Maria’s Table

In Rollins’ Department of Psychology, a behaviorist has spent a career gathering hard data. She’s also gathered a cadre of students who have become leading professionals in the field.

Maria Ruiz (Photo by Scott Cook) Maria Ruiz (Photo by Scott Cook)

Every year—in a restaurant in San Antonio or San Juan or Paris or Denver or wherever the Association for Behavior Analysis happens to be holding a convention—a group meets for dinner. It’s an unofficial gathering of researchers, university professors, clinical psychologists, theorists, and therapists, and though all of them have undergraduate psychology degrees from Rollins, this is more than the informal alumni function it seems to be. This meeting is known, unofficially, as “Maria’s table,” and all of these psychology professionals are here and, perhaps, all are psychology professionals in the first place because of one Rollins educator, Maria Ruiz.

Ruiz came to Rollins in 1980, a PhD candidate arriving, as she tells it, “as an ABD—all but dissertation,” from the University of Florida. She was (and remains) a behaviorist, following the work of the occasionally controversial Harvard psychologist B.F. Skinner, and she believed strongly in his data-driven approach to understanding the human condition. At Rollins, she would be the first behaviorist, and the first woman, in the Department of Psychology.

“Behavior analysis has a long history,” says Michelle Ennis Soreth ’01, a former student of Ruiz and now a professor herself. “As early as the 1960s, the principles identified in the laboratory were found to be particularly successful for some of the most severe behavior of the developmentally disabled and mentally ill—conditions few other professionals at the time were willing or able to address.”

In Florida in the 1980s, those conditions desperately needed addressing. The state was closing down Sunland Hospital, a chain of government-run mental health facilities, in a move to deinstitutionalize mental health care. Ruiz had seen those facilities first-hand as a master’s student.

“There was very little active treatment,” she recalls. “This was a place where people were just locked away.”

She’d worked there with patients who engaged in self-harm, applying what she’d learned to patients in hour-point restraints. Though her conditioning allowed some to go without protective helmets and padded gloves, when the experiment was over, the patients would go back to their destructive behaviors. In the absence of Ruiz’s therapeutic reinforcement, they turned again to the reinforcement of their restraints.

There had to be a better way. At Rollins, she was allowed to put one-third of her work toward her dissertation. She began collecting data at Threshold, a local residential center for people with autism, many of whom had been patients at the Sunland institution.

“I was focusing on stimulus control,” she says. “Autistic people tend to see little details, not the whole. They’ll focus on a dot on my face, rather than see the expression I’m making.”

By controlling the environment, offering schedules of reinforcement, and collecting lots and lots of data, she showed that Skinner’s methods—behavioral analysis—could help autistic patients “become what they could be.” That data-driven realization led her to a lifetime of helping people with autism, but the other two-thirds of her time—time spent teaching—led her to perhaps an even greater legacy.

Psychology has a reputation as a soft science, but that’s a notion that Ruiz is quick to dispel. “If you are not collecting data,” she says, pounding her fist emphatically if quietly on the tabletop, “you are not doing behavioral analysis.”

“I arrived at Rollins as a biology major and was passionately dedicated to the natural sciences,” Soreth recalls. “Much of psychology seemed like a bunch of elegant musings about mental processes that were impossible to observe, and to me, it certainly wasn’t science. When Maria introduced me to behavior analysis, I was immediately attracted to the idea that psychology could be both coherent philosophy and rigorous science.”

At Rollins, the rat lab is one of the first things psychology students encounter. “We taught the rats new behavior, ran experiments in the Skinner boxes, and graphed our findings—I was really drawn to the whole process,” Soreth says. “I thought, ‘This is science. These are real data!’”

Aside from hammering the rigors—and the quantifiable results—of the behaviorist approact, Ruiz spent a lot of time making sure her students understood its philosophical underpinnings. This “radical behaviorism”—another coinage of Skinner—means that lessons learned in the lab apply to all aspects of human behavior. It’s not just about how rats learn or how people with disabilities overcome their handicaps; it’s about how humans live their daily lives.

“Every department of psychology should include a faculty member who is a behavior analyst, who specializes in the science of learning and behavior,” notes Chata Dickson ’94, assistant director of research at The New England Center for Children. “I was incredibly lucky to end up in a department with a solid behavior analytic program. And when it comes to daily life, behavioral analysis is a more useful perspective.”

“‘What is knowledge, what is a value, how does behavior give rise to culture?’ Those were questions we learned to ask,” says Cristina Whitehouse ’95, who recently returned to Rollins as an instructor. “[Maria] shaped my worldview and my thoughts about the role of science, philosophy, and women’s studies.”

Kimberly Nix Berens ’96, founder of the behavioral analysis-based Fit Learning, recalls long talks over sandwiches eaten every Friday in Ruiz’s office. “It’s easy to think about what you know and about what you don’t know,” she says. “Maria deals with ‘You don’t know what you don’t know,’ and that’s a whole different realm. It’s like walking around thinking your favorite ice cream is vanilla, and then you discover chocolate. It’s like, holy crap, now there’s chocolate, and the whole world shifts on its axis.”

Maria Ruiz (Photo by Scott Cook) Maria Ruiz (Photo by Scott Cook)

Ruiz gives much credit to Rollins for showing her how to challenge students.

“Teaching at a place where students are liberally educated is fantastic,” she says. “The ethos of a liberal education is an advantage; there’s a huge expansion of thinking.”

Liberal arts students bring a broader background and a richer knowledge of the human experience to their education.

“To teach them behavior analysis, we have to teach them a technical way of talking,” Ruiz notes, “but that doesn’t mean we only want to talk to ourselves.”

