How Behavior Can Go the Way of the Dinosaurs

Extinction is what happened to the dinosaurs, the saber-toothed tiger, and the dodo bird. But did you know behavior can undergo extinction as well? Don’t worry, behavioral extinction does not involve a massive comet colliding with the Earth. Behavior is said to undergo extinction when it simply no longer produces the reinforcement it once did. When a behavior produces some kind of pay-off for the individual (reinforcement), it becomes more likely to happen again in the future; on the other hand, when a behavior doesn’t produce any pay-off (extinction), why bother doing it again? Extinction does not by any means apply only to the behavior of people with autism. All of us have had our behavior undergo extinction at some time when that behavior stopped working for us.


The Vending Machine Example

Imagine you use a specific vending machine on a regular basis. Whenever you put a dollar into the machine and push the button, the machine delivers your favorite snack or beverage. But imagine one day you put your dollar in, enter your code, and press that magic button… and nothing happens. What do you do? You push the button again, and again, and probably a few more times. But still nothing. Maybe you push it harder. Maybe you would have a few choice words for that machine, and maybe you would even try hitting it. (But please don’t shake it, that is dangerous!) If none of those behaviors made your snack come out, you would eventually give up. You might go to a different machine if there is one close by, and you might even try the old vending machine again later on. But if it continues to take your dollars and give you nothing in return, you would almost definitely stop wasting your time and money with that machine.


What to Expect During Extinction

The vending machine example illustrates several characteristics of extinction: A behavior that has a long history of reinforcement suddenly no longer produces that reinforcement. The behavior becomes more variable and more intense as you try different things to get your reinforcement, which behavior analysts refer to as an “extinction burst.” Finally, you give up or try to get your reinforcement somewhere else. You may try again later, but if your behavior consistently does not get you what you want, you will eventually stop trying.

The same principle can apply to many unwanted behaviors. Suppose a child often cries and screams in the grocery store and their parent, who gets unfriendly looks from other customers and is anxious to quiet the child down, almost always buys the child a treat. Now imagine if this parent decided to use extinction to reduce their child’s crying and screaming behavior. The immediate results might not be pretty. The child would likely cry and scream harder, louder, and longer in an effort to get that treat. This might happen for several trips to the grocery store. However, if crying in the grocery store never earns the child a treat, she will eventually stop trying it.


The Importance of Reinforcement

Extinction doesn’t happen only with unwanted behaviors. Positive, desirable behaviors can undergo extinction as well if they aren’t followed by reinforcement at least some of the time. For example, if a classroom teacher wants his students to raise their hands before they speak in class, but only responds to students who yell out answers and not to those who raise their hands, students will likely stop raising their hands (which has undergone extinction) and start blurting out answers (which is reinforced). Therefore, clinicians, teachers, and parents must remember that reinforcing good behavior is just as important, if not more important, than making sure we are not reinforcing unwanted behavior.

In fact, research has shown that extinction is considerably more effective when used in conjunction with reinforcement-based strategies, such as reinforcing appropriate alternative behaviors like hand-raising or functional communication. So, if the teacher wants his students to raise their hands, he should not only stop responding to students when they yell out answers, he should also call on students when they raise their hands and praise them for doing so.


Extinction is Not for Every Autism Behavior

Extinction can create some additional challenges that should be taken into consideration before implementing any extinction-based strategies. As you can well imagine, the “extinction burst” described above, during which challenging behavior might become more intense when extinction is introduced, can quickly become dangerous when extinction is applied to severe challenging behavior such as aggression or self-injury. For this reason, extinction may not be appropriate for every behavior and should be used only under the guidance of a trained professional, such as a psychologist or board certified behavior analyst, when clinically significant or potentially dangerous behavior is involved. It is also important to understand that challenging behavior is always an expression of an underlying need, and this need should be addressed and not ignored.

When used safely, applied consistently, and combined with reinforcement-based interventions, extinction is one of the most effective strategies for reducing unwanted behavior without using punishment. The concept of extinction is a useful one for clinicians, teachers, parents, and anyone interested in behavior change.


Madeleine G. Mason, MA, BCBA, is a member of ASNC’s Clinical Department in the Triangle Region and can be reached at

ASNC’s Clinical Department staff is composed of PhD and master’s-level licensed psychologists, Board Certified Behavior Analysts, and former special education teachers. We provide individualized intensive consultation using evidence-based practices to support children and adults across the spectrum in home, school, employment, residential and other community-based contexts. We also deliver workshops to professionals on a wide range of topics including but not limited to, strategies to prevent and respond to challenging behaviors, best practices in early intervention, functional communication training, and evidence-based practices in instruction for K-12 students with autism.

To find out more, contact us at 919-390-7242 or


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