As a practitioner in the field of ABA, I was reminded of one unequivocal truth about the science at a keynote presentation this fall.
With succinctness and sincerity, presenter Brett DiNovi spoke about the social significance of our profession in our work with families with children on the autism spectrum:
Put simply, we are dealing with peoples’ most treasured assets.
I have been reflecting on Brett’s words quite frequently of late, because on December 8, 2018, I met my most treasured asset.
Well, most treasured assets to be exact.
After 38 weeks of anticipation and forty-six hours of labor, my wife and I welcomed a baby boy and girl into the world.
Now, in spite of the fact that I have worked professionally alongside parents for years, to say that I questioned my own qualifications for this new job description would have been an understatement.
To echo the comedic words of Dr. Pat Friman, PhD, I would now be confronted with “messing up my theories with real facts!”
While nothing could have completely braced me for the joys and challenges which lie ahead, there are three ways working in the field of ABA did prepare me as a new father entering the uncharted waters of parenthood.
1. Developed Patience
I want to share a conversational exchange I typically encounter whenever I attend a dinner party.
After some initial small talk, inevitably the conversation shifts to what everyone does for a living. Following my response, the most common reply I get is something to the extent of:
“Wow, you must be so patient to do that every day.”
Now, I know this statement is intended to be a compliment and does recognize the fact that some days bring with it no shortage of challenges.
However, I do think it points to a misconception about the human condition which behavioral science attempts to dispel. Namely, that some behavioral characteristics, such as patience, are “intrinsic” to the individual and are immutable to learning.
A “hot-tempered” person might be quick to dismiss their own behavior by saying, “Well, I’m just not a patient person. That’s why I have a hot temper.”
In behavior analysis, we would call this circular reasoning:
“I’m not patient because I have a hot temper and I have a hot temper because I’m not patient.”
This conclusion gets us nowhere!
I would argue that “patience” is a number of simultaneous behaviors, and as such can be learned!
Patience is like a muscle. It takes time, deliberate practice, and no shortage of failures and repeated attempts to master, to then fall short and begin again.
Patience is rooted in the far-off hope, of positive, delayed outcomes – of which I am incredibly fortunate to have experienced a multitude. Children developing language after months of dedication and concentrated time and effort. Families experiencing independence and freedom after years of feeling isolation.
The patience I developed working in the field of behavior analysis has helped me through the sleepless nights of endless feeds, diaper changes, and total wardrobe changes – and I am still a work in progress.
You can just ask my wife – but please don’t!
2. Instilled Wonder
To steal the words of a favorite author and poet,
The world will never lack for wonders. Only for a lack of wonder.
The privilege and beauty of working in the field of behavior analysis is that wonder is at the forefront of everything we do.
Behavior analysis has its foundations in determinism and empiricism – meaning, we can come to know the world around us through our observations and experiences.
There is a thoroughgoing curiosity and appreciation for the richness and uniqueness of the human person. This carries with it an unsinkable optimism towards solving problems of deep meaning – because we can come to understand the world and its influences around us, we can address issues at their core and cultivate meaningful and lasting change.
The greatest sense of marvel I witness is on the faces of the parents and families I serve.
They have taught me that no accomplishment is too small to celebrate and to always be anticipating the next “did you just see that?!” moment.
I have learned to take nothing for granted. I was reminded of this by the words of a friend and colleague who has two young children of her own:
The days are long, but the years are short.
So each day, I take inventory – and I stop to wonder.
Over every new expression, (“Is that a frown, or a smile, or somehow both?!”)
New sound, (“Oh that’s her hungry sound … oh he’s definitely gassy!”)
Quiet exhale, (“Can I just fall asleep to this every night”?)
Sweet smell, (Utterly intoxicating)
Not so sweet smell, (“Really? Again?!“)
Exhilarating shared gaze, (“I think you might be looking straight into my soul”)
4:00 am nuzzle, (“This just made those last 3.5 hours so worth it!”)
Illusive, glorious nap, (“Hey, I hear the upside of sleep deprivation is that you go straight into REM!”)
Laughter, (Even the involuntary kind which I’m pretty certain is just gas)
And every little, marvelous change that comes with each new day – new hair, a new roll, or a new chin!
I would like to thank the children sleeping outside of my room for giving me fresh eyes to see these small wonders right before me.
3. It Didn’t … Nor Could It
I just recently graduated with my Master’s degree in Behavior Analysis from Western Michigan University.
If you would have told me two years ago that a week before my commencements I would have not one … but two babies arrive, (after regaining consciousness) I might have tried to make a witty comment like, “Well, at least I’ll have all of the answers by then!”
Now more than ever, not only am I aware that I do not have all of the answers, but in fact, I have more questions about parenting, children, and behavior than when I first started!
The truth of the matter is, no amount of book knowledge or professional experience even compares to the lived reality of parenthood firsthand.
The sheer weight and commitment of it all – some days it feels like it will crush you, and other days it feels like the one thing keeping you afloat. Parenting has been the most magical, most humbling, most exhausting, and most exhilarating experiences of my life – and I am just getting started.
Two months into my new gig, I feel more grateful and more motivated than I ever have for the work I do every day.
When I look at my clients now, I am more keenly aware of the reality that this child, however old, is the most treasured asset to another parent – just like me.
Working in the field of ABA has been the best on-the-job training for the best job in the world.
It has given me insight into one more dimension of the human experience – love.
If there is one thing I have learned from the dedicated families I work with every day, is that love is far more than a fleeting pleasant feeling.
In fact, love is even present when the pleasant feelings aren’t even there.
Rather, love is born out of selfless giving and deliberately willing the best for another. Love is action.
Love is behavior.
~ This article is dedicated to a very special little boy and girl and their remarkable Mommy.