People who engage with children (with and without autism) often ask many questions that start with-

“Why does my child do (blank)?” 
or,
“Why can’t I get my child to do (blank)?” 

I have two precious boys with autism, Greyson is 9 and Parker is 7. When the boys were toddlers, these were questions I asked DAILY. I saw their behavior as unpredictable and arbitrary. I wanted to change their behavior without changing mine. I know now, this plan DOES NOT WORK. I also know that there almost always IS a reason for why they do what they do, and it actually can be kind of predictable.

To be able to answer these questions and have the understanding I have of my boys now, it was imperative for me to first understand the FUNCTIONS OF BEHAVIOR.

Understanding the function of behavior is a cornerstone of Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA). ABA is a researched-based science in which the environment is manipulated to change behavior. ABA calls for the assessment of behavior and the environment it occurs in, prior to any treatment. Once extensive data is collected, treatment is applied to decrease problem behavior AND increase desired behavior. This all sounds very formal and fancy, so let’s break it down.

Behavior is any observable action made by an individual. Behavior is NOT synonymous with bad behavior. The following things are behaviors: working out, eating, riding a bike, raising your hand in class, cleaning up, HIDING IN THE PANTRY EATING KIT KATS. The function of a behavior is the reason why people behave in a certain way (Yep, even you and me). The book, Behaviorspeak defines Function of Behavior as, “the variable maintaining a given behavior (e.g, what might be reinforcing behavior?)” People engage in millions of different behaviors each day.

Although everyone’s behaviors are unique, the reasons for doing these different behaviors fall into four main categories. We have to become private detectives to figure out the function in order to understand how to appropriately design an intervention to stop unwanted behaviors and increase wanted behaviors. Without understanding the function of a behavior any intervention put in place could be ineffective, or unfair to our learners.

The four main functions are:

Sensory: The individual behaves in a specific way because it feels good to them or meets a sensory need.

Escape/Avoidance: The behavior occurs to escape a person, task, or environment.

Attention Seeking: The individual behaves to get focused attention from parents, teachers, siblings, peers, or other people that are around them.

• Access to Tangibles: The individual behaves in a certain way in order to get a preferred item or engage in an enjoyable activity.

The acronym for the functions of behavior is: SEAT. Sensory, Escape/avoidance, Attention, Access to Tangibles. I don’t believe all behavior is communication. However, I do believe that all behaviors serve a function. Kids don’t do things like injure themselves simply because they have autism. It’s imperative to figure out the why. When behaviorists analyze the situation, its important that they have:

  • A clear description of the behavior (the topography).
  • An understanding of what is happening before the behavior occurs; to include the environment and behaviors of other people within it. Within behavior analysis, this would be called the “antecedent”.
  • A description of what happens after the behavior occurs; This would be called the “consequence” within behavior analysis.
  • The identification of desirable behaviors that the child can already engage in so they may be used to substitute the challenging behavior. For example, if a child can already make requests, then they could be taught to say “I need a break” instead of screaming or becoming aggressive.
  • A data analysis of the behavior occurring in diverse environments which includes the above information.

Here is more information on Functional Behavior Assessments.

So, let’s use a hypothetical behavior of a boy named Luke. Luke hits his head on the table.  We can’t assume anything from just this sentence. Let’s talk about what the function COULD be based on the functions of behavior.

1st: medical should be ruled out for any behavior. This is important! (Here’s a helpful post with more information on Medical Causes of Behavior by The Autism Helper).

Sensory– the pressure on his head meets a sensory need. He only engages when he needs the release.
Escape/avoidance: He hits his head when he is given a task to complete that he doesn’t want to do.
Attention: whenever he hits his head adults surround him and give him attention. At home it’s- Oh baby, don’t hurt yourself. And an adult picks him up and rocks him. At school he is scolded-DO NOT BANG YOUR HEAD! That’s dangerous Luke!
Access to tangibles: He hits his head because when he engages in this behavior, his mom attempts to distract him by giving him his favorite toy or candy.

The intervention must be based on the WHY, and all the above factors must be analyzed. If not, in cases like Luke’s mom giving him candy- we can mistakenly increase an unwanted behavior. Luke has learned- if I want candy- all I need to do is hit my head. Instead, the mom should give candy to Luke when he is engaging in wanted behavior, and she should withhold candy when he is engaging in head banging. She should also teach a replacement behavior of requesting candy with Luke’s current method of communication. ALL PEOPLE NEED A FUNCTIONAL METHOD TO COMMUNICATE TODAY. Vocal, Picture exchange, Speech Generating device- doesn’t matter what, as long as they have one.

Or in the case of the SENSORY function- enjoying the pressure of the hit- a replacement behavior must be offered. Perhaps Luke needs tight squeezes, or a weighted vest, or to engage in exercise before the pressure builds up. Consulting with an Occupational Therapist can be imperative for our sensory seekers and avoiders.

When we understand the functions of behavior, we better know how to support our learners. Some behaviors need to be replaced with a behavior that fulfills the same function, some behaviors need to be ignored (the behavior- not the child). But we don’t know which is which without understanding WHY.

That’s why there is no simple answer to the question of, “Why is my child engaging in XYZ?” But understanding the WHY is the first step. HERE are some function based strategies for affecting behavior.

Understanding the functions of behavior has been life changing for my parenting, and for homeschooling my oldest son Greyson. It’s even helped me understand myself better. But even better, it’s helped my sons be happier and more understood.

Check out The Autism Helper on Teachers Pay Teachers for lots of helpful material on Behavior Intervention.

Chrissy Kelly

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