Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA) is all about reinforcing desired behavior, and not reinforcing undesired behavior. If your child is engaging in problem behavior (hitting, biting, screaming, self-injury, running away, throwing items, etc.) then there is something that is reinforcing that behavior. An ABA practitioner’s job is to help parents, caregivers, and teachers figure out what is reinforcing for your child’s behavior problems, and to stop this pattern of the child receiving reinforcement for inappropriate behavior.
Take this illustration: Ashley has moderate autism. Ashley usually screams at the top of her lungs while banging on the fridge when she wants a snack, and her mom usually gives her a snack after these episodes of screaming. One day her mom decided that she could not take the screaming any longer, as it had led to Ashley screaming for all sorts of things! It was embarrassing, and stressful. So Ashley’s mom contacted a behavior analyst. The first thing the behavior analyst decided to do was to teach Ashley to make choices by pointing to various toys and snacks. The behavior analyst also began teaching Ashley to request for items using “one word approximations,” meaning, if Ashley wanted a slice of bread, she would be given it if she attempted to say, “bread” even if it came out sounding more like, “Ba.”
However, since Ashley was so used to getting her way by screaming, the plan to teach her to request for things via pointing and “using her words” would not work unless caregivers also stopped reinforcing the screaming. So in addition to teaching Ashley appropriate alternatives to getting what she wanted, a plan was put in place to ignore Ashley’s screaming. Ashley would no longer receive an item if she screamed. This is called extinction. Extinction is when you stop reinforcing a behavior that has a history of being reinforced. In ABA lingo, we would say that Ashley’s screaming was placed on extinction.
But this is where it gets really challenging for most caregivers. If a child is used to being reinforced for a problem behavior, and then all of a sudden caregivers stop giving in, typically, the child will try even harder to get the attention or item they so desperately want. Likewise, if the child primarily used disruptive behavior to get out of a task, then they will try extra hard to get out of that task once you start following through. If your child used to throw himself to the ground and cry when he didn’t get his way, he might up the ante by also throwing a few toys at you. In ABA lingo, we call this an “extinction burst.”
Your child’s behavior may get worse before it gets better. But if you remain consistent with your new rules, and take opportunities to teach and reinforce your child for positive behavior, problem behavior will decrease. The reason is simple: no one will continue to engage in a behavior that does not work for them.
An extinction burst is a completely normal part of learning. Try not to give up. Stay consistent. Also, try not to get upset at your child. He or she is responding to your new way of doing things. It is not your child’s fault that he was conditioned over time to engage in inappropriate behavior as a means of getting his needs met. Because children with autism and other special needs are often lacking skills that come very easily to other kids, they tend to resort to communicating in “different” ways. When these behaviors no longer work for him, he will become frustrated. (As if he wasn’t already!) Also, be forgiving of yourself if you have a history of reinforcing your child’s misbehavior. It’s difficult enough to be a parent, and even more difficult to be parent of a child with special needs. We all give in from time to time. However, if your child has learning or developmental disabilities, it becomes even more important to be consistent.