Human behavior is complex, no doubt. There are often layers to the reasons why people behave the way they do and those reasons may fluctuate from day-to-day based on a variety of internal or external events. Everyone engages in some behaviors (e.g., scratching a mosquito bite) just because they feel good. That is, the behavior in itself is reinforcing to the individual. These behaviors may provide the individual with some sort of sensory experience that they find favorable.
Just like everyone else, individuals with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) sometimes engage in behaviors because they feel good. There are numerous behaviors that are common amongst individuals with ASD that are often maintained by automatic reinforcement. Such behaviors include: repetitive vocal sounds, scripting, body-rocking, hand-flapping, object-mouthing, hand-biting, smearing or playing with feces, jumping, pica, masturbation, and self-injury (e.g., head-banging, head-hitting, pulling hair, eye-poking).
In some cases, we may need to intervene to change or stop these behaviors. Some individuals with ASD may engage in repetitive or ritualistic movements or vocalizations to an extent that it may interfere with their learning. Some individuals with ASD may also engage in dangerous behaviors such as self-injury or ingesting inedible items. But there are careful considerations to be made with regards to automatically reinforced behaviors exhibited by individuals with ASD.
When is it NOT necessary to stop automatically reinforced behaviors?
Although some behaviors are appropriate to target for reduction, in some cases, it is not necessary to intervene. For example, an individual who engages in body-rocking throughout the day but is still able to attend to tasks and engage with peers does not need intervention for that behavior. In such cases, to promote further awareness and acceptance, the individual or their family may determine that their community (e.g., school, employers) needs information on why some people with ASD engage in these behaviors.
Some behaviors that are maintained by automatic reinforcement may produce a calming or relaxing effect for the individual. Therefore, behaviors that do interfere with an individual’s learning but are not harmful or dangerous should be built in throughout the individual’s day during structured breaks. For example, it would be appropriate to provide opportunities for the individual to engage in those behaviors following the completion of an activity or during a structured break (e.g., “my choice” for 5 minutes). It is important to remember that some individuals with autism process sensory stimulation differently than other people. We all experience our world in unique ways.
When should we intervene to decrease or stop automatically reinforced behaviors?
In contrast, when behavior is potentially harmful or interferes with the individual’s learning, it is often necessary to develop an intervention plan. Caregivers and professionals can attempt to decrease potentially automatically reinforced behaviors by structuring the individual’s environment (e.g., school or home) so that the individual has nearly constant and abundant access to a variety of engaging activities and materials. The individual’s motivation to engage in the automatically reinforced behavior may decrease if he or she has a variety of alternative reinforcers.
When looking to decrease an automatically reinforced behavior, first observe the behavior and think of any ways the behavior may produce a pleasant or favorable experience for the individual. Think of ways he or she might be able to get the same or a similar sensory experience from a more functional item or safe behavior. For example, an alternative to hand-biting might be biting a teething toy, and an alternative to head-hitting might be hitting a hand drum. Try to present the individual with a variety of potentially reinforcing items or items with similar sensory consequences that may be more valuable to them than the reinforcement they receive by engaging in the automatically reinforced behavior. If an unsafe behavior persists after implementation of these strategies, then further treatment by clinical professionals is absolutely warranted.
Jessica Woolson, MA, BCBA, is a member of ASNC’s Clinical Department in the Triangle region and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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 email@example.com.
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