Autistic people and other people with cognitive disabilities are often interpreted as doing things for attention, whether or not that explanation is plausible.
- Alice is autistic. She flaps her hands.
- Hand flapping is part of Alice’s body language. She moves her hands to express a large range of thoughts and feelings, just like some people move their facial muscles to express a broad range of thoughts and feelings
- Alice also sometimes flaps her hands to calm down when she is overloaded
- Bernice is a behaviorist. She is distressed about the fact that Alice flaps her hands.
- Whenever Alice flaps her hands, Bernice stares at her, and pays intense attention to the fact that she is flapping her hands
- Bernice notices that every time Alice flaps her hands, Bernice pays attention to her
- Bernice concludes that her attention is reinforcing Alice’s flapping behavior
- Bernice concludes that Alice’s hand flapping is an attention-seeking behavior
- Bernice puts Alice on a behavior plan based on ignoring her whenever she flaps her hands
Behaviorists and others make this mistake a lot. They very, very frequently assume that the fact that they are paying attention to something means that it is being done to get their attention. It doesn’t. It just means they’re paying attention.
Starting at someone whenever they do something doesn’t mean that they’re doing it because they like being stared at. It just means that you’re staring at them.
Short version: Stop calling everything attention seeking behavior. The fact that you’re paying attention to something doesn’t mean that someone is doing it because they want your attention. Not everything a person who has a developmental disability does is about you.