Discrimination, escape, function of behavior, even reinforcement. All such unfamiliar (in the context in which they are used) and even harsh-sounding words. Why don’t practitioners of ABA use more user-friendly and more appealing terminology?
Behavioral terminology was established decades ago (beginning in the 1930s), well before the analysis of behavior was applied to the treatment of autism. Terms were developed to avoid ambiguity and not confuse what behaviorists were saying with words that had conventional meanings. Just as with all sciences, specialized language was used so those in the field could be exact about what they were talking about and avoid misinterpretations.
We train our clinicians accordingly. We need them to be precise so there is no uncertainty when designing curriculums and behavior programs for individual children. And then it only makes sense to communicate with parents, essential members of the treatment team, using the same language. Our role as professionals is to facilitate the efforts of parents in understanding and supporting learning and behavior change in their children, and the language we use is part of this.
Importantly, the purely technical terms apply to a child’s behavior, not to the child themselves. That is, for example, we are putting a particular behavior on extinction, we are not putting a child on extinction. If a particular behavior has an escape function, we are addressing that behavior, not somehow oppressing the child so they can’t get out of a bad situation. I’m pretty sure it’s common to hear BIs and BCBAs use a ton of appealing words like cute, smart, adorable, and funny, and those are characteristics of the child. We are only clinical and serious when talking about behavior because it takes science to change behavior and we take behavior change seriously.
We try to avoid the unnecessary use of jargon and we are also completely satisfied with families using whatever terminology they find most useful; however, we are super excited when a parent speaks our language and might tell us something like their child “manded” for the first time outside of session! But it’s not necessary. Understanding of the overall approach and consistency between what we do in a session and what happens outside of sessions is more important.
Maybe applied behavior analysis terminology will evolve and some words will be replaced over time. There are those within the field that think the harsh-sounding words are off-putting to some people that might really benefit from ABA. For now, however, we at ABA & VB Group continue to embrace the wording but also try to do our very best to define and translate and to clarify and explain whenever necessary. And we do not expect parents to be experts when it comes to technical explanations, we only expect parents to be experts on how things work within their family — and that’s the essential communication we need to design effective ABA programs.