BEHAVIOR MODIFICATION -
A PARENT'S EXPERIENCE
What is the difference between a child who cannot
do something and a child who will not do something? Although there
may be great differences in intellect, skill, and attitude between
these two children, in one sense there is very little difference.
The end result is the same. What you told the child to do, did not
It is my belief that behavior is the most important
issue to deal with in Autism.
It is the child's behavior that will determine where he lives his
life, what school classroom he attends, who his friends will be,
what sort of job he will have, how many medications his physician
will order (if any), how long he can live at home, and how independent
he will be.
is more of a factor in these decisions than IQ, skills, education
level, and probably anything else. For this reason, it is absolutely
vital that your child's behavior be brought under some control (preferably
self-control). Let me tell you a story to illustrate.
Many years ago, when I was just a young parent
with one child, I thought I knew it all. I was a modern parent of
the 70's who was not going to be as mean to my child as my parents
were to me (in truth, they should have been a lot meaner!). The
result was that my little Charity was a monster! When I called her,
she ran in the other direction. She got into everything and probably
single-handedly defined the "terrible two's" for an entire
generation of Oklahomans (where we lived at the time).
Of course, I didn't see it like this at the time.
She was spirited, strong-willed, and Daddy's little girl. One morning
my wife shared a disturbing dream she had had that night. She said
she was standing near the house and Charity was near the road. A
large truck was racing down the street as my wife called to Charity
to "come here." Charity looked at her, turned the other
way, and ran into the path of the truck. Instead of waking up from
the terrible dream at that awful point , a Voice from Heaven said,
"That is what will happen to Charity if you do not get her
When my wife told me of the dream, while not a
strong believer, I took the message to heart, set aside my psychology
books, and began to make Charity do what I told her to do. It was
not easy (she was so-o-o bad!). But I distinctly remember the day
I learned that I could stand up to the Mighty Charity's temper tantrum
and survive! No, she did not have Autism, so I cannot say I know
what you are going through but I have seen the same methods I used
with Charity work with many children with Autism.
Where to Start
Start by scrapping the idea that the child is
handicapped and "can't help it." This idea can become
more handicapping for the child than the Autism, believe it or not!
Have high expectations for the child with Autism. Do not assume
the child cannot do something just because he or she has Autism.
Do not be controlled by the child's IQ score. It is very difficult
to accurately measure the IQ of a child who has Autism. Expect the
child to behave, to answer you when you ask a question, to come
when you call, and to complete a task you assign. The child with
Autism may need more time than others to do these things and may
need your help, but continue to expect good things from the child.
Behavior Analysis does not try to determine the reasons for
behavior, just the results. It makes no assumptions about why children
behave the way they do, whose "fault" it is, or even how
long it has been going on. Behavior management is more concerned
with the present: what is happening now?
Objectivity versus Subjectivity
In order to do this, the behavior management
process must define behavior objectively. Behavior is something
that can be seen (it is observable), it can be measured (it is measurable),
and each person seeing it will define it in the same way (it is
definable). When behavior is defined in this way, all assumptions,
opinions, and guesses about why people behave the way they do are
ignored. For example, instead of saying the person is angry (a subjective
interpretation of an inner feeling), we would have to describe what
the person did: "Billy threw his book across the room."
He may be angry and throwing the book may be a part of that. But
I can't see angry. However, I can see a book flying across the room
The ABC Model
Most behavior does not just randomly happen. It
occurs in a context. Some behavior preceded it and some behavior
followed it. Behaviorists are persons who study the behavior of
others. A behaviorist would be very concerned with the behavior
that preceded the behavior of the child - this is called the Antecedent.
The behaviorist would objectively describe this
antecedent behavior as well as the behavior of the person being
studied. Using the above example, let's say the antecedent behavior
was this: "The teacher said, 'Time for math'." The Behavior
was Billy throwing a book across the room. A behaviorist would not
necessarily conclude that what the teacher said caused Billy to
throw the book. At this point we are just looking at the facts of
the situation. To get a true picture of the situation, we need to
see what happened after Billy's behavior (throwing the book). This
is known as the Consequence. In this case, the
consequence was this: "All the students laughed." Let's
chart these behavior observations:
• Antecedent - "The teacher said, 'Time for
• Behavior - "Billy threw his book across the room."
• Consequence - "All the students laughed."
What can we guess about what is going on here?
Billy is in school. Probably math class will be starting. It may
be that Billy is not fond of math (although we do not know this
for a fact). Billy has at least some effective motor skills. The
students laughed at Billy's behavior (although this is not absolutely
a fact either - they could have been laughing at something else).
Let's look at what we do not know: We do not know
that the impending math class triggered Billy's behavior (it could
have been a random event, it could be a reaction to the teacher's
voice or presence). We do not know that Billy's behavior was influenced
by the other student's laughter. A behaviorist, though, would begin
to make some assumptions. He would begin to think that Billy responded
to the teacher's announcement by throwing the book and that the
students laughter will impact the likelihood that Billy will throw
other books in the future. The true test of this hypothesis (guess)
is observing Billy's behavior over time. Let's look at why.
principles of behavior
Whether a behavior is learned or not depends upon
the consequences that follow the behavior. Look at the following
principles of behavior.
If the Consequence is desirable: The behavior
is likely be repeated (also known as reinforcement)
If the Consequence is not desirable: The behavior
is likely not occur again (at least not in the same situation).
If the Consequence is nothing: The behavior is
likely not occur again (also known as extinction)
If the Consequence is unpleasant: The behavior
is likely not occur again (also known as punishment).
As you can see, if the person likes the outcome
of his behavior (that is, the consequence), then the behavior will
be strengthened and is more likely to occur again. If the person
does not like the outcome of his behavior, then the behavior has
been weakened and is less likely to occur in the future. However,
a reinforcer must be powerful enough to motivate the child to do
what we are asking the child to do.
Let me give you an example. Let's say I live in
a 50-room mansion (yeah, right!) and I offer you $20 to clean my
entire house. I don't think I would have any takers. But if I increase
my offer to $20,000, I am certain that many of you would consider
a new career. Similarly, we may think M&M's will be a motivator
for our child but as it turns out, his favorite food is pickled
onions! Finding a reinforcer should be your first major goal in
changing your child's behavior.
How to choose a reinforcer
Try various things by trial and error and watch
for what “things” motivate what actions. Ask someone who has regular
contact with the child and knows his interests and preferences (e.g.,
parent, teacher, other relative, friend). Watch the child during
unstructured times and see what he chooses for himself when no restrictions
are placed on his preferences. Don't just focus on food - challenge
all the senses. Remember, whatever increases a behavior is a reinforcer
for that behavior. (No one else has to like it).
by Gary J. Heffner, creator of The Autism Home Page at MSN Groups.
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read more personal stories from parents of children on the autism spectrum, and from adults living with Autism, Asperger's syndrome
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Visit http://groups.msn.com/TheAutismHomePage/environmental.msnw which is the autism home page of Gary Heffner, the author of this
article. This personal story remains under his copyright and is
used with his permission. You are encouraged to visit his site as
it is one of the few autism websites offering free comprehensive