Term Paper: Autism

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[. . .] The functional behavioral assessment includes, but is not limited to, the identification of the problem behavior, the definition of the behavior in concrete terms, the identification of the contextual factors that contribute to the behavior (including cognitive and affective factors) and the formulation of a hypothesis regarding the general conditions under which a behavior usually occurs and probable consequences that serve to maintain it (http://www.vesid.nysed.gov/specialed/publications/policy/evalsappa.htm).

It should be noted that while behavioral assessment may help provide a substantial amount of help to many individuals suffering with autism it is certainly not a cure-all (Smith, Chung, and Vostanis, 1994, p. 558). However, it can be used to help improve the communication of many children with autism because it is a highly flexible model that can be used by parents, teachers, therapists and others to help autistic children acquire communication skills no matter what level they may be at in terms of development or severity of symptoms.

Behavioral Analysis as Opposed to Behavior Modification

Before beginning a description of the specific ways in which behavioral analysis has been therapeutically used to help those with autism, we should perhaps distinguish it from a related therapeutic model that is better known.

It is very important to make a distinction between behavioral assessment and an older model of treatment - behavioral modification. Behavioral modification has also been used to treat autistic individuals but it is far less effective (although it is effective in treating other neurologically-based conditions.)

Behavioral analysis differs in a very fundamental way from behavior modification. Under the model of behavior modification, a system of reinforcements or rewards and punishments is used in a systematic way to attempt to increase a particular kind of behavior and/or to decrease a particular kind of behavior. (To use the kind of value-laden terms that we are generally supposed to avoid, under a model of behavioral modification, "good" behavior is rewarded while "bad" behavior is punished.).

A large body of research exists to show that behavior modification can in fact be used with some success to increase "good" or "appropriate" social behavior in autistic children as well as simultaneously decreasing "bad" or "maladaptive" (including self-destructive or violent) behavior in autistic individuals.

However, while behavior modification has provided some significant relief to individuals with autism, it is not now considered to be the best possible strategy. Many therapists, special-education teachers, and parents believe that such a course of treatment is both less effective than other programs as well as ethically problematic (Seifert, 1990, p. 17)

This is especially true for those individuals who are suffering from the most severe forms of autism. Wiegerink and Paluszny (in Paluszny, 1979) note that behaviorist analyses "appear to benefit the autistic child more than any other type of intervention" (p. 115).

Assumptions of behavioral analysis

Behavioral analysis, which is also referred to as behavioral assessment, takes as an initial starting point the idea that the problem in a behavior (such as the behaviors evidence by autistic children) lies in the behavior itself rather than in the individual.

Functional behavioral assessment is generally considered to be a problem-solving process for addressing student problem behavior. It relies on a variety of techniques and strategies to identify the purposes of specific behavior and to help IEP teams select interventions to directly address the problem behavior. Functional behavioral assessment should be integrated, as appropriate, throughout the process of developing, reviewing, and, if necessary, revising a student's IEP.

A functional behavioral assessment looks beyond the behavior itself. The focus when conducting a functional behavioral assessment is on identifying significant, pupil-specific social, affective, cognitive, and/or environmental factors associated with the occurrence (and non-occurrence) of specific behaviors. This broader perspective offers a better understanding of the function or purpose behind student behavior. Behavioral intervention plans based on an understanding of "why" a student misbehaves are extremely useful in addressing a wide range of problem behaviors (http://cecp.air.org/fba/default.htm).

If we take this as our beginning point, the logical next step is that it is the environment that triggers behaviors in autistic individuals that must be modified and not the individual.

Two parents who have autistic children were interviewed to see if they agree with this model of treating children with autism. They both found it extremely useful in helping their children development communication skills:

really never thought that we would be able to have my son in a school setting at all. The first four schools that we were in - there was always very much this attitude that it was the child's fault, that we had to modify his behavior as the starting point.

But he just wasn't really at the point where he could do that yet.

But with this teacher, the teacher created a corner of the room in which the environment was controlled in a way that the children could handle it. The level of stimulation was kept very low, and the teacher worked very hard with the other students to get them to respect this space.

If the autistic children came out of their area, then the other kids were to treat them "normally," but within their area there was a different set of rules.

This parent of another child with significant autistic symptoms agreed:

We really thought that we had tried everything, including a lot of behavioral modification. And I think that maybe that will work when he is older - or maybe in conjunction with other models and therapies.

But when he was just beginning school, the pure behavior modification programs didn't work with his level of social skills and especially communication.

This is a form of behavioral modification, of course, which is why it works. But the locus is different - I guess you could say that the sense of blame or responsibility is shifted so that the child isn't at fault. That makes all the difference.

Autism is a complex and often frightening syndrome that interrupts life in very early childhood at precisely the same developmental age that most children are becoming intimately connected to the social world of humanity through various forms of communication. Behavioral assessment provides a method for restoring those connections.


Einfeld, S., & Tonge, B. (1994). The Developmental Behavior Checklist: The development and validation of an instrument to assess behavioral and emotional disturbance in children and adolescents with mental retardation. Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders, 25, 81-101. http://www.behavior.org/autism/index.cfm?page=http%3A//www.behavior.org/autism/autism_causes.cfm http://cecp.air.org/fba/default.htm

Koegel, R., Rincover, A., & Egel, A. (1982). Educating and Understanding Autistic Children. San Diego: College-Hill.

Kozloff, M. (1983). Reaching the autistic child: A parent teaching program. Cambridge, MA: Brookline Books.

Paluszny, M. (1979). Autism: A Practical Guide for Parents and Professionals. NY: Syracuse University Press.

Seifert, C. (1990). Case studies in autism: A young child and two adolescents. Lanham: University Press of America.

Smith, B., Chung, M.C., & Vostanis, P. (1994). The path to care in autism: Is it better now? Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders, 24, 551-563. [END OF PREVIEW]

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