International Interview:

With Professor Mickey Keenan, University of Ulster, Northern Ireland

By Daniela Fazzio, PhD, BCBA-D, SIAT Co-Editor

Mickey Keenan

Mickey Keenan

I had the great pleasure of interviewing Dr. Mickey Keenan and learn a great deal about his impressive work and about behavior analysis in Europe. Dr. Keenan is a professor of behavior analysis at the University of Ulster and has received many important awards, such as the Award for Public Service in Behavior Analysis from the Society for Advancement of Behavior Analysis.

Our international interviews are part of our commitment to the dissemination of our mission and to improving the reach of accurate information about autism and autism treatments beyond the US. We are thankful that Dr. Keenan has accepted our invitation to contribute to this issue of SIAT and talk to us about the several initiatives he has participated in over the years to improve the understanding and reach of behavior analysis in Eu-rope. Readers will enjoy learning about his interesting trajectory and browsing the several web pages he has kindly suggested. Enjoy!

Q: Dr. Keenan, please tell us about your academic and work-related background, and what led you into this field.

A: During my undergraduate degree in Psychology at the University of Ulster in N. Ireland, I took a course on the experimental analysis of behaviour by Prof. Julian Leslie. After graduating, I followed my interest in this field by doing a PhD in the study of schedules of reinforcement at the University of Ulster. My focus was the analysis of temporal patterning in the behaviour of rats. This research experience gave me the grounding in how to analyze behaviour without resorting to the use of explanatory fictions. For example, in my naïveté at that time, I thought that response patterning on Fixed Interval schedules arose because animals ‘developed a sense of time and knew where they were in the interval’; as the time elapses they responded faster and faster because ‘they knew they were going to be fed soon’. This view is a classic example of the power of illusion in directing attention away from an analysis of the structure of environmental contingencies (Keenan, M., 1999)1. Being able to transcend illusions created by explanatory fictions is an essential skill in the training of every behaviour analyst. However, it is a difficult skill to teach. After all, cumulative Records really are meaningless to a student who hasn’t had the opportunity to see the behaving organism whose performance is recorded by a line on a piece of paper.

Parents EducationAfter earning my PhD I moved in a number of different directions in my research with students, including biofeedback, hypnosis (my wife and I used hypnosis for her labour so that during childbirth she didn’t need any pain killers!), bereavement, gerontology, precision teaching, and stimulus equivalence (including its relevance to the measure of attitudes and as a possible screening tool for child sex abuse). To help deal with the isolation of being a lone behaviour analyst in a relatively hostile environment within the UK, I also focused on developing my teaching repertoire, which has included learning how to produce animations and work in a multimedia environment ITunes. I also recognized the importance of gathering video material to showcase the successes of behaviour analysis. Within my video library I featured the Young Autism Project and the Harry video. Both of these videos left students gob smacked at what was possible with a science of behaviour. Unfortunately, for many years the application of the science remained simply a story in Mickey’s class, a story of what others were doing across the pond. That was until I was approached by a friend of mine, a medical doctor who asked me if I would like to work with a distressed parent who was getting no practical help with her child who had been diagnosed with autism. With no formal training in ABA, no opportunity to attend a class in ABA, and nobody around to guide me, I agreed to do whatever I could; I knew, though, I could teach the basic science. Some of the details of what happened next are in a 3-part presentation I put on (YouTube).  Suffice to say, this changed everything for me and for parents across Ireland, but only up to a point (as explained in the YouTube presentation). From this work we published the first book on ABA for parents in Europe: Parents’ Education as Autism Therapists: Applied Behaviour Analysis in Context, 2a book that has now been translated into Japanese and German. I established the first parent-led char-ty in Ireland with the promotion of ABA as its mission statement; the group is called Parents’ Education as Autism Therapists (PEAT)

Q: This is impressive, Dr. Keenan. Tell us about your current work.

A: Currently I continue to develop my skills in multi-media development for teaching. I believe our discipline has been careless in the way it communicates and that is unacceptable in a context where misrepresentation of it is rife. The ‘printing press’ has served us well, but printed words alone (see Keenan, 2003)3 are insufficient as teaching resources because they cannot portray the complexity of behaviour as outlined by Skinner (1953)4:

“Behavior is a difficult subject matter, not because it is inaccessible, but because it is extremely complex. Since it is a process, rather than a thing, it cannot be held still for observation. It is changing, fluid, evanescent, and for this reason, it makes great technical demands upon the ingenuity and energy of the scientist.” (p. 15).

Given that communication is an important aspect of doing science, I would argue that the last part of his statement (i.e., “it makes great technical demands upon the ingenuity and energy of the scientist”) is central to the PR aspect of teaching general audiences. In terms of autism, I will be looking for funding to help update the multimedia tutorial in ABA (called Simple Steps) we have developed. I am also working closely with Prof. Karola Dillenburger (my wife, colleague, and unsung heroine) who teaches at the other university in N. Ireland, The Queen’s University, Belfast, (  in a sort of ‘pincer movement’ so that between us we can influence those with responsibility for investing in autism treatment.

