What is behaviour anyway and why does it matter?

mother and child1. Develop skills or new behaviour based on individual strengths and areas of need

Deciding what to teach an individual with autism is usually informed by a curriculum assessment and by the parents and/or caregivers reports on the things that his/her child may need help with and if possible by asking the person themselves.  The skills or behaviours that we teach are meant to improve his/her quality of life.  For example, improving a childs ability to communicate his or her needs is a critical element to any good program that is based on ABA.  However we dont stop there, we look to teach things that will allow the child to navigate the real world as independently as possible.  It is not about trying to make someone normalbut rather about helping improve his/her ability to get his/her needs and interact in his/her environment in a meaningful way.  The curriculum assessment will allow us to identify the areas that a student excels in and any areas that they may need to work on.  We would want to build upon their strengths and interests to keep the momentum going in those areas and develop the areas that they may need to work on.  

2. Help with challenging behaviour that interferes with learning/quality of life

A teacher or a parent request for help with a challenging behaviour with his or her son/student  is not enough on its own to warrant an intervention.  The behaviour needs to be happening in a way that interferes with the persons quality of life or his/her ability to learn new skills.  This might mean that they are engaging in behaviour that can hurt themselves or someone else or that does not allow them to participate in a meaningful way in day to day activities.  The very nature of any program that is based on ABA requires that we assess the individual strengths, preferences and areas of need for each person we are working with such that it is individualized to suit his/her needs.  

3. Include safety skills training

Because children and youth with autism are vulnerable it is important that as we teach new skills/behaviours and help them to stop using problem/challenging behaviour to get his/her needs met, that we also teach them very important safety skills.  Safety skills like what to do if a stranger tries to abduct you, or what to do if you become lost or separated, or road safety.  The reason I am mentioning it here is because in many ABA programs we teach children and youth with autism to follow instructions that are delivered by an adult, and this in and of itself is an important step in being able to learn new skills and behaviours.  It is necessary to be able to follow instructions to be able to do new things.  For example, a child needs to be able to follow instructions on how to complete a worksheet or build a lego structure.  But blatantly following instructions from any adult is not the best long term strategy.  Once a student is able to follow instructions it is also important to teach them about when it is ok to say noto an adult and not follow instructions.  

How to seek help if an inappropriate instruction is given.  ABA has a lot to say on how to do that and it is important that if your child is in an ABA program that there is an emphasis on teaching those skills.  Of course, as with any skill, there are pre-requisites.  For example, it does not make sense to teach a student to seek help with a store clerk or police officer if they cannot identify who a store clerk or police officer is.  A Board Certified Behaviour Analyst (BCBA) would be able to help you answer all of these kinds of questions.

One little boy that I worked with comes to mind as I write this post.  When he first started in our ABA program he could speak with short sentences but he was not always able to get his needs met.  In fact, he would engage in aggression towards others and was not always willing to follow a teachers instructions.  He started in a program with a therapist and as he progressed he began to work in small groups.  Over time his communication skills began to replace his need to engage in aggression and he learned many important social skills.  One of the things that he liked to do in his spare time was print pictures from websites on the internet.  We worked on teaching him to ask how to use a printer.  Eventually he was able to use the printer himself but he also learned that if he does not know how to use a tool/device he could now ask for the steps that he needs to take to get the device to work.  I also recall him learning to self-monitor his own behaviour.  

Towards the end of his program he began to work on learning when it is ok to say no to an adult, and he learned about stranger danger.  His family was also involved in his programming and we had coached his parents on how to teach him to answer the door when a stranger rings the doorbell, based on that familys unique preferences.  The examples listed above are only a small sample of the types of things that we worked on with him but they highlight how we capitalized on his unique strengths and interests and worked on his particular areas of need.  

As you can see I am super passionate about ABA and what it can do to improve a persons quality of life.  Behaviour can mean a challenging behaviour but it can also refer to a skill.  This is important to remember because a program that is based on ABA will account for both types.  For more information on the different standards that a program that is based on ABA should adhere to please visit the BACB website.  


Editor’s Note:  Opinions expressed by Autism Daily Newscast Contributors are their own.

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About Sarah Kupferschmidt

Sarah is a Board Certified Behaviour Analyst who and Co-Founder of Special Appucations. She is a professor, TEDx Speaker as well as a top safety writer for Autism Parenting Magazine. Sarah has worked with hundreds of children and youth with autism and their families and has clinically supervised and trained staff on how to implement treatment strategies that are based on Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA). Her mission is to empower parents and educators who work with children with special needs with skills that will improve his/her quality of life. You can follow here on Twitter.