Ruiz has never been shy about singling out students—often during a class session—because they showed extraordinary interest or unusual aptitude. Such an altar call typically leads to an after-class conference and then weekly meetings, extra reading, and long discussions over lunch.

“We were Maria’s golden children,” Berens says. “In her, we had a graduate-level mentor as undergrads. She trained us how to think and how to write. Most of her golden children have a big impact in the field of behavior analysis and are making a huge impact on their own students now.”

Christeine Terry ’01, a clinical psychologist in private practice, was another of those golden children. “It’s hard for me to put language around how influential she is to my life,” Terry says. “She listened to all my half-baked ideas—things I had trouble putting language to—and she gave me the ability to communicate.”

Soreth echoes that sentiment. “My understanding of how the world works was laid out and solidified at Rollins. Ideally, that’s what’s supposed to happen in college, and thanks to Maria, my worldview was certainly established during that time.”

Even with all this education going on, Ruiz finds time for thinking, researching, publishing, and—critically—applying her research to the real world. Within the academy, she’s become widely respected for her writings on psychology as viewed through a postmodern feminist lens.

“Her theoretical work is very thought-provoking,” Berens says. “She makes the field think about things in a different way.”

And Ruiz’s work with people with disabilities continues as well. She is the clinical director and owner of Behavioral Associates of Central Florida, an agency that provides services to 180 clients with autism, both in-home and on-site.

“Autistic children have excessive barriers,” Ruiz says. “We have to reduce those to make room for learning.”

Behavioral Associates focuses on early intervention, utilizing stimulus control in ways very similar to Ruiz’s 1980 dissertation work.

“The difference,” Ruiz says, “is we know what works now.” There’s also a focus on functional analysis. “We ask, ‘What are the functions of these problem behaviors?’ An autistic child may have the same response for a variety of stimuli, and we have to analyze the context. A behavior performed by a freezer containing ice cream serves a different function than the same behavior performed next to the bathtub when he doesn’t want to take a bath.

“The beauty of applied behavior analysis is the data,” Ruiz reminds me, pounding the table gently again. “We can see progress; we know that things are working.”

That data is shown to caregivers once a month, with a detailed developmental assessment every three months.

To service all those clients, and to collect and analyze all that data, Behavioral Associates turns to a nearby source of talent. At any given time, six to eight Rollins students work 20-30 hours a week in the field. Some get internship credits, and some are simply looking for outside work and are thrilled to get experience in their chosen field.

These students have earned accreditation through a 20-hour course taught at Behavioral Associates, part of a new national certification program in applied behavioral analytics. Those certifications become more and more advanced, right up through a certified doctoral program.

Rollins’ Hamilton Holt School is helping to educate some of those professionals through a new master’s degree in Applied Behavior Analysis and Clinical Science. Ruiz was instrumental in getting the program started, contributing to the development of the initial curriculum and lending plenty of advice.

“Maria has a steadfast determination to make sure things happen the right way,” says David C.S. Richard, dean of the Hamilton Holt School and a clinical psychologist who is a longtime colleague of Ruiz. “Maria is special in a number of ways. She has formed very strong relationships with her students and trained scores and scores of students who went on to get master’s and PhDs. And she’s helped hundreds of children in Central Florida. Her influence will be felt for generations to come.”

“Although we were not all attending Rollins at the same time, we have engaging conversation at those conference dinners and feel a real closeness to each other,” Soreth says. “We found a unity after meeting through Maria. She’s the glue. You can see it in the way we think, the way we go about scholarship, the deep concern we all have for issues of social justice, and our dedication to improving the lives of others through the science of behavior analysis.”

Soon, one suspects, they’re going to need a bigger table.

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Maria’s Golden Children

Maria Ruiz has taught hundreds of Rollins student in behavioral analysis. Many have gone on to careers in psychology.

Kimberly Nix Berens ’96 received a PhD in behavioral science from University of Nevada Reno, where she started a learning lab utilizing applied behavior analysis for children with mainstream learning difficulties in a broom closet. (“Literally. It was a converted janitor’s closet.”) The success of that program led her to found Fit Learning with three partners, among them her husband, Nick, also a Rollins psychology graduate.

Chata Dickson ’94 is assistant director of research for the Autism Curriculum Encyclopedia at The New England Center for Children (NECC), a 40-year-old school for children with autism with campuses in Boston and Abu Dhabi. Dickson is part of a team at NECC that has developed the Autism Curriculum Encyclopedia, a set of online tools being used in schools around the world to help students develop critical skills to maximize independence and community inclusion.

Michelle Ennis Soreth ’01 has been on the psychology faculty at Rowan University in New Jersey for the past 10 years. She was instrumental in establishing Rowan’s master’s degree program in applied behavior analysis as well as the new PhD program in clinical health psychology, in which students may specialize in behavior analysis with Soreth and her colleagues.

Christeine Terry ’01 received a PhD from the University of Washington Seattle in clinical psychology, where she studied under Robert Kohlenberg, the creator of functional analytic psychotherapy. Now in private practice, she specializes in substance use disorders in one-on-one therapy and is involved in consultation and teaching.

Cristina Whitehouse ’95 recently completed a postdoctoral program in psychiatry at the University of Florida “in a neuroscience laboratory applying basic operant methods to investigate the neurobiological mechanisms that mediate the development and expression of higher-order repetitive behavior.” She is now a clinical director of Florida Autism Center, a center-based provider, and part of the adjunct faculty program for the master’s degree in applied behavior analysis and clinical science at Rollins—where she taught the very first class session of the inaugural class, in the same building where she sat for classes with Ruiz.