An Open Letter to Behavior Analysis

Dear Behavior Analysis,

This may be the scariest things I have done within my career as a BCBA-D. However, at this point in my personal and professionally life, it is absolutely necessary if I am to continue our marriage. This letter was born from an email soliciting my experience as former ABAI Executive Council Student Representative. The sentiment has weighed heavy on my mind for years, each time I pay the exorbitant monthly due for my student loans and as the ABAI Annual Conference approaches, which I have not attended in multiple years.

As I ponder whether or not to rediscover my place within the field, it wasn’t until a good friend, Dr. Ellie Kazemi, pointed out why I feel divorced from Behavior Analysis, yet currently only separated. Her words sparked the self-reflection needed to write this letter. I must set the stage in order for it to make any sense.

In a phone conversation with Dr. Paul “Paulie Gloves” Govani, who is doing awesome work outside and utilizing the science outside of the typical framework, he asked the important question, “What got you into Behavior Analysis?” I answered with full honesty, as I will share now. I grew up in the Los Angeles area and when the crack cocaine epidemic hit in the early 90’s, it grabbed a hold of my Father like a tornado sweeping through the Midwest. It destroyed everything in sight. My Mother had the unfortunate burden of having to share exactly what was going on because she could no longer create imaginary excuses of why Dad was gone for three or four days at a time, why Christmas gifts came up missing, or why we had to visit him behind plexiglass in county jail. I was informed of his addiction at the age of ten.

Once all was revealed, my Dad no longer left home to use. Instead, he used in the home resulting in paranoid behavior such as hiding behind the living room curtains with a large butcher knife, peering out the window at the shadows that did not exist. My sister and I had to stomp around the house to let our presence be known in fear of becoming victim to a fatal stab wound. As you can imagine, these situations and environments got worse and I was placed in situations I can only describe as sketch, for the remainder of my childhood. It forced me to be hyper-aware of my environment, knowing where the exit was placed, who were the unsavory characters, where my help may reside, and ready to fight at the drop of a hat. Observation of human beings became a survival tool. I had to become a quick judge of function of behavior, antecedent stimuli, and assumption of motivating operations of others. I did not know it but I was being groomed to be a Behavior Analyst in those very moments. This shaped my behavior, transferring my multiply maintained function to one of automatic reinforcement. I came to enjoy people watching. This, combined with being an athlete all my life, the only environment I could find solace, I was surrounded by the necessity to understand behavior.

Fast forward to college and a gruesome football injury, I found myself searching for a career outside of athletics, the only arena I knew for success and enjoyment. In a conversation with my favorite undergrad professor, I was told of this thing called Behavior Analysis and it simply made sense. I could finally learn the science behind why people do the things they do. The result; graduate school, ABAI Executive Council Student Representative, publication in JABA on The Effects of Verbal Instruction and Shaping to Improve Tackling by High School Football Players (I have been a high school football coach for over a decade now and use the science every day with my athletes), joining of the Health, Sports, and Fitness SIG, presentations at ABAI, CalABA, and Fresno State. Yet, it was short lived. Back to Dr. Kazemi’s commentary mentioned at the onset of this letter.

As ABAI Executive Council Student Representative, my friend and then graduate school Department Chair, Dr. Rachel Taylor, whom first suggested and supported my run for the position, instructed me to sit back and observe. I was to keep quiet and take in this opportunity that would last 4 years and wait my turn to speak up. If you know me, this is hard as hell to do. I am quiet for no one but I heeded the advice of Dr. Taylor. I was in for the shock of a lifetime, professionally.

I sat with the likes of Ray Miltenberger, Bill Heward, Timothy Vollmer, SungWoo Kahng, Travis Thompson, Janet Twyman, Mike Perone, Dick Mallott, Kurt Salzinger, Martha Hubner, Linda Parrott Hayes, Pat Friman, and of course, the engine that drives it all, Maria Mallott (please forgive me if I forgot to mention any other names, it was a long four years). These are the scientists whose work I read diligently all throughout graduate training. My shock was not one of an awestruck child who saw his favorite professional athlete, but rather the cringeworthy response of what was unfolding in front of my eyes.

I came into the council at the time of “The Alamo.” If you don’t know youngsters, you better ask somebody. Conflict riddled our field from within and it looked and felt as though we were ready for a civil war. I watched as Ray Miltenberger, in the Alamo, launched himself gracefully, with honor and humility on the sword of ABAI to appease the practitioners of Behavior Analysis to no avail. It felt as though people were calling for his head and the head of all that sat at the top of the organization. I observed the following year when Pat Friman resigned (abruptly only to those who knew not what was going on) for reasons I dubbed as to simply keep his sanity. Everything was falling apart. I felt like a young child watching as his parents were headed for divorce, confused and feeling unworthy.

I then looked around and realized I was alone, at least it felt that way. Professionally, 90% (if I had to put a number to my feeling) of all Behavior Analysts were either in academia or practicing in the world of Autism, developmental disability, intellectual disability, or traumatic brain injury (don’t crucify me if the terms have changed with the times and I am unaware). I wanted nothing to do with any of these niches. I was an athlete, a sports coach, a fitness junky, and loved to write with a flare not becoming of a scientist.

