An Applied Behavior Analytic Approach

Robert F. Gulick, MFA, BCBA

Thomas P. Kitchen, MS, BCBA

With the Effective Instruction for Children with Autism manual there is help and hope for parents, caregivers and teachers on how to improve the lives and learning experience of children with autism. It provides the guidance and support necessary to treating children with autism spectrum disorders.Effective Instruction for Children with Autism Book Cover

Whether it's adapting instructional strategies or devising an individualized curriculum to meet the unique needs of these children, Effective Instruction for Children with Autism, and its supplementary DVD, provides the necessary framework for teachers and caregivers.

Written with the support of a Grant and Cooperative Agreement from the US Department of Health and Human Services Centers for Disease Control and Prevention,

Effective Instruction for Children with Autism and its accompanying DVD offers a reference guide with step-by-step instructions for:

Don't face autism alone. Call the Barber National Institute today at 814-874-5603 to order life-changing guiding tool for children with autism spectrum disorders. Click here to download a mail-in order form. 

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  • Description
  • Excerpt - Chapter 2
  • Excerpt - Chapter 8
  • Terms & Conditions
  • Shipping Policy


Written with the support of a Grant and Cooperative Agreement from the US Department of Health and Human Services Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, this (300+ pg.) publication and accompanying DVD offers a reference guide with step-by-step instructions for:
  • Identifying autism spectrum disorders
  • Learning basic and advanced topics within Applied Behavior Analysis
  • Using effective, evidence-based interventions
  • Maximizing impact of reinforcers
  • Collecting, analyzing, and using data
  • Increasing independence and quality of life
  • Engaging in reciprocal social interactions with others
  • Assessing causes and treatments for challenging behaviors
  • Developing individualized curriculum for children with autism spectrum disorders

Chapter 2 - The Child with Autism

Autism's Dynamic Nature

The behavioral symptoms of autism, like any human behavior, are subject to influence (additional information on this topic will be discussed in following chapters). What should be understood is that autism is not necessarily a static condition. Instead, its symptoms and characteristics express themselves in different ways and to different degrees throughout the development of the individual with autism. Variables in intervention are also likely to affect the degree to which the individual with autism will exhibit symptoms throughout his or her life.

Symptoms of Autism

Autism is now referred to as a "spectrum disorder." In other words, our understanding of the disorder is that autism is expressed in many different forms. It helps to think of the "autistic spectrum" as a continuum, with one end considered "severe" and the other end considered "mild."

When an individual is diagnosed with an autism spectrum disorder (ASD), most professionals place them somewhere along that spectrum. Regardless of where they are placed, autism's defining characteristics include communicative deficits, social impairment and restrictive, repetitive or stereotypic patterns of behavior.

At the severe end of the spectrum are individuals who may represent the "classic" Kanner-esque description of autistic disorder. These individuals are likely to have significant deficits in, or even absence of, any type of social communication. Restricted interests may take the form of repetitive, non-functional behaviors (stereotypy). This could include self-stimulatory repetitive motions such as hand flapping, or the use of objects in similar ways (wheel spinning, for example). These individuals may never develop spoken language, and it may be extremely difficult to teach them new skills.

At the "mild" end of the spectrum are individuals who may have developed fairly refined language skills and may have less obvious cognitive deficits, but still demonstrate qualitative impairments in abstract reasoning, non-verbal communication and concept formation 1. Restricted interests within this group might include fascination with a very limited range of subjects (e.g. dinosaurs or 18th century French poetry) and a desire to obsessively acquire and regurgitate information about them. Individuals at this end of the spectrum also frequently demonstrate verbosity and one-sided communication styles. Formal language, or the demonstration of rule-governed components of language, is often quite intact. Language comprehension, on the other hand, is often impaired.

All along this continuum, individuals may exhibit different combinations of the core deficits associated with autism spectrum disorders, and to varying degrees. Subsequently, it is becoming increasingly difficult to define a "classic" case of autism. To further complicate matters, not only are there differences between people with autism, but there are also intra-individual differences (i.e. within each person) that occur with the disorder.

1 Concept formation: the ability to use known responses, in conjunction with executive function abilities, to formulate novel, generalized, or abstract responses.

