How to Avoid Reinforcing Challenging Behavior in Children with Autism

10/22/2019 by Leigh Zucker, BCBA

Challenging behavior can take many different forms. Screaming, whining, kicking, hitting, biting, throwing items, dropping to the floor, and noncompliance (or refusing to follow a known demand) are all problem behaviors that can lead to tremendous stress and frustration for a family. Targeting challenging behavior reduction is just as important as targeting skill acquisition for your child with autism. In some cases, progress cannot be made with skill acquisition until there has been a reduction in a child’s challenging behavior. Although your child’s treatment team will be targeting their specified challenging behavior, it is important to also target these behaviors in the community and at home. Here are some tips to help avoid reinforcing challenging behaviors.

1. Withhold preferred items or activities during or immediately after challenging behaviors.

If your child is engaging in a challenging behavior or has just stopped engaging in a challenging behavior, do not give them preferred items or activities (like toys, candy, and iPad time). Providing a preferred item during or immediately after a challenging behavior shows the child that their behavior is an appropriate way to get what they want. Instead, wait to give these preferred items when your child is engaging in appropriate behavior.

2. Withhold attention during or immediately after challenging behaviors.

Just like you do not want to give your child a preferred item during or immediately after challenging behaviors, you also do not want to provide attention at these times. Providing attention teaches the child that the challenging behavior is an effective way to gain attention. This also includes reminding the child what they can have access to if they stop engaging in the challenging behavior (in other words, no bribery!). Instead, attention should occur in the absence of the challenging behavior.

3. Prompt functional communication

Some children with autism have trouble communicating, which can lead to challenging behaviors when they have difficulty communicating their wants and needs. Depending on your child’s current functional communication program provided by their BCBA or BCaBA, make sure your child uses appropriate language to get the item or activity they want during or after the problem behavior. It is important to reinforce functional communication by only giving access to their preferred item or activity when they appropriately express their wants or needs by using their designated form of communication.

4. Follow through

Even though it is very tempting to give your child what they want when they are engaging in challenging behavior so that it stops, it is important to follow through with your original statement. If you told your child they could not have something, do not give in once the challenging behavior occurs. If you told your child to wait, make sure they wait before giving them access to the item or activity. It is important to show the child that their challenging behavior is not an appropriate way to gain access to the item or activity they want.

If the challenging behavior your child is engaging in is dangerous to themselves, others, or the environment, please immediately inform your BCBA so they can create an appropriate antecedent and consequence intervention to target it. The quicker this process happens, the better.

Although it may seem difficult in the moment to follow through on interventions, reinforcing challenging behaviors will make them more likely to continue in the future. It is better to put in the hard work to reduce the behaviors now than wait to address them in the future, when they could potentially be more intense and frequent.

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