Behavioural Specialist and ABA therapist Andree Mellanby on working with children diagnosed with Autism Spectrum Disorder, why attentive parents matter, and why we can learn more from children than we could ever hope to teach them.

Tracy: Let's begin by talking about human connection. In this digital-era we're missing out on the benefits and necessities of social interaction, but we believe that we're more connected because of social media and the internet. From a behavioural sciences perspective, why is it that we actually need person-to-person connection versus connection via computers and phones?


Andree: It's very primal. It's starts at birth and continues for our entire lives. We need physical attachment to our primary caregivers in order to develop properly, and that doesn't stop in adulthood even if those who we need attachment to changes. Historically we needed that bond because it determined our safety and was needed for survival. Our environments may have changed a bit, but our basic biology hasn't, so why do we think we can live without it now? We can't, and we're starting to see the adverse affects of not having it. We think we don't need to have affection and touch and security from our peers and that the internet is going to fulfill those primal needs, but the fact is that it wont. Our needs haven't changed and our needs wont change, even as our generation and society moulds into this new digital era and more seclusion in our workplaces, we still need the functions of behaviours that human interactions provide us with. 

We are all born in a womb and when we leave that womb, we still need physical connection - to be held by our caregivers because we're not done growing yet, it's just the next phase. Unfortunately the reality is that people who had that connection severed after birth don't get what they needed to develop properly. You can see a difference in their character: in their personality, their empathy, and their ability to relate. And in today's world there are so many individuals who get disconnected from their parents right after birth, they are not held enough, they are left alone too often, and they get treated like independent people when they are not adults yet, they're not done growing, and they need to be held by their parents in order to grow successfully.


That's a really good point to start on. In undergraduate psychology, you learn about the case of Genie who was put into social isolation by her father and denied affection, stimulation, and interaction with others. She didn't develop a language, had a hard time with eye contact, and she got tense when she was directed to sit on a lap, quick to move away from physical contact with others.


Yes that story was so sad. We not only need physical contact in order to feel secure around others as we grow older, but we also learn from imitation; we learn from other people; it's biological. We learn every function that we have. Yes some things are innate, but most things we learn have been demonstrated by others through imitational play and modelling others actions. The fundamentals of talking and walking, and other daily interactions like our emotions have developed under the circumstance of our environments: how much affection we received throughout those early years. Again, it's required to develop properly. Connection to others encourages you to find motivation and to thrive. I think we are always modelling other individuals and that's important because we then also self reflect. But if you isolate yourself and tell yourself that this false reality or looking at this girl online is enough, you are not self-evaluating and you are not creating deep connection.


Can you explain what ABA - Applied Behaviour Analysis means more specifically? 


Applied Behaviour Analysis is a scientific approach to understanding the interactions between our environment (nature) and our learned behaviours through nurture. Behaviours are essentially anything that a person does. ABA believes that every behaviour serves one of four functions. The four functions of behaviour are:  the need for attention, escape, tangible rewards and self sensory stimulation. All these behaviours serve a function, and all individuals are trying to communicate what they need from their environment through behaviour. 

I want to ask you about Autism. You work as a behavioural specialist with a focus on family development. For over a decade you've focused on educating children diagnosed with Autism Spectrum Disorder. What can you tell us about these children that we may not realize?


For one, they have the most wonderful values that we need to learn from. We fight so hard to change their characteristics to fit our society and our world when it should be the reverse. I've learned way more from these individuals than I could ever teach them in 10 years. Straight up, they're honest; they do not lie because they do not understand the concept of dishonesty. They are physically in tune with themselves - they always know exactly what they are feeling because they are less concerned and impacted with the distraction of judgements, expectations or social stigmatizations around them. Nothing about judgement from others can modify how they react to things, and that's a beautiful thing. It's so interesting to watch because there are so many times when we want to correct what they do, where we think something is inappropriate or an embarrassment. Then when you actually consider it you realize, "Hey if I was in that situation and we were all allowed to react however assertively we wanted, hell I'd do that too." So it leaves you thinking, "If I didn't have all of these people in this room, would I act differently?" They do that in any and every environment, and it's so genuine; they have most genuine personalities in the world. 