Chapter 8 - Functional Analysis of Problem Behavior

While it is true that autism is a neurobiological disorder that ultimately has an effect on how individuals acquire and assimilate information, the diagnosis itself does not negate the effects of consequences on behavior. The future frequency of any behavior is determined, in part, by reinforcement, punishment, or the absence thereof when it (or similar behaviors) was displayed in the past. This is something that applies to all of us - autistic or not, child or adult.

This chapter explains how a basic knowledge of operant conditioning can be used to understand how problem behaviors are built and maintained. The goal is to empower the reader with the skills necessary to learn why behaviors really occur, which is prized information when building a program to make them stop. At the same time, readers will learn why conducting a functional analysis to answer these questions is not always as easy as it might appear - although it is possible in almost all cases.

Section A - Function of Behavior

School behavior plans and classroom management plans are the "rules" that govern children's behavior in school settings. Likewise, in legal and judiciary systems, rules of conduct are often stated, and consequences for infractions of these rules are also clearly defined.

The typical scenario goes something like this: "You are not allowed to (insert behavior of choice). If you do (insert behavior of choice), we will (insert consequence) ." This can be applied to any number of behaviors in any setting. For example, in most schools with a strict policy against fighting, the rule is often a variation of, "You are not allowed to fight. If you fight, we will suspend you for five days." Another example is littering: "You are not allowed to litter. If you litter, we will write you a citation and fine you $500."

It is safe to say that the above examples represent the status quo, because most common behavior management systems are built to be "one size fits all." At the same time, there are many people for whom the status quo fails miserably - especially when we are trying to influence the behavior of individuals with autism.

What are some potential problems with the above system, based on what has already been learned in this manual?

First, most of the behavior management programs in question do not take into account that behaviors are shaped over time by a reinforcement history. In other words, behaviors occur because they have been reinforced in the past - which is undeniably a unique chain of events for every individual. Because of this, these programs cannot possibly provide the custom fit that is necessary for real effectiveness and efficiency.

Second, most of the existing systems of behavior management rely on punishment (in its common understanding) as the main vehicle of behavior change. In Chapter 6, we discussed at length the correct definition of punishment - that it occurs after a behavior, and has a decreasing effect on the future frequency of behavior. Therefore, what is punishing to one person may not be to another, and may actually be reinforcing. We also know that punishment carries with it many warnings, because it can create many problems.

Third, behaviors may be similar in topography (form), but far different in terms of function (the purpose they serve). The function of a behavior is inherently related to the individual's history of reinforcement. (Skinner, 1953) More precisely, the function of a behavior is essentially its reinforcement contingency.

Function, or purpose, is the core of any behavior. This is the real answer to the "why" question so often left out of behavioral discussions (at worst) or relegated to circular explanations (at best). It is the most important consideration when developing a system for behavior change, yet it is also the most ignored. This is where the real substance of this chapter begins.

The Role of Consequences

Our understanding of operant conditioning teaches us that voluntary behavior is maintained by its consequences. When the same behavior occurs often, it is likely that its consequences in the past have served a purpose.

Why, for example, do we flip a switch in a dark room? Because we learned in the past that doing so provides us with light. Would we be so inclined if flipping a switch had no result? Of course not, for extinction would have occurred. The same concept applies to most behaviors (good and bad). Think of the behavior as the "switch," and the consequence as the appliance that is operated. When a child does not want to go to bed and screams, flails, or argues (the switch), chances are that the bedtime will be at least temporarily postponed (the appliance). If the tantrum is especially effective, she will manage to squeeze a "Five more minutes, and then bed!" out of her parents. If this happens, chances are this will not be the last occurrence.


This publication is not being sold for the purpose of rendering medical advice or other healthcare professional services. The information contained in this publication is general information and may or may not reflect current instructional developments regarding Autism Spectrum Disorders. The information in this publication is subject to change at any time without notice and should not be relied upon as a substitute for professional medical or healthcare advice. Neither the Dr. Gertrude A. Barber Educational Institute, Inc., publisher, distributor nor the authors make any guarantees or warranties concerning the information in this publication. If medical advice or other expert healthcare assistance is required, the services of a competent, experienced professional person should be sought.

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