Looking Outside Our Field: What We Can Learn from Neuroscience

When we are trained to practice and conduct research within an area, we can become highly specialized and often tend to limit the literature we contact. Thus, we may all be aware of the latest paper published in our flagship journal, but may be unaware of similar or relevant work conducted in other areas of research. This lack of awareness puts us at a disadvantage. We may try to reinvent the wheel, repeat errors of others, and our clinical practice may not incorporate key scientific findings.

As a student representative to the ABAI Executive Council (many years ago), I sought to close the gap between basic and applied areas of the field of behavior analysis. At that time, we began the Bridging the Gap series of invited talks. The first of these focused on the topic of choice and featured prominent basic and applied researchers in this area – Tom Critchfield, Michael Davison, and Nancy Neef.

Today, I seek to close a broader gap – the gap between behavioral science and autism science in general. Looking Outside Our Field will highlight areas of science outside of behavior analysis that are of relevance for advancing our science and improving our clinical practice. On this inaugural blog of the series, I will start with the field of neuroscience.

When we think of the defining characteristics of ASD, we likely think of behavioral rigidity among the key features. This rigidity is often seen in the form of limited or restricted interests, difficulty transitioning among activities, and insensitivity to changing contingencies in the environment. As behavioral practitioners, we may address behavioral rigidity by introducing lag schedules. But what if not all instances of behavioral rigidity are the same? What, if anything, is different about individuals with autism that display high degrees of behavioral rigidity? There may be something to learn from the field of neuroscience both for the advancement of our science in this area and for the development of individualized treatments.

At the ABAI Autism conference held in Miami last February, Dr. Lucina Uddin, a neuroscientist from the University of Miami, presented her research on brain connectivity and cognition in autism. Her research uses brain-imaging techniques to identify brain networks in individuals with autism. Not only has her research team identified developmental differences in brain connectivity, but also the relation between these age-dependent brain connectivity properties and the emergence of behavioral patterns characteristic of autism, such as repetitive or rigid behaviors.

In case you missed her ABAI Autism talk, you can watch another one of her talks here:

Dr. Uddin’s talk was fascinating and highlighted areas in which neuroscientists and behavior analysts can work together to further understand this feature of ASD. In order for multidisciplinary collaborations of this type to include behavior analysts, however, we must focus on disseminating the extent to which behavior analysis is relevant to further understanding autism. For instance, are there behavioral tasks that could inform neuroscientists about features of behavioral rigidity associated with varying degrees or types of brain connectivity deficits? Further, what implications do these findings have for the development and implementation of behavioral interventions? It is possible that individuals with greater impairments in brain connectivity may be less responsive to certain treatment approaches.

Another neuroscientist conducting interesting work on individuals with autism is Dr. Kevin Pelphrey. His work focuses on the use of brain imaging techniques for early identification of autism, development of individualized treatments, and gender differences individuals with autism with a focus on girls. Dr. Pelphrey was a speaker at the INSAR Summer Institute Series a few years ago, where he provided a great introduction to brain imaging techniques and his work.

Session I: Kevin Pelphrey on brain structure and function

Although neuroscientists use different methodologies and have terminology that may be seem like a foreign language to behavior analysts and behavioral scientists, it is imperative we step outside our field with some regularity and ask, “How does this relate to the work we do? Can it help me be a better researcher/therapist/teacher/parent?”


This past weekend, I had the pleasure of attending the Four Corners Association for Behavior Analysis conference on Park City, UT. If you have never attended this conference and live in that part of the US, I highly recommend you attend next year. Not only was it a fantastic venue (if you are familiar with Park City, you know what I mean), but also there were many excellent talks. Such a treat! I’ll share some of the highlights on the next blog.