences. The risk, then, is when there is adaptation to failure, which allows problematic features or practices to persist. The process applies both to thematic research as well as to the broader practices within the cultures of behavior analysis and developmental disabilities.

As the above history suggests, behavior analysis has not been marked by complacency. Ironically, even its very success with respect to developmental disabilities has been tempered with criticisms that behavior analysis has become too focused in that area. Numerous articles, and even journal issues, have been devoted to concerns with the field (e.g., Hayes, 2001; Michael, 1980; Journal of Applied Behavior Analysis, 1991). There have always been tensions and resultant shifts in which a body of literature that is described by some as too irrelevant to or remote from common and pressing problems spurs “real world application” that in turn is described by others as too irrelevant or remote from basic principles. Indeed, dissatisfaction is inevitable because all developments imply a degree of failure along some dimension that cannot be satisfied without sacrificing another dimension (e.g., in terms of cost, resources, scope, precision, practicality, utility, accessibility, control, relevance, acceptability, etc.). Because it is a logical impossibility for all requirements to be met when those requirements are in conflict, it is a matter of determining to what extent and along which dimensions failure will be manifest. An example is functional assessment in the schools, where alternatives to extended experimental analyses in analog situations necessarily sacrifice some degree of precision for practicality. The balance is a delicate one because precision without practicality (i.e., methods that yield accurate information but which are not widely adopted because of the resources required for implementation) is as useless as practicality without precision (i.e., convenient assessment methods that yield inaccurate information or conclusions). Failures along either dimension, however, may serve as establishing operations, and promote investigations that will produce closer approximations to the desired state of affairs.

Failure that results in setbacks has occurred when faulty application or bad practice is mistaken for inadequate principles or bad science. Because the public does not always discriminate technological from theoretical failures, there is the risk that it will throw out the baby with the bath water and reject behavior analytic approaches. Within developmental disabilities, dissatisfaction sometimes has been expressed in movements that are ideological in nature (e.g., self-determination, person-centered planning, positive behavioral support). Behavior analysts, too, must guard against throwing out the baby with the bath water and instead treat these movements as a useful source of data for advancing the field. Examination of changes from that perspective can suggest areas of compatibility on which we might capitalize (e.g., tying research involving choice-making under concurrent schedules to promote effective choices of persons with developmental disabilities consistent with “self-determination”). They also suggest areas in which we might devote more attention (e.g., classes of dependent variables, system-wide interventions, examination of contextual influences). Just as Baer, Wolf, and Risley (1987) suggested that, in addition to measuring changes in target behaviors, we measure problem displays and explanations that have stopped or diminished as a result, we might view changes reflecting counter-control (problem displays and explanations that have increased) as a form of social invalidity. To reject them outright is as dangerous as accepting them outright; both represent a form of complacency and adaptation to failure and therefore a threat to the vitality of behavior analysis and developmental disabilities. We can afford neither rigid adherence to our technology nor abandonment of our scientific principles.

In summary, there is cause for both celebration and contemplation. We can celebrate how far behavior analysis and developmental disabilities have come while also contemplating where it needs to go. Further development can be promoted by recognition that the good news of our success was and is made possible by the careful contemplation of our failures. In that sense, both our successes and the failures that stimulate further development are good news worthy of celebration. Party on.


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