Autism, ABA, and the Four Functions of Behavior

by | Oct 29, 2021 | ABA Therapy, Autism

It is sometimes difficult to understand why a child with autism behaves in certain ways.  Understanding the four functions of behavior can help ABA therapists and parents understand why a child may be behaving in a certain way and help the therapists determine how to best address the behavior.  Knowing this may allow you to communicate with your child better.

What are the four functions of behavior, and how do they determine the type of ABA therapy we apply? The following blog post offers some insight into this subject. #ASD #behavior #ABAtherapy Click To Tweet

Four Functions of Behavior 

The four functions of behavior are (1) Tangibles; (2) Attention; (3) Escape or Avoidance; or (4) Sensory.  

Tangibles:  Tangibles are items or activities, which may include toys, food, electronics, or anything that the child likes.  We can all recall times that we have seen a child crying or having a tantrum at the store when their parents denied them access to candy or a toy. 

Attention:  Children with autism may engage in behaviors to get attention, whether it’s positive or negative attention.  A child may engage in unruly behavior just to get attention from a parent or teacher.  Similarly, a child may engage in reckless or silly behaviors if they will get someone’s attention.  

Escape:  The purpose of escape is for the child to end or avoid something they do not like.

Sensory:  A child will engage in a sensory behavior because it feels good or to relieve something that feels bad.  Children with autism may have sensitivities to certain sounds, textures of foods, and even the feeling of specific fabrics.  Children with autism may play with toys in different ways, such as turning a toy truck on its side to watch the wheels spin instead of rolling the truck on its wheels.  The child enjoys watching the spinning of the wheels so this is a sensory behavior.  

Big Box Store Example

The following are examples of real situations in which it was important to identify the function of the behavior in order to determine how best to address it.  The first is of a child who would scream every time he walked into the big box store.  He also refused to go into the restroom at that store.  

After analyzing the behaviors, it was determined that the screaming was a sensory behavior because he loved to hear the echo of his voice in the entrance to the store where the grocery carts were stored.  Encouraging the child to walk into the store quietly with a reward given for successes helped to address the behavior.

The child avoided the restrooms because he did not like to hear the roaring sound of the toilets flushing.  This was an avoidance behavior due to a sensory issue.  Once this was determined to be the function of the behavior, therapists were able to develop a program to help desensitize him to the sound of the toilets, and eventually, he was able to go into the restroom with no issues.  

School Behaviors

A final example was that at school when given an assignment, the child would throw the pencil.  As we might expect, the teacher would tell the child to get up and retrieve the pencil and go back to work.  However, in this specific situation, the child threw the pencil because he was able to escape doing the work while he was retrieving the pencil.  He also liked the attention from the teacher, even though it was negative attention.  

Once the functions of the behavior were understood, the teacher was advised not to tell the student to retrieve the pencil but instead to quietly slip another pencil onto the table next to the student every time he threw a pencil.  It took a few pencils for him to understand that he was not going to get the attention he was seeking or be able to escape the task, but eventually, he quit throwing pencils and focused on his work. 

Let Us Help You Understand Your Child’s Behavior

ABA Therapists can help children with autism by understanding the functions of their behaviors.  Please contact us for more information about how ABA can help your child!

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