Autistic Adults, Increasing Professional Understanding: An Interview with Dr. Peter Gerhardt

Dr. Peter Gerhardt, a champion of the need for effective services for autistic adults for decades, participated in an interview for this month’s Connecting the Dots blog.

A white man with a mustache and beard, smiling. Wearing a blue long sleeved shirt with a tie.

Peter, can you please introduce yourself.

I’m Peter Gerhardt. I’m currently the Executive Director of Epic Programs in Paramus NJ and adjunct faculty at Endicott College in the department of Behavior Sciences.

How were you introduced to the field of behavior analysis?

I was introduced completely by accident. In 1980 I was a junior psychology major at Rutgers, and I signed up to take a fieldwork course where I would work 1 day per week at a nursery school for typically developing kids.  Thankfully, that course was filled so instead I was placed into a course called Field Work in Developmental Disabilities. This required to work one day a week with kids with autism.  I didn’t know what autism was and at this point, the myth of parent causation was still floating around. I didn’t know what behavior analysis was, we were still using the term behavior mod. I walked into a class with six autistic adolescents and basically, I’ve never walked out. I became fascinated by what the students could do versus what they couldn’t do, and how behavior analysis enabled that learning. From that initial field work class, I’ve just kept changing jobs within the field.

What attracted you to the field/science of behavior analysis?

As I learned more and more about behavior analysis it helped me make sense of the world at large. Things started to click. This concept of behavior change, that we could measure, this change, that we could alter the conditions that elicit behavior. The science worked everywhere!

You are teaching a course ABA and Adolescents and Adults and Autism in a graduate behavior analysis program. Why was this course added to the offerings?

I think Endicott College recognized that there was this need to demonstrate to their students that behavior analysis has significant applications with older individuals on the autism spectrum. The field is applicable beyond the age-range of early intervention and elementary school. Developing and delivering a course about adults allows the students to focus on competence, dignity and quality of life in adulthood and the complexities that are associated with promoting these constructs.

When professionals work with little kids you can control all the variables – the space, the materials, the reinforcement. When you work with adults, you control nothing, you want the adults to control everything. Professionals must figure out how to support adults so that they have the skills that they need. And this is regardless of where anyone is on the spectrum, every adult should be in control.

Why do you perceive that the students are taking the course?

I think students are looking for a bigger understanding. Being at Endicott, these are not students who think in small terms, they are truly trying to answer Skinner’s question “Why are we not trying to save the world?” This course is just one aspect of trying to save the world. For the most part, our adult outcomes, are not worth bragging about. There are exceptions, there are a few great support programs, but by and large the data for adults is not positive.

Why is an understanding of autism in adulthood important?

Early education programs are not producing the desired outcomes. Programs supporting children impact adult outcomes. Professionals working with children benefit from understanding how instruction and intervention effects adulthood.

One thing I emphasize with my students, is that typical people have multiple transitions in their lives. I’m twice divorced, I’ve lived in multiple cities, I’ve traveled all around and changed jobs multiple times. When you have a disability, you have ONE transition. Between the ages of 16 and 21 you apparently “transition.” As professionals we need to provide autistic adults the tools that support their ongoing successful transition across their lifespan.

Do you think coursework/fieldwork for/with adults on the spectrum should be required?

ABSOLUTELY! Behavior analysts benefit from understanding that this person is a person unto themselves and that they work for them. My job is to support them in the best way I know how, but also how they want to be supported. How do you figure out how do this work unless you have some experience working your way around this framework? In many ways this runs contrary to how we’ve been taught? We create these arbitrary teaching situations for children that then extend into adulthood such as requiring a table to be set with every piece of cutlery. But what if you only want a sandwich? Why does the lunch table need all the cutlery to eat a sandwich?

What’s a last take-away that you would like readers to know?

I think we are, making significant strides in how to best support adolescents and young adults on the spectrum. But we are starting from such a hole; it is going to be a long climb for everyone involved. We need good, thoughtful, caring, empathic, compassionate behavior analysts to work with adolescents and adults. Behavior analysts who understand that this is an adult, not a small child in an adult body. We need these professionals in the field, to keep moving the field forward, without these professionals it isn’t going to happen. Anybody who is even slightly interested should give it a try.