They still have the same primal urge as we do to be loved, and to be taken care of, but they may not be able to express that, so a lot of it comes down to communication. We think that verbal communication is the only way you can build a relationship with people, but these children have taught me that there is so much beyond that. They can communicate in other ways: by reaching for you, or standing close, or indicating that you are a comforting thing to them. They can express it in so many different ways, and it teaches you to be entirely in the moment, to be focused and aware, because you don't want to miss out on what they are trying to tell you. And I think we should all parent like that, and we should all exist in relationships like that, because others can become so easy to ignore when we're not fully paying attention, even if we are using words. We create this idea that they are lacking something or missing something, but they are not - we need to learn from them, because the way they are is far more real than we can often be.


What got you interested in this field?


I remember the first time that I saw a little boy with Down Syndrome at the beach; I fell in love. I turned to my mom and said, "I'm in love with him." I think I was 8 years old, and this kid was 3, and I was just mesmerized by him. He was the happiest kid I'd ever seen. I knew I wanted to surround myself with honest individuals like himself. My sister and I were homeschooled so we had such a unique, interesting childhood, that allowed us to live abroad. Although we quickly learned about the differences and similarities of different cultures and human behaviours through our travels. But I never really experienced different types of peers in the halls or the classroom, yet I knew I was interested in cognitive development. For one, my sister and I couldn't have more differences which I found really fascinating, and which led me to question nature versus nature, and how much of a role both play.

I had more similarities with my friends and was always very positive and happy, while my sister was diagnosed with clinical depression at a very young age. Her perception of everything was so different from mine. Later I went into psychology to understand her as well as myself. Now we're incredibly close but that started me on the path to understanding development from birth to adulthood.


Explain the four motivators of desire that you are an advocate of. Our behaviour is motivated to serve us through four different functions?


Yes so in my field I've grown to understand that there are four functions of behaviour. We have intrinsic motivations to do things which are sensory: they make us feel good internally. These intrinsic sensory motivators can be stimulatory sensations, or calming sensations. So intrinsic is sensory. Then there is extrinsic - so motivation to tangible items outside of ourselves. We do things for money and objects which also drive motivation. We are also motivated by escape. So a lot of negative behaviours come from us trying to escape an environment or situation that causes us pain or discomfort. And the last motivator is attention. So all behaviour comes from one of those four outlets.

By understanding the function and the behaviour, you can then implement or modify an environment to change the topography for a better outcome. If it's a undesired behaviour, or results in a negative consequence the most effective positive support procedure used is through Reinforcement. It is a natural instinct for us to positively reinforce desired behaviours and reprimand undesired ones. (For example, if a child smiles you will hug them closer, or if a kid hits you you might frown or pull away) But it is less internal of us to take the time to understand the function of the behaviour and find an replacement behaviour that serves the same function but has a positive consequence. To return to the examples, if the child is smiling for attention then that behaviour is positively reinforced by giving them affection, where as a kid may be hitting you for attention and by you reprimanding them, you have unintentionally reinforced the undesired behaviour. So in ABA we would replace hitting with an alternative/replacement behaviour that gives the child more attention. So you would not react to the undesired behaviour rather when the child taps you on the shoulder, or says look at me you would provide them with undivided attention.

This refers back to nature and nurture and how we learn from others behaviours in our environment. If we are positively reinforced by good behaviour and not getting anything from undesired actions then we will biologically increase the frequency of our “good” behaviours.  Another example is if you replace a negative behaviour with something that's going to give the same reward (i.e. attention), if a student is wearing inappropriate clothes to get attention, a teacher in class could provide a new form of attention: every Monday they get to stand up and do the morning calendar in front of the whole class. This is a positive behaviour giving the same function, which will then eliminate the attention grabbing acts - because the teacher has fulfilled that need of the student.


I wanted to ask you about growing up in a small community and being homeschooled. How did this shape your view on human development and human behaviour?


