Autism and Behavior Change

Let’s face it, coping with a child who has a disability can be very difficult; especially when they display challenging behaviors. It becomes even more difficult if your child is non-verbal, minimally verbal, or experiences other communication challenges. Challenging behavior can involve anything from physical aggression and property destruction to pica (putting inedible items in the mouth) and self stimulatory or repetitive behaviors and anything in between. If the behavior has a negative impact on your child or your family, I think we would all classify it as a challenging or interfering behavior. It’s important to keep in mind that while our children with communication deficits exhibit challenging behaviors, these behaviors do have a function, and there could be a number of reasons why they occur. Information processing difficulties, unstructured time, oversensitivity (hyper) or undersensitivity (hypo) of some environmental or internal event, changes in routines, and feeling unwell, tired or hungry are just a few examples of why challenging behaviors may occur.

When thinking about challenging behaviors, it’s helpful to think about human behavior in general. Behavior can be biologically driven (we put on a sweater when we’re cold) or reflexively driven (we close our eyes if a light is too bright). So, behaviors generally occur because they serve an important function or produce a specific outcome. When challenging behaviors occur, we have to keep in mind that it’s a form of communication. The critical part of addressing such behaviors lies in trying to understand the purpose or function of the behavior. Our behavior is shaped by our environment, specifically what happens directly prior to (antecedent conditions) the behavior and directly after (consequent conditions) the behavior.

As a result of these behaviors being “learned” behaviors, we often see dramatic improvements in behavior by changing the situations and environment surrounding the behavior, or as stated above, the events that come before and after the problem behavior occurs. Gathering this information will assist us in starting to understand why the challenging behavior is occurring. This is part of what is called a functional behavior assessment, and there are many ways to go about collecting such information. This is always the first step in determining how to teach replacement skills that are functional for the child experiencing challenges.

For more detailed information on functional behavior assessments, the National Professional Development Center on Autism Spectrum Disorders offers the following links:

Steps of a Functional Assessment

Functional Assessment Checklist

Challenging behaviors in children (and adults) with autism typically serve one of the following functions; To obtain a tangible desired object or outcome; To escape a difficult or unpleasant task or situation; To gain the attention of others (either positive or negative attention); To try to regulate or calm oneself through self-stimulatory behaviors; And in an attempt to respond to pain or illness. Once the functional behavioral assessment has been completed, the information gained will point us in the right direction regarding the development of a behavior intervention plan (BIP). The BIP is a concrete plan of action regarding what exactly will be implemented to manage the challenging behavior.

Such a plan will typically consist of the following components: A description/definition of the challenging behavior being targeted, information regarding the function of the target behavior from the functional behavior assessment, a list of interventions previously tried (and how well they worked or did not work in modifying the behavior), a description of the “new” behavior that will be taught to the student that serves the same purpose (replacement behavior), proactive strategies that will be put into place to prevent the target behavior from occurring, other specific interventions that will currently be utilized (including people responsible for implementation), what will take place if the target behavior occurs (reactive strategies), how data will be collected to track behavior change, and information on how often the plan will be reviewed to determine effectiveness.

For more detailed information on behavior intervention plans, check out this link to a great PowerPoint presentation on BIPs created by Sonja R. de Boer, Ph.D., BCBA and shared by Autism Speaks:

Behavior Intervention Plans

I’d like to conclude this post by sharing a quote by Temple Grandin, Ph.D., an adult with autism, “Special educators [and parents] need to look at what a child can do instead of what he/she cannot do. There needs to be more emphasis on building up and expanding the skills a child is good at. Too often people get locked into a label such as dyslexia, ADHD, or autism, and they cannot see beyond the label. Kids that get a label often have uneven skills. They may be talented in one area and have a real deficiency in another. It is important to work on areas where a child is weak, but an emphasis on deficits should not get to the point where building the area of strength gets neglected.”

My next post will focus on the use of positive reinforcement and positive behavior supports to decrease challenging behaviors and increase functional communicative behaviors!

By letstalkautism

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