Understanding Functions of Behavior in Pediatric ABA Therapy

One of the greatest gifts that you can offer a child with autism is understanding the function of their behaviors. Every child is unique, and this uniqueness extends to the function of their behaviors. Imagine you’re a teacher, and two of the children in your class are experiencing simultaneous meltdowns. While their behaviors may appear the same from an external perspective, the (internal) function of their behaviors could be extremely different. Applied behavior analysis (ABA) therapy aims to understand the function of behaviors and continue to build positive socially significant behavior.

What does ‘function of the behavior’ really mean?
The function of the behavior is the root cause of what the behavior is. This does not mean the actual stimulus. The function of a behavior could be sensory stimulation, escape or avoid a situation, seeking attention, or to receive tangibles or materials.

Sensory Stimulation
A child might exhibit a particular behavior if it simply feels good to them and provides sensory stimulation. An example of this type of behavior might be a repetitive motion, such as hand flapping, which helps to calm or soothe. This type of behavior is especially common with children on the autism spectrum who exhibit sensory processing issues.

A child might behave in a certain way in order to escape a situation or task that they are being asked to do. An example might be a child becoming upset because they are asked to transition from an activity they enjoy in school (e.g. reading independently about dinosaurs) to an activity that they typically avoid (e.g. circle time with the rest of the class). ABA therapy might address this type of behavior by presenting visual supports or schedules to assist with transitions.

Seeking Attention
A child may act in a certain way in order to gain the attention of an adult, such as their parents, teacher, or therapist. An example of this might be throwing a tantrum in order to gain attention. While some reinforcement can positively affect children with autism who are working on building positive behaviors in ABA therapy, excessive acknowledgment of negative behaviors can impede the progress of ABA therapy. An ABA therapist might work with a child on attention-seeking behavior by modeling appropriate ways to receive attention.

A child may behave in a certain way to receive an actual tangible object or material. An example might be a child pulling the iPad out of their classmate’s hands because they want to use the iPad to play a game. While this behavior may appear mean, the function might be that they want to use the device and are unable to express that through verbal communication. This type of behavior can be targeted through ABA therapy, particularly in regards to turn taking and sharing (or play skills).

How does ABA therapy help with behavior?
ABA therapy can be helpful in managing behaviors, but an important first step is understanding the function of a behavior. One the ABA therapist and parents have learned to understand the function of certain behaviors, they are able to work with their child on replacing problem behaviors with more positive behaviors.

Are you interested in learning more about ABA therapy and the function of behaviors?
Are you interested in ABA services for your child in the Chicago area? Contact us or call (773) 630-4400 to learn more about the range of services we provide for children who are on the autism spectrum at Chicago ABA Therapy, including applied behavior analysis therapy, occupational therapy, and speech-language pathology.