As for my experimental work, I have managed to rekindle my work in the study of equivalence responding. Some years ago, I published a paper on how stimulus equivalence procedures would be used to study social categorization  (Watt et al., 1991)5. I am returning to that general area because I am interested in exploring the origins of novel behavior. More specifically, I am interested in examining the ways in which behaviors can merge to produce new behaviors. I have in my sights a paper to write called ‘functional equivalence meets functional analysis’ where it might be possible to bring to the applied focus of functional analysis some understanding of the role of functional equivalence classes in generating behaviors.

Q: Can you talk about the European Association for Behaviour Analysis (EABA)?

A: I think readers would first of all find it interesting to read something on the history of the Experimental Analysis of Behaviour Group (EABG) that was the precursor to the establishment of European Association for Behaviour Analysis (EABA). EABG first met in 1963:

The EABG has hosted small, but much loved, conferences over the last four decades and more recently (over the last 15 years) these have been at University College London and attended by behaviour analysts from all over the world. However, the number of individuals in the UK who would describe themselves as behaviour analysts, and their practice as behaviour analytic, has remained relatively small although the number is steadily growing.” (Martin, 2010)6

The objectives of EABA as stated in its constitution include:

  • To provide an international forum within Europe for the study and discussion of matters relevant to behaviour analysis.
  • To encourage high quality education and professional certification throughout Europe.
  • To organize congresses/conferences in experimental and applied behaviour analysis. It has hosted a number of major conferences over the years, which are highlighted at:
  • To establish and maintain relations between behaviour analysis organizations inside and outside Europe.
  • To publish and disseminate the European Journal of Behaviour Analysis. Volume 1 of the journal was published in 2000.


Q: What does EABA do to promote science in autism treatment?

A: As far as EABA is concerned, our ‘local hero’ is Dr. Neil Martin who has been the Applied Representative for a number of years. Neil travels around much of Europe as a roaming ambassador for ABA, contributing to many of the existing course sequences and helping to establish new ones, such as the one in India for which he serves as the Course Director.

StamppOne of the greatest difficulties across Europe is accessing accurate information about ABA in native languages. To address this, I instigated an exciting new initiative to create an online platform in multiple languages for training in ABA specific to autism. We developed this resource together with the PEAT group in English first and then I obtained major funding from the European Union to develop the STAMPPP project.

The aim of this project was to develop innovative multimedia material for teaching some of the basic issues in ABA. The project has just completed its latest round of funding and we now have the multimedia tutorial Simple Steps translated into Spanish, German, Norwegian, Dutch, Italian, Icelandic, and Swedish. A couple of parents in Portugal contacted me because they had heard of my community work and now they have prepared a Portuguese version of Simple Steps and set up their own ABA organization (

Q: What is autism treatment like in Europe and which treatments are the most popular? Are there any prevailing cultural mores, viewpoints, ideologies or cultural histories that hinder or promote access to effective intervention and how individuals with ASD are viewed?

A: This is one of those “How long is a piece of string?” questions. I think it best if your readers hear directly from some professionals in a few different countries. At our launch event for the STAMPPP project we taped presentations from partners. They talk about autism provision in their countries and the fact that the project provides the first ever material in their own language.

In Northern Ireland, a parent has initiated a large-scale petition to the Director of Mental Health and Disability Policy ( This initiative testifies to the kinds of obstacles parents face. The parent asked a local group, which promotes itself as ‘Northern Ireland’s Autism Charity’, to circulate the petition to its members. The charity refused to help and instead courts favour with local politicians and promotes the views of the establishment. Informed choice, it seems, is only for those parents who are already informed!! I wrote an open letter to this organization here. The parent has now set up a Facebook page to bring parents together and inform them about ABA . On this site, I gave permission to share my article called “State sponsored child abuse?” This will give you some indication of how things have been developing in the Republic of Ireland.

Given that the National Health Service (NHS) in the UK describes ABA as one of the ‘widely used interventions’ (  and yet does not provide any ABA-based services, another group of parents in the UK is currently preparing to seek a judicial review of the NHS provision of ABA-based interventions (see

All of these initiatives have arisen because of the lack of training in ABA across the UK generally. To expose the extent of the opposition to ABA, a professor from the University of Cambridge with near celebrity status, Simon Baron-Cohen, recently wrote a piece ( that encapsulates the views of many British Psychologists. The misinformation entailed in his paper is so galling that it has inspired others to put the record straight, and, importantly, this dialogue has given parents a better understanding of why they are being denied access to ABA. Here are links to various responses from behaviour analysts: Check all comments, they include a response from Baron-Cohen, where he seems to backtrack on quite a few of his original arguments. It is a pity he did not withdraw his original paper and the EDGE does not print or otherwise publicize these comments.

