FBA Part II: Function of Automatic Reinforcement

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Disclaimer: Conducting an FBA is a very individualized process that must consider the setting, the learner's environment, and who will carry out the intervention. The following post contains suggestions to guide the process, and is not intended to be applicable for every learner or every situation. It’s also important to note that the usefulness of an FBA extends beyond individuals with Autism.

For my original post explaining how to conduct a FBA, click here: http://www.iloveaba.com/2012/02/everyday-fba.html

This post is for caregivers (parents, teachers, therapists, etc.) who have conducted a FBA to determine the function of a challenging behavior and it is:  Automatic Reinforcement.

Challenging behaviors that have a function of automatic reinforcement are often called Self- Stimulatory behavior, or you may hear the word "stim" used.
These behaviors are not dependent upon social interaction or receiving a tangible item…the behavior itself is reinforcing to the learner. Just think about when you get a mosquito bite and it begins to itch. You don't need someone to give you a sip of juice, or to clap and say "Yay!", in order to enjoy the scratching. Scratching the bite serves as its own reinforcement. So in the future if you get bit by a bug again, you are likely to scratch that bite again.
Some individuals seem to enjoy engaging in stims, while others seem to be agitated or upset as they flap hands, tip toe walk, or line objects up in a particular manner. So it also may be inaccurate to say that "stims" are always about enjoyment. Some "stims" may serve to alleviate or prevent anxiety or further behavioral escalation.

That means:

The child will engage in the behavior if they are alone.
The child will engage in the behavior if you put NO demands on them.
The child will engage in the behavior if they lose rewards, privileges, or reinforcers.

One thing I notice is that a sensory function is very overused. What I usually hear is "he/she can't help themselves, they have unmet sensory needs!". I would point out that its hard to imagine a part of your day when you are not receiving sensory input, and have to process it/deal with it.
For example, as I type this post I am in a room by myself. BUT, I am sitting on a not so comfortable office chair, I am feeling a few loose keyboard buttons under my fingertips, and I am a bit thirsty. I am processing all of these internal states as I type up this post. So to simply make a blanket statement like "he/she just has too many sensory issues going on today!" is a super over-generalization and wont help you to create an effective behavioral intervention.

What do automatically maintained behaviors look like?

For parents and teachers: If the child/student will engage in the challenging behavior when they are alone and under no demand, then it’s likely an automatically reinforced behavior.
For ABA professionals: If the results of your FBA or FA are inconclusive or the data has no clear pattern, then it’s likely an automatically reinforced behavior.

Common automatically reinforced behaviors can include: 
Hand flapping, rocking, inappropriate jumping/climbing, repetitive or extended vocal sounds, fingers in ears, toe walking, pica, saliva play or holding spit in mouth, stuffing cheeks with food, mouthing, chewing on fingers or clothing, screaming, smearing/playing with feces, licking objects, rumination (vomiting), immediate or delayed echolalia, and self-injurious behaviors such as eye poking, head-banging, or pulling hair.

Why do children engage in automatically reinforced behaviors?

These behaviors serve as their own reinforcement, so the short answer would be "Because they want to". :-) Especially for self- harming behaviors, there is the possibility that the individual may process the pain differently than you or I might. Just because you may not like or understand the behavior, does not mean it isn't serving a need for the individual.

How do I handle automatically reinforced behaviors?

Once you determine the function of a behavior, you need to do 2 things in order to reduce the behavior: stop reinforcing (feeding) the inappropriate behavior, and teach the child what to do instead.
It can be difficult to do a true extinction (extinction means to disconnect the reinforcement from the behavior) with automatically reinforced behaviors. The reason for this is typically some type of protective equipment is involved. For example, an extinction technique with a child who head bangs would require placing a helmet on the child. It has been my experience that most families do not want to use protective gear in the home or out in the community, or even know where to purchase these types of items. In severe situations, like a teen who bites open the skin on his hand, this is why inpatient facilities are recommended.

Automatically maintained behaviors are often managed by combining response blocking with a functionally equivalent (and as possible, topographically similar) replacement behavior. So if a child bangs a table because they enjoy the sound that is produced, giving the child a puzzle to play with is not functionally equivalent. Something like giving the child a drum to bang would be functionally equivalent, and a more acceptable behavior than banging on a table repeatedly.

Remember: When creating a behavior intervention for automatically reinforcing behaviors you are competing with a highly preferred, free, & easily accessible activity. If the child bites their arm to receive automatic reinforcement, then you are competing with an always available arm that requires minimal effort to bite into it.  Trying to teach the child to come find you and request a teething toy will not be effective because that requires much more work than simply biting ones arm.

Recommended Resources:

Chandler, L., & Dahlquist, C. (2006) Functional Assessment: Strategies to prevent and remediate challenging behavior in school settings.

Does Sensory Integration work?

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