Joy creates well-being and hope for the future. Joy liberates us to live rich, fulfilling lives, even in the midst of challenges. And in today’s world, joy is needed now more than ever. Dr. Shahla Ala’i, a pioneer in researching the role of joy in the treatment of autism, says, “Joy is a thing that we strive for, and it’s also a flag to let us know if what we’re doing in the field is actually working for individuals, groups, and all of us as a community.”
BHCOE hosted a webinar to share the practices Dr. Ala’i recommends to nurture joy in young children with autism, in their families, and in supporting professionals themselves. In the webinar, Dr. Ala’i explored how ABA professionals can integrate joy into every part of practice.
Emotions Are Goals As Well As Guides
We know that emotions serve as guides to states of being. We can learn about ourselves from our own emotions, and we can gain valuable insights into the state of others as we observe their emotional expressions. But it’s important to realize that emotions are also goals in and of themselves. Each of us wants to experience more positive feelings. We want to feel joy. This is true for ABA professionals, for the children we work with, and for the children’s families.
The Ethics of Joy
While the tendency is to focus on behavior, Dr. Ala’i made the case that the emotional state of clients is also crucial to effective treatment and that ABA professionals have a responsibility to help their clients pursue joy.
The Ethics Code for Behavior Analysts, in section 3.01, Responsibility to Clients, says that “Behavior analysts act in the best interest of clients, taking appropriate steps to support clients’ rights, maximize benefits, and do no harm.” Ethics is about more than just compliance. ABA professionals must maximize benefits to the client, and joy is a part of that. Dr. Ala’i also pointed out that the UN Declaration of the Rights of the Child also emphasizes the importance of happiness: “Recognizing that the child, for the full and harmonious development of his or her personality, should grow up in a family environment, in an atmosphere of happiness, love, and understanding.”
The Contingency Lens: Moving Away From Difficulty and Toward Joy
To cultivate joy, we must look at what holds children back from joyful experiences. In the webinar, Dr. Ala’i pointed to four specific contingencies that produce difficulties.
- Difficulty accessing events and activities
- Difficulty accessing attention
- Lack of non-harmful reinforcing events, activities, people, and attention
- Difficulty adapting or escaping aversive situations
When children face any of these contingencies, the difficulty is likely to lead to more difficulty in the way they respond to the world, and, in turn, the way the world responds to them. If we focus on addressing these contingencies, we improve behavior.
Joyful Intervention Design
To gain relief from difficulties and experience joy, interventions should be based on positivity and consent, rather than simply focused on eliminating problematic behavior. Dr. Ala’i offered the following four examples of how to approach teaching key skills with the goal of creating joy.
When teaching communication, therapists must coach how to safely, effectively, enthusiastically, and respectfully share wants, needs, likes, dislikes, and interests. It’s also important to ensure that the environment responds to these behaviors so that the behaviors are reinforced.
Similarly, therapists must teach how to safely, effectively, happily, and pleasantly initiate and gain attention, engagement, and affection.
Teaching engagement must include how to willingly and absorbingly engage in diverse activities alone and with others. It’s crucial to make sure that the child is actually enjoying the process of engagement, not being forced to participate.
When teaching how to adapt, therapists must coach how to safely, effectively, diplomatically, confidently, and courageously enter challenging situations that will increase well-being over time.
The descriptors Dr. Ala’i includes here are important because they emphasize that it’s not enough to get a child to stop certain behaviors. In order for the child to experience joy, they need to produce behavior in a positive context. ABA professionals want to support the goals of the stakeholders, including the goals of the person with autism. And they look to emotions to learn whether something is coercive or whether it’s voluntary.
Joy Finders: Learning, Connecting, and Loving
After sharing a program example of how to empower families to become part of the teaching process and cultivate joy within the family dynamic, Dr. Ala’i discussed how the ABA community can cultivate joy in their own lives. This is just as important as nurturing joy in clients and families.
Evidence-based intervention is about using the data, the best available evidence. But it’s also about how you assess what’s happening with a client in a given situation, how you view prevention and intervention, and how you understand concepts and principles related to behavior change. In essence, it’s how you use wisdom to create change. No matter how long you’ve been in the profession, you’re still learning. In the beginning, you need supervision, a master with experience who can direct you. Later in your career, you need trusted colleagues who have different perspectives and insights that will inform your work and improve it. Dr. Ala’i emphasizes that learning is central to joy-finding because it enables you to help more people more effectively.
Connection is a basic human need. But connecting with other people who think that joyful interventions are important will greatly increase joy. Find a community of people who share this common interest and who have a commitment to meet with one another regularly to practice joyful interaction and joyful intervention.
Love is something that isn’t commonly talked about in behavior analysis. But it’s one of the most animating forces in life. Dr. Ala’i shared that love is foundational because human relationships of all types come with responsibility. By being involved in a young child’s life, therapists are accepting responsibility for the course and the trajectory of that child’s life. Love understands that every child is precious and has a right to a safe life that’s filled with opportunities, learning, care, and affection.
Building Intentional Communities of Practice
Dr. Ala’i closed her presentation by saying, “Joy is a directional guide to inclusive well-being for all of us.” Joy tells us if our work is effective and if our approach is good for our clients, good for their families, and good for ourselves. We don’t need to settle for changing behavior – we can create joy in the process.
Watch the entire webinar to understand how communities of practice with a mission of increasing joy are likely to encourage ongoing learning, human connections, and loving approaches to intervention.