Q: Are you aware of significant differences in dominating treatment approach across Europe, such as psychoanalysis in France, which was briefly highly publicized here in the US in the documentary Le Mur / The Wall?

A: I don’t have in-depth information. It would be useful perhaps for EABA to canvass members to obtain this information. Regarding France, we know they are struggling because there are so many fractions and again because of the shortage of material on ABA written in French. To emphasize the point and how bad the situation is in France, here are quotes from a letter that was circulated recently from a parent in France, and 2 documentaries (in French):

Q: Do you have an idea of the number of BCBAs in Europe and the distribution across countries?

A: That’s an easy one. I checked with Neil Martin, who is also the International Representative of the Behavior Analyst Certification Board. He gave me this up-to-date table that includes BCaBAs.

Q: Do you have information about access to early intensive behavioural intervention in Europe or specific European countries and how it is funded?

A: As far as I know, the only place you can get funding is in Norway. This article gives you some information about how things are in the UK, Italy, and Germany: “Science for sale in a free market economy: But at what Price? ABA and the treatment of autism in Europe7.” (

Q: What does the ABA community of parents and professionals need to succeed in making sure that every child with autism has access to high quality behavioural treatment irrespective of parent ability to pay?

A: That’s an interesting question. Personally, my goal has been to work in partnership with parents, giving them skills to empower them and their children. Parents could help professionals by recognizing how important it is for them to have good teaching material showing ABA at work. I would urge parents to give permission to create video material of kids learning. This is so important for helping other parents understand the complexities of designing programmes that are tailored to individual needs. Regarding professionals, I have so much appreciation for those heroes of ABA (you know who you are!!) who have had to fight tooth and claw to bring our science to the dominant position is has achieved, at least in the U.S. That said, I also know there are professionals who see opportunities for making money. That pisses me off, big time! Organisations have come over to Ireland to run short courses in ABA and have charged fees that can only be described as extortionate! They take the money and run, with no concern about maintaining the education of those who took their short courses, or no desire to find out how they could help people in the country that lined their pockets. That’s unacceptable by any standards, as we discuss in the article mentioned above.

Q: What help/information is needed from your standpoint? Is there anything that we in the international community of parents and professionals who engage in science-based treatment can do to help in your goals?

A: First and foremost, I would love to see a dedicated movie that is not branded by any commercial organization to promote their own version of ABA, or which can’t be misconstrued as promoting a particular version of a technique that was developed from the basic science. In Europe, if you can get it, ABA is generally viewed as being only for rich parents. That image needs to change. In fact, all the bad images of ABA need to inform this movie and it needs to focus on a soft sell of a hard science. Further, I would like to see the development of a database of video clips showing examples of best practice. This would surely help all professionals who need material for their teaching.

Parents need to lobby more for the future of their children, to pave the way for the professionals who work so hard to help them. I have seen so many parents use the help offered to them but have given nothing back in return. They have no idea of the struggle to provide services for them and feel no allegiance to anything other than their own child; understandable, of course, but nothing wrong with trying to persuade them to develop a community spirit for the benefit of others.

Dr. Keenan, it has been a great pleasure to interview you and learn more about your prolific career. Congratulations on all that you have done to promote behaviour analysis and make information about behaviour analysis and autism treatment get to where it really needs to in order to increase its reach and impact.


1. Keenan, M. (1999). Periodic response-reinforcer contiguity: Temporal control but not as we know it! The Psychological Record, 49, 273-297.

2. Keenan, M., Kerr, K.J., & Dillenburger, K. (2000). Applied Behaviour Analysis in Context. Lon-don: Jessica Kingsley Publishers.

3. Keenan, M. (2003). (Printed) words alone! European Journal of Behaviour Analysis, 4, 70-75.

4. Skinner, B. F. (1953). Science and Human Behavior. New York: Macmillan.

5. Watt, A. A., Keenan, M., Barnes, D., & Cairns, E. (1991). Social categorisation and stimulus equivalence. The Psychological Record, 41, 33-50.

6. Martin, N. (2010). Behaviour Analysis in the UK. ABPA Reporter, Association for Professional Behavior Analysts, 19, updated July 2011.

7. Keenan, M., Dillenburger, K., Moderato, P., & Röttgers, H-R. (2010). Science for sale in a free market economy: But at what Price? ABA and the treatment of autism in Europe. Behavior and Social Issues, 19, 126-143.

Citation for this article:

Fazzio, D. (2014). International interview: With Professor Mickey Keenan, University of Ulster, Northern Ireland, Science in Autism Treatment, 11(2), 11-16.

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