Prosthetic Environments: Optimizing the Talent Around Us

ADI’s mission has and will always be to help people and organizations apply the scientifically-proven laws of human behavior to optimize performance. We are excited to announce the launch of The Aubrey Daniels Institute, coming in early 2013. This site will be a depository of information, research, examples, and resources dedicated to promoting and advancing the understanding of the science of behavior analysis and its workplace application. The following guest post is written by Dr. Andy Lattal. Among his extraordinary accomplishments in the academic world, Andy is the Senior Research Scientist for the Institute. We are honored to be working with him on this endeavor and are excited for what he is helping us bring to fulfilling this mission.

A recent NY Times article entitled The Autism Advantage outlined what I thought was an incredibly ingenious entrepreneurial idea of a Norwegian father of a 16 year old adolescent with autism. Based on his observations of his son and others like him, he concluded that many such individuals might be well suited for repetitive tasks requiring great concentration and attention to detail. Not all such individuals, of course, are so suited and many could benefit from a shaping model that might help them acquire workplace skills beyond what the stereotypes of autism imply about capability. 

However for many adults, starting with their current strengths offers opportunities for the person and the companies.  As with this young man his ability to concentrate and focus on detail for long periods is an asset for many manufacturing companies and of course it requires no adjustment for such employees. This father has started a successful international company that trains and places these individuals with companies having needs for attentional focus and concentration that characterizes many such individuals diagnosed with autism. His idea is clever to me because he isn’t really trying to train his employees to be different from what they are, but rather is taking advantage of how they are. In other words, he is finding environments into which he can optimize skills that come “naturally” to people with autism spectrum disorders, or put differently, uncovering talent that already exists around us and leveraging it in ways that are beneficial for both the individual and for the organization.

The general principle here has been familiar to behavior analysts since the early 1960s, when Ogden Lindsay wrote about what he called “prosthetic environments.” You have someone with skill deficits that seem impossible to eliminate, then instead of trying to change the person, change the environment to accommodate those deficits. We can’t often make blind people see, but we can create (prosthetic) environments in which they can function more or less as the rest of us with vision do. That was his idea. The father’s idea is a brilliant application of Lindsay’s conceptualization of helping people.  Instead of trying to eliminate things that are, at best, difficult to eliminate, place the person in an environment where those skills are not only useful, but highly valued. In my own world of academia, when we would hire people as professors I would often hear my colleagues talk about how someone wasn’t a great fit for what we wanted in the position, but they were certain that we could shape them into exactly what we had in mind. Sometimes this is possible, but as a general principle, I am skeptical.  I always argued it was easier to find someone whose skills fit what we wanted than to hire someone without those skills and try to encourage or otherwise cajole them into developing into what we wanted. It holds as true for business as does for academia or for the innovative company introduced with this essay. One can rarely find exact fits.

Hiring people who are not exact fits has the advantage of bringing other skills to bear and there is much to be said for that. But with a little poetic license here, I would propose that it is easier and often leads to better outcomes when people are closer rather than more distant approximations to what we are looking for. Letting the environment capitalize on the best in people seems better than trying to change a person into something they are not and may not ever be able to be.

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Posted by Aubrey Daniels, Ph.D.

Aubrey is a thought leader and expert on management, leadership, safety and workplace issues. For the past 40 years, he has been dedicated to helping people and organizations apply the laws of human behavior to optimize performance.