HOW TO: Reinforce desired behavior in children with autism (part 1)

Studies have shown that positive reinforcement is as effective, if not more effective, than punishment. When using punishment, you run the risk of accidentally encouraging problem behavior and damaging the parent/caregiver and child relationship. Reinforcement is a beneficial alternative. Reinforcement, as we’ll refer to it here, is defined as an action one takes to increase…

Why is my child displaying challenging behavior and how can this be stopped?

Is your child with autism having tantrums in public? Perhaps you’re struggling with her/his aggressive or self-injurious behavior. What’s reassuring is that problem behavior is not a symptom of autism. Rather, challenging behaviors are learned, and through effective intervention, they can be unlearned and replaced with socially acceptable behavior.

Why is my child with autism exhibiting problem behavior?

The first step in reducing a problem behavior is gaining understanding of why that behavior is occurring. What is the child getting out of the behavior? Once that is determined, then your clinical team of ABA experts can develop measures to replace problem behavior with one that is socially acceptable.

Common reasons why problem behaviors happen

When referring to problem behaviors, you’ll often hear ABA experts refer to functions of behavior. Simply, a function of behavior is the reason the behavior is happening, or the purpose of the behavior.

Here are the most common functions of behavior:

  • Attention Very often a child with (or without) autism will exhibit problem behavior to gain attention from a parent, caregiver or peer. Attention can be positive, like praise, or negative, like a reprimand. For example, a child trying to gain his parent’s attention may hit a sibling resulting in that parent yelling at the aggressor. This behavior resulted in the child getting the attention she or he initially wanted.
  • Access to a toy, food or favorite activity A problem behavior may arise because the child wants access to, or to keep, what is sometimes called a tangible (a preferred toy, or food for example.) Often, a child communicates this desire through a problematic behavior. For example, if the child is nonverbal and cannot ask for a snack, she or he may have a tantrum. A way to reduce this behavior is to not respond to the behavior by providing the desired tangible. Rather, the child can be taught how to sign or ask for the item.
  • Escape or avoidance – A child may want to avoid a particular non-preferred task. If the child is allowed to escape or avoid this task, then the behavior becomes reinforced. For example, if the child does not want to eat dinner and is allowed to get up before she or he finishes, then the behavior is reinforced and strengthened. So therefore, in the future, if child doesn’t want to eat any dinner, he/she will be more likely to get up from the table before he/she finishes.
  • Stimming or self-stimulating behavior – A child with autism may engage in a self-stimulating activity as that activity may evoke a sensation that feels good, or comfortable, for the child. For example, a child may flap his or her hands in front of their eyes, as this would feel good to the child thus reinforcing the behavior.

How do I know the function of my child’s problem behavior?

Your clinical ABA team will run a variety of assessments to make that determination. However, you can ask yourself a few questions to gain valuable understanding into your child’s behavior.

Here are a few of the questions you can ask yourself:

  • Is the behavior common or reoccurring?
  • Is there a medical or physical reason for the behavior (stress, illness, exhaustion, etc.)?
  • What is the child trying to gain?
  • What is the child trying to tell me?

Autism Speaks created a list of additional questions that may help you determine the function of your child’s problem behavior.

What are your child’s most challenging behaviors? Have you noticed any patterns? Share your stories in the comment section below.

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