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Autism Behavior Analysis and Autism Spectrum Disorder

When developing a behavioral intervention plan for an eight year old child with ASD for use in the classroom, we first need to determine what triggers both his problem and appropriate alternative behaviors. Once these have been identified, a plan can be developed and mapped out.

To begin, we would need to implement what is known as the behavioral ABC's. The behavioral ABC's involve looking at the Antecedent, Behavior and Consequences of an action. The letter A refers to what may have led to the behavior. The letter B is the actual behavior itself, and letter C is the consequence of that behavior. It is the understanding of these ABC's that is the basis of behavior modification. According to behaviorists such as B. F. Skinner, almost all behavior can be broken down into the A.B.C components (Labrador, 2004). It was his professed belief that "it would be unethical NOT to try to improve human behavior (Tavris & Wade, pg 315, 2012)." To that end, he designed and tested several studies demonstrating his theories.

Today, the term that is used by ABA professionals to define the act of reinforcing behaviors is differential reinforcement. There are three methods of differential reinforcement, DRA (differential reinforcement of alternative behaviors), DRO (differential reinforcement of other behaviors) and DRI (differential reinforcement of incompatible behaviors).

When using the DRA method, a reinforcement is given to a behavior that is desired in place of an inappropriate behavior as a response to a given situation. For example, a child who spits their food because they don't want to eat it may have their dessert taken away from them when that behavior is expressed and returned as a reward when they have modified their behavior in a manner acceptable to the parent (i.e. they eat their supper).

The DRO method differs from the DRA method in that reinforcement is given when the unwanted behavior is absent during a specific time. For example, if the child does not interrupt or make a scene for 10 minutes, then the teacher would give that child a star to put on a chart. Once the child has amassed 10 starts, then they will get a reward.

The third method is the DRI, or differential reinforcement of incompatible behaviors, method. With this method, decreasing the problem or target behavior is the goal. Reinforcement is given for a behavior that is topographically incompatible with the behavior targeted for reduction (e.g., sitting in the seat versus getting up and out of the seat while in class), and withheld following instances of the problem behavior (e.g. out of seat behavior).

When a stimulus lessens or even stops an unwanted behavior, it is called punishment. An example of this type of conditioning would be the taking away of a favorite movie or device such as a cell phone or tablet as a way to reduce the unwanted behavior.

Extinction is the stopping of a behavior by removing the reinforcer. Let's say a child does not lay down and go to sleep at their allotted bedtime, but instead keeps calling out to mom and dad to come back into the bedroom because they "just remembered something that they forgot to tell them". By no longer going back into the bedroom when called, the parents can extinguish the unwanted behavior, and the child will give up and go to sleep

On the other hand, the child may decide to escalate the behavior and simply get up out of bed and come out of the bedroom.

The tendency to respond to a stimulus that resembles one involved in the original conditioning is called stimulus generalization. Because children with ASD often have problems generalizing social skills, in order for them to interact successfully in social situations with their peers successfully, often instruction and planning are needed to help them use their skills correctly. According to Mayer, Sulzer-Azaroff and Wallace (2012), often times, the easiest way to promote generalization in these situations, is to simply ask for it.

Stimulus discrimination is the tendency to respond differently to two or more similar stimuli. This occurs when a person responds to the original stimulus but no other. A well known example of stimulus discrimination is Pavlov's Dog. Ivan Pavlov noted during his experiment, that the dogs began to salivate when the person who normally fed them came into the room, rather than only when the food was presented to them.

A reinforcement schedule in which a particular response is always reinforced is also known as continuous reinforcement. In this type of conditioning, each time the subject reacts in an appropriate manner, they are rewarded. Think of the rat who is rewarded with a food pellet each time he rings a bell or presses a button. The rat may continue to perform the act until it becomes saturated (i.e. full).

Intermittent reinforcement, on the other hand, is a reinforcement schedule in which a particular response is sometimes, but not always, reinforced. This type of reinforcement is similar to continuous reinforcement, although instead of rewarding the subject every time the response is given, it may be made to wait 5, 10 or more times before the reward is given. This leads to what is known as "resistance to extinction" - the subject learns that waiting (perseverance) pays off in the long run.

Shaping is the process of providing reinforcement of small steps to cause the unwanted behavior to gradually change and become adapted into positive behavior. Shaping is often used in rehabilitation centers to help people walk again by using the parallel bar to simulate walking using a walker (Miltenberger, R., 2012).

To come up with a behavioral plan to assist the classroom teacher and their assistant in helping this child, one would have to go back and decide which of the differential reinforcement methods would work best with each unique situation. A comprehensive history of the child's behavior and disruptive influences would need to be assembled and then a solution assigned to each problem. For example, should the child become disruptive and vocal during class time, the teacher or aide would be most successful in using the stimulus generalization method. By teaching them how to interact with others in a correct and suitable manner, they can learn to become compliant to the requests of the teacher.

On another note, should the child become aggressive towards himself or others, the teacher or assistant may need to physically restrain the child to protect him from harm. In order to help him calm down, the person restraining him would need to tell him that "this is for your own good, so that you do not get hurt". By telling him the reason why they are restraining him, it causes him to become more comfortable with the situation (Levy, 2007).

To interact with the child, the use of electronic devices such as tablets or a computer will be implemented. The children of today have the almost innate ability to interact with the technology that surrounds us. Many autistic children have been helped by implementing these devices into their day to day activities, it allows them to become more focuses and gives them a sense of pride when they are able to complete the tasks afforded to them.

There will be little to no actual punishment used in this situation. The child is merely acting how he knows how to in response to the situations he is placed into. There is no intentional malice involved in his behavior. Therefore, using this plan as it has been laid out is going to be a strong cornerstone of his future educational needs.


Labrador, F. (2004). Skinner and the rise of behavior modification and behavior therapy. The Spanish Journal of Psychology, 7(2), 178-187.
Levy, Jonathan. (2007). What you can do right now to help your child with autism. Naperville, IL: Sourcebooks, Inc.
Mayer, R., Sulzer-Azaroff,B., & Wallace, M. (2012). Behavior analysis for lasting change (2nd ed.). Cornwall-on-Hudson, NY: Sloan Publishing.
Miltenberger, R. (2012). Behavior modification, principles and procedures. (5th ed.). Wadsworth Publishing Company.
Tavris, C. & Wade, C. (2012). Invitation to Psychology (5th ed.). Upper Saddle River, NJ: Pearson Publishing
Michelle Hoffmann is a criminal justice, and Homeland Security & Emergency Management major. You can read more about her at http://MichelleHoffmann.com

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