It’s OK to Say “I Don’t Know”: Advice from ASAT Advisory Board Member Bill Heward, EdD BCBA-D

Conducted by Josh Pritchard, MS, BCBA
Co-editor, Science in Autism Treatment

Bill Heward

Bill Heward

Q: Could you tell the readers how you came to be involved with ASAT? How long have you been on the advisory board?

Catherine Maurice, one of ASAT’s founding members, told me about the organization and invited me to participate. I was a member of ASAT’s Board of Directors for two years and have been on the advisory board since 2006.

Q: What does ASAT signify to you? Why is it important? How does it relate to your interests and work?

A: Basic research has revealed some powerful principles about how people learn (e.g., reinforcement, stimulus control), and applied studies have discovered and refined strategies and techniques (e.g., self-monitoring, interspersing easy tasks/known items) for putting those principles to work for the benefit of individuals with autism. No matter how potentially powerful these findings, they’re of little impact if practitioners and parents are unable to distinguish them from the vast array of unsubstantiated claims clamoring for their attention.

Effective education and treatment of children with disabilities has always been plagued by the promise and popularity of unproven interventions (Heward & Silvestri, 2005). For example, in the ‘70s and ‘80s parents and teachers were told that having children with learning disabilities look through colored lenses and walk on balance beams would make them effective readers. The multitude of ineffective (at best) and sometimes even harmful autism treatments promoted today is unmatched in the history of special education. The tremendous range of behavioral deficits, excesses, and idiosyncrasies by which autism spectrum disorders are manifested makes an especially fertile ground for the proliferation of unsubstantiated treatments.

ASAT’s mission – to educate parents, professionals, and consumers about autism and its treatment by disseminating scientifically sound information and combating inaccurate or unsubstantiated information – is every bit as important as the discovery and refinement of scientifically valid knowledge. ASAT’s leadership— an impressive mix of parents, researchers, and practitioners — does an outstanding job separating scientific wheat from ideologically and/or financially driven chaff.

Resources on ASAT’s website and articles published in its newsletter inform my thinking and I often share that information with teachers and parents with whom I work. Daniel Mruzek’s (2012) discussion of the peer review process, Jim Todd’s (2010) examination of the fallacy of facilitated communication, and Tom Zane’s (2010) review of Relationship Development Intervention (RDI) are examples of many excellent articles in Science in Autism Treatment that help parents and professionals recognize distinctions between scientific evidence and unsubstantiated claims.

Q: What kinds of things do you do related to autism?

A: I read, write, and talk about the relevance and use of applied behavior analysis in the education and treatment of people with autism. I don’t read nearly as much as I should, have not written as much I’d like, and almost certainly do too much talking! My most recent writing project was revising a textbook for future special education teachers, which includes a chapter on autism spectrum disorders (Heward, 2013). Most of my autism-related work consists of presentations and workshops for behavior analysts, teachers, and parents. This school year, I’ll be presenting a series of five webinars for the Pennsylvania Bureau of Special Education on effective educational practices for students with high-functioning autism.

I especially enjoy and appreciate opportunities to help disseminate ABA internationally. I’ve given numerous presentations in Asia, Europe, South America, and the Middle East. Next month, I’ll be speaking at conferences on ABA and autism treatment in Beijing and Shenzhen, China. Attendees at these events typically include parents, teachers, psychologists, physicians, school administrators, and government policy makers.

In these talks, I typically define ABA (an applied science devoted to understanding and improving human behavior); refute some of the most common misconceptions (e.g., consists only of 1-on-1 discrete trial training); share examples of ABA-derived instructional techniques to teach communication, social, and independence skills; identify characteristics of high-quality education and treatment programs; and suggest resources and organizations where people can learn more about ABA and evidence-based autism treatments. A slide of ASAT’s homepage is always included

Q: What do you identify as characteristics of high-quality autism programs?

A: I think the best programs, whether they provide early intensive behavioral intervention or serve school-age students, exhibit the following characteristics:

  • Individualized, clearly defined behavior change targets focusing on language, social, and independence skills (and on academic, community, and employment skills as relevant)
  • Use of evidence-based teaching practices
  • Active programming for generalization and maintenance of newly learned skills to relevant settings and situations
  • Direct and frequent measurement of learning
  • Data-based decision making (high-quality programs don’t just collect data, they use it)
  • Structured, frequent opportunities to interact with typically developing peers
  • Ongoing communication with and involvement by parents and family members
  • Teachers and staff who are well-trained in ABA
  • Administrators who not only require, but provide support for all of the above

Q: Why is ABA so important for children with autism?

A: When Don Baer, one of the founding fathers of applied behavior analysis, was asked why ABA was the distinctive treatment for autism, he replied that it’s because, “ABA is the discipline that has most consistently considered the problem of what behavior changes, made in what order and by what techniques, will confer the maximal benefit to the child” (Baer, 2005, p. 6). Like he did when responding to so many other important questions about teaching and learning, Don’s answer hit that one right on the button.

