The ABC Model: Behavior Modification for Children on the Autism Spectrum

"What suggestions would you have for helping my child to increase his appropriate behaviors? I think I should focus on bringing out the positive instead of just punishing the negative."

Behavior modification is an effective technique used to treat Asperger’s and High Functioning Autism (HFA). The fundamentals of behavior modification can be used to increase desired behaviors in the child, regardless of functional level (e.g., a mother who wants her youngster to consistently make the bed can use behavior modification to help achieve this goal).

In order to be successful, behavior modification techniques should be applied consistently across all areas of the youngster’s life. Also, understand that the longer a particular problematic behavior has been evident, the longer it will take to change it. Thus, it may take a while for the chosen techniques to be effective. The parents’ job is to focus on the behavior they would like to increase or decrease. The more parents learn about behavior modification techniques, the more tools they will possess to help shape and promote the behavior they want to see more often in their child.

Behavior is observable and measurable (i.e., any action that can be seen or heard). An effective method of examining behavior is the ABC model:

A=Antecedent: The event occurring before a behavior (the event prompts a certain behavior)
B=Behavior:  Response to the events that can be seen or heard
C=Consequence: The event that follows the behavior, which effects whether the behavior will occur again (when the behavior is followed by an unpleasant consequence, it is less likely to reoccur; when the behavior is followed by a pleasant consequence, it is more likely to reoccur)

==> Parenting System that Significantly Reduces Defiant Behavior in Teens with Aspergers and High-Functioning Autism

Let’s look at a specific example of how the ABC model works:

A youngster who is exhibiting a temper tantrum may be seeking attention.  If the parent responds to the tantrum (whether to comfort or scold), the behavior is being rewarded by the parent’s reaction – even when it’s a negative reaction.  Thus, in this situation, it would be best if the parent waited for the tantrum to stop, and then reward (i.e., reinforce) the calm behavior verbally (e.g., “I like how quiet you are being right now”).  In this way, the youngster learns that he or she can gain the parent’s attention through more appropriate behavior.

Points to keep in mind when implementing the ABC model:

1. When “rewarding” appropriate behaviors, be sure to label the behavior you are praising. Be very specific (e.g., rather than saying “You’re being a good boy” …say something like “You did a great job of picking your toys up and putting them in the basket”).

2. Reward the appropriate behavior immediately after that behavior is exhibited. For example, Randy picks up his toys after his mother asks him to do so, yet she takes the time to finish folding clothes before she acknowledges Randy’s appropriate behavior.  Randy starts to have a tantrum, so his mother gives him a snack. Randy has now learned that he gets a treat for having a tantrum, and ‘putting his toys away when asked’ is forgotten.  Thus, it’s important to have reinforcers (i.e., rewards) handy, and reinforce immediately after the target behavior occurs.

3. Only chose one behavior at a time that you want to increase or decrease, and work on that.  Addressing several behaviors at once may backfire.

4. Make sure the request you are making is very clear and concise.  Don’t cloud the request with superfluous wording. Also, don’t make more than one request at a time.

5. Choose reinforcers that are meaningful to your youngster (e.g., if he has no interest in going shopping with you, and you say something like “If you’ll eat your vegetables, I’ll take you shopping with me” …then this is not likely to result in an increase in ‘vegetable-eating’ behavior).

==> Parenting System that Significantly Reduces Defiant Behavior in Teens with Aspergers and High-Functioning Autism

6. When providing rewards for appropriate behavior, be enthusiastic and animated.  Whenever your youngster starts to master a target behavior, get excited, break out the potato chips, and give plenty of hugs and tickles all at once. Really show your youngster how pleased you are with him or her. 

7. Parents can also increase desirable behavior by “modeling” (i.e., a process whereby the child learns a skill through observing and imitating the parent).

8. Initially, you will need to reward your youngster every time the target behavior occurs. But as time goes by (assuming you are implementing the ABC model correctly), your child may begin to exhibit the preferred behavior without any rewards (in other words, the ‘new’ behavior will become a habit).

9. Another technique to use when starting out involves pairing edible, social or toy rewards with verbal praise. But as time goes by, you may only need to provide verbal praise. Your youngster will learn that pleasing you is a reward in-and-of itself.

10. Know the difference between “reinforcement” and “bribery.” Reinforcement comes after a behavior is exhibited (e.g., “You did a wonderful job of hanging up your clothes. Now you can go watch TV”), whereas bribery is offered beforehand (e.g., “O.K. You can watch TV, but then I want you to go and hang up all your clothes”). 

11. Create a list of reinforcers that seem to work with your child (literally write them down). Examples of effective reinforcers may include:
  • asking a question
  • complimenting your child
  • giving positive attention
  • having a conversation with her
  • joining in an activity 
  • leaning toward her
  • looking at her
  • making a comment
  • small gifts (e.g., toys, puzzles, books)
  • smiling
  • snacks (e.g., Gold Fish crackers) 
  • special activities (e.g., movies, zoo, going to the park)

12. In the later stages of behavior modification, you will need to change the “reinforcement schedule.” If a child is reinforced every single time she does something good, eventually the reinforcement loses its power. Thus, initially reinforce what you want with consistency, then as your child starts to respond, change your schedule of reinforcement to every second or third time she does what you want. Eventually, you may be able to change it again to every fourth or fifth time. Let's look at an example:

If you want your child to put her Legos away, then first arrange a situation where she has to gather them up (e.g., pile them in front of her bedroom door so that she either has to move them or step over them). Once your child puts the Legos in their containers, look her in the eye and tell her what a big help she is. Make sure that the comment directly follows the desired behavior. Eventually, your child may put her Legos away on a fairly consistent basis. Once that happens, don’t compliment her every time. Instead, change from a “modification stage” to a “maintenance stage” and compliment on average every second to fifth time she picks up after herself.

When using the ABC model, always remember that your child is not an experiment, rather he is an individual capable of changing unwanted behavior - when offered the correct means to do so.

More resources for parents of children and teens with High-Functioning Autism and Asperger's:

==> How To Prevent Meltdowns and Tantrums In Children With High-Functioning Autism and Asperger's

==> Parenting System that Significantly Reduces Defiant Behavior in Teens with Aspergers and High-Functioning Autism

==> Launching Adult Children with Asperger's and High-Functioning Autism: Guide for Parents Who Want to Promote Self-Reliance

==> Teaching Social Skills and Emotion Management to Children and Teens with Asperger's and High-Functioning Autism

==> Parenting Children and Teens with High-Functioning Autism: Comprehensive Handbook

==> Unraveling The Mystery Behind Asperger's and High-Functioning Autism: Audio Book

==> Parenting System that Reduces Problematic Behavior in Children with Asperger's and High-Functioning Autism

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