Yes, I got to see a talk by Garry Martin. Yes, I met wonderful people like Laraine Winston and Theresa McKeon, who both run successful businesses and utilize Behavior Analysis in a manner which was intriguing based on my history of reinforcement. I shared lengthy conversations with Bill Heward about baseball, the Negro Leagues, and “The” Ohio State football team. These were great conversations but not enough replication of results for a particular model I could follow in my passion outside of our current niche. Thus, I was left to be an entrepreneur and guess what? I didn’t go to school and spend hundreds of thousand of dollars for that path. I didn’t learn that skill set. This had led to a longer professional struggle than was ever expected after I received the title of Ph.D.

Furthermore, when I attended the conference, it felt as though nothing was meant for my path. There were little to no symposiums on anything of interest, for me. I didn’t hear anyone talking about the environments where I wanted to apply our beautiful science. In addition, if you didn’t speak in technical language like a robot, you felt less than. I know the science well. I know the technical jargon like the back of my hand. But I am also a person. I enjoy simply talking, using colloquialisms, and not concerning myself with technicalities outside of an academic, professional, or experimental setting. I want to shoot the shit at the bar. If that ends up being a debate of theory and philosophy, then so be it. If not, please do not scrutinize any mentalistic viewpoint that comes out of my mouth while we are attempting to be friends.

The three talks I remember most were from Scott Geller, Pat Friman and Criss Wilhite. Scott was amazing and changed my title from Behavior Analyst to Behavior Scientist, allowing me to explain what it is I do to the general public in a more concise and inferred manner. Pat was remembered not for his content but for his charismatic presentation and personality we have all grown accustomed to admiring. Criss’ talk dealt with the history of the court jester, traveling to the modern-day comedian and their place in history from a behavioral perspective. No offense to anyone, but nothing else stands out. Still, my separation from the field goes deeper than that.

As I walked around the conference, attended grad school, worked in the world of Autism, and taught graduate school for the past decade, something glaringly obvious bothered me. No one looked like me, walked like me, or talked like me. As a Black male, bald head, athletic build, fully and visibly tattooed, I felt alone. I came from a place very few knew or ever experienced. I may be wrong but my feeling was undeniable. I remember after walking across the stage, receiving my award for service in the ABAI Executive Council, I was greeted by a young Black man outside of the conference hall doors. He smiled graciously and simply stated, “It felt really good to see you up there. To see another Black man in this field doing big things. It made me proud and excited. I was like, ‘It’s one of us, yes!’” This comment, though flattering, broke my heart. More of the same shit I knew growing up, just a different location and time.

I know what you may be thinking. Yes, I am responsible for the falling out of our marriage as well. I did not blaze a trail and open my mouth to the distain I was tasting. I presented my work only a few times and put an end to my research and dissemination. I stopped attending conferences. I did not reach out to anyone and ask for help (Well, once, to Maria and Martha but never got a response, further fueling the flames of betrayal). I simply shut down and ran away. I did not communicate my needs, desires, or troubles. I spent most of my time at the conferences, engaged in the social activities, drinking, and trying to ensure no one saw who I went back to my room with that night because our field was so small and word travels fast. I disappeared. I did not do my part, at all! However, I am trying today and as they say, “Better late than never,” right?!

This letter is not a means of pointing fingers. It is a letter to my love, in hopes of reconciliation as I have been out in the cold long enough. I want to come home. I love my science. I believe we have so much potential to change the world, especially with the times we live in today. We can be effective behavior change agents in any industry. It is all behavior, right? Can it pass the Dead Man’s test? Then why do we limit ourselves? I know we do great things within our niche. I know there are many individuals within those demographics who benefit greatly from our science and application of the science. I also know, we won’t ever have enough Behavior Scientists to help everyone unless we approach training and dissemination in a different manner, one on a mass consumption scale. I know many students and colleagues who all have passions outside of said niche and would love to apply the science in those arenas but understand there is no steady paycheck as the entrepreneur and are afraid, as was I, because we lack models outside of our niche.

I may be too late. The field may have already addressed these issues I laid out or may be currently working on them. It may no longer care for me the way I care for it. Maria Mallott once made me blush by saying she looks forward to seeing me as President of ABAI one day. Though that is a compliment I will cherish, at the moment, I just want to date my field again. I want to spend time with my field and rekindle the lust and intense love I once felt. This time though, it will be on different terms. I will not conform to be something I am not. I also will not ask you to change but rather share more of myself in hopes we can blossom together, as separate wholes, in one direction.

Awkwardly, I won’t be going to ABAI next week, for it is too expensive for me to afford at this time, especially so close to opening ceremonies. It is also probably a good thing. The response to this letter, my love, will let me know if it is time for me to move on or if we have one last shot at this marriage. I look forward to what comes next. If we are to move as one, I am excited at the possibilities and ready to work for it. If I am too late, I wish you nothing but the best and hope for great things in your future and will walk away, with no regrets, having expressed my sorrows and love.

From the bottom of my heart, with love.


Dr. Antonio M. Harrison, BCBA-D