It is the way in which the applied behavior analysts working in the field of autism treatment “consider” problems that has made their findings so relevant. Baer, Wolf, and Risley’s (1968, 1987) seven defining dimensions of the science (applied, behavioral, analytic, technological, conceptually systematic, effective, and capable of generalized out-comes) are at the root of ABA’s importance for autism treatment. Here are a few other reasons why ABA is ideally suited to help improve the quality of life for children and adults with autism:

  • ABA is public – everything about ABA is visible, explicit, and straightforward. There’s nothing hidden, ephemeral, or mystical about ABA. There are not metaphysical explanations. ABA’s transparent nature should be valued by all constituencies: consumers, providers and tax-payers.
  • ABA is accountable – Therapists and teachers whose work is informed by ABA focus on environmental variables that reliably influence learning and that can be acted upon. This yields a form of accountability and responsibility that is good for the public and consumers.
  • ABA is self-correcting – Direct and frequent measurement is the foundation and most important component of treatment based on ABA. It enables practitioners to detect their successes and, equally important, their failures so that changes can be made in an effort to change failure to success.
  • ABA is optimistic – Children with autism are among the most difficult of all children to teach. ABA provides their teachers and parents a legitimate sense of optimism. First, direct and continuous measurement lets us see small improvements in behavior that would otherwise go unseen (and therefore not reinforced and, as a result, perhaps not repeated). Second, each time a teacher or parent successfully uses a behavioral technique, the more optimistic he or she is about the prospects for future success (positive outcomes are the most common result of behaviorally based interventions). Third, the peer-reviewed literature in ABA is rich with examples of children, who many had considered ineducable, acquiring life-enriching communication, social, and independence skills.

Q: What would you advise a parent of a newly diagnosed child with autism?

A: I think any parent of a newly diagnosed child with autism would benefit from reading “Letters to a Lawyer” by Don Baer (2005). It is a collection of affidavits by Baer as an expert witness in court cases in which parents were suing schools or Medicaid agencies to provide ABA services for their children with autism. “Letters to a Lawyer” is a plain-English description of the requirements and the potential of ABA as an educational treatment for children with autism and pervasive developmental disabilities.

I would also suggest parents read, “The Top 10 Reasons Children with Autism Deserve ABA” by Mary Beth Walsh (2009). Walsh makes the case for the multiple benefits of ABA-informed intervention with humor and anecdotes of an engaging child with autism (her son, Ben).

Q: Do you have any advice for professionals who provide education and treatment services for with autism?

A: Professionals should remember that it’s okay to say, “I don’t know.” Unless you are the parent of a child with autism, you can never fully know or appreciate what it is like to shoulder the demands and challenges of that responsibility 24/7. But that is no reason for professionals to be defensive or intimidated in their interactions with parents. Well-trained professionals can offer families the knowledge and skills they have without apology, and welcome their input. But parents will sometimes ask questions that you cannot answer or request services you cannot provide. Knowing the limits of your expertise is an important mark of a true professional and an ethical litmus test. So remember that it is okay to say, “I don’t know the answer.”


Baer, D. M. (2005). Letters to a lawyer. In W. L. Heward, T. E., Heron, N. A. Neef, S. M., Peterson, D. M. Sainato, G., Cartledge, R., Gardner III, L. D., Peterson, S. B., Hersh, & J. C. Dardig (Eds.) Focus on behavior analysis in education: Achievements, challenges, and opportunities (pp. 3-30). Upper Saddle River, NJ: Pearson.

Baer, D. M., Wolf, M. M., & Risley, T. R. (1968). Some current dimensions of applied behavior analysis. Journal of Applied Behavior Analysis, 1, 91-97.

Baer, D. M., Wolf, M. M., & Risley, T. R. (1987). Some still-current dimensions of applied behavior analysis. Journal of Applied Behavior Analysis, 20, 313–327.

Heward, W. L. (2013). Exceptional children: An introduction to special education (10th ed.). Upper Saddle River, NJ: Pearson Education.

Heward, W. L., & Silvestri, S. M. (2005). The neutralization of special education. In J. W. Jacobson, R. M. Foxx, & J. A. Mulick (Eds.). Controversial therapies in developmental disabilities: Fads, fashion, and science in professional practice (pp. 193-214). Hillsdale, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.

Mruzek, D. W. (2012). “Verification” and the peer review process. Science in Autism Treatment, 9, 18-19.

Todd, J. (2010). Facilitate this: Part I of a two-part interview with Dr. James Todd. Science in Autism Treatment, 7, 1-8.

Walsh, M. B. (2009). The top 10 reasons children with autism deserve ABA. Behavior Analysis in Practice, 4, 72-79.

Zane, T. (2010). Relationship Development Intervention: A review of its effectiveness. Science in Autism Treatment, 7, 1-2.

Citation for this article:

Pritchard, J. (2012). It’s Ok to say “I don’t know”: Advice from advisory board member Bill Heward. Science in Autism Treatment, 9(4), 1-3.

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