Yes it impacted me so much. Going back to Applied Behaviour Analysis and looking at my family through that lens, now that I implement Optimistic Behaviour Strategies into other people's homes, I realized that my parents were on point in their child rearing methods. They taught Applied Behaviour Analysis to us through everything, yet they don't know the definition; they've never heard of the terminology, but they instinctually parented in that way. This fascinated me and cemented me into this field, because it's such a natural thing to be present, to create consistency within a home, and to put in the time to be there, hold eye contact and to respond and be patient with your children - but our society is making it harder and harder to do so. By living in a smaller community with fewer business pressures and more emphasis and value on community, they were able to do these things. They had the ability to understand and take time to teach and be present with their children.

You once described to me how your parents would place absolutely everything aside for a certain amount of time and they were fully present. They told you, "This is our time - it's all for you and what you want to do for this full hour." Now you teach that in the context of ABA? 


Yes, so that was the consistency that all children look for. When they said something was going to occur, they would always follow through. That one-hour meant we had their undivided attention, so then when the hour was over, we would be okay with them having to do work, or cook, or converse with each other - because we were secure in getting that one hour, and they were reliable. All children need that type of one-on-one time, but we're always divided in our attention in today's world - parents are on their phones while we're 'playing' with their children. It feeds irritable and irrational behaviour in kids. So I commend my parents for that and admire that they worked together in committing to it. But then again, this goes back to your question about a small community: they had the time to do this, they had the right environment, and they chose this over material items because their children were more important to them than having a dual income, or more than one house or car. They set a function of their behaviour as attention, not things for their children, and that's what developing children need.


So do you say that parents shouldn't be on their phones at all, or what is acceptable? I know that the physician Dr. Gabor Maté speaks a lot on this. How children need eye contact just as much as an adults presence. 


Yes, and that's why there's so much value in children's books: creating that one-on-one attention. It's so necessary. When you are in bed, or on your couch, reading to your child it's that one-on-one time that your kids will not only remember, but it will build up their emotional resilience because it's engaging, it's intimate, and they are sitting next to you; it's closeness, it's reciprocation, and there can be conversation. And you can't do this while looking at your cell phone or computer screen. You can toss it in the drawer for 20 minutes and read a book. It's critical to do this.

You have your own book that you're writing. Want to tell me a bit about it? 


Yes, so introducing the applied behaviour of reading and that one-on-one time into homes is one of my main focuses. Getting my book published will help add to this dialogue on the importance of this one-on-one time you can give your family. The book is about Sienna the Sharks first day at school, and his best friend is Signing Starfish. So there are a lot of alliterations and puns. This story also provides a unique interpretation of Sienna the Sharks experiences through bold illustrations by a child living with autism. The artist is a bright 15 year old girl who is one of my students. She is a prolific artist who draws over 30 pictures a day. The book is about highlighting friendships between individuals with strong personality traits. It's giving a human side to autism and different behaviours that children can identify with. It's about making 'Johnny' human rather than the kid with Autism. If we can make Johnny about his laugh and his funny jokes, then he isn't just the Autistic kid in the class. So I want to normalize it for not only them, but for all the other children they spend their days with too.

For some people it can be such an uncomfortable topic to approach; people don't learn about it and ask questions, they just hear about it and think, "I know an autistic kid", or "I don't", and then they are going to move on. Of course, I can understand that because every time I've worked with a new kid, or with a new challenge or disability that I'm unaware of, I get uncomfortable and it's easy to feel bad about it - especially after 10 years. But it still happens; it's inevitable. Unfamiliarity is scary for people. We don't want to be in a vulnerable place where we don't know how someone is going to react or what they are going to do or say. It can make anyone feel less confident. That's why a lot of people don't talk about autism, it's not a light-hearted topic within our society. I'd love to change that.

So this book was all about lightheartedness. We are all going to laugh, we are going to do funny things, and so are these kids - along with every other kid. Kids are notoriously hilarious and they do funny things, so we shouldn't have to shelter that if they are autistic. We need to express their differences because those differences are what make them so cool, and we can learn from them. They're honest, they're open, they live in the moment.


I think that's a great note to end on. Thanks again for speaking with me Andree!


Thank you too Tracy!

Capture Queue is a one woman team so if you notice any typos or errors, please don't hesitate to send me a message here.