Which is the fastest way to get someone's attention? Raising your hand or yelling? Many of you would probably choose to yell. Children with ASD that we are supporting likely choose yelling too to gain someone's attention. Why? Because it works! Behavior is a form of functional communication. If you have a child, remember when they were about 12 to 14 months old? And they wanted something but they didn't have the verbal communication to tell you what it was? Your child probably pointed at things, grabbed your hand and pulled you to an item, independently climbed to reach the item, or they may have, over time, become so frustrated that they broke down into tears. Now think of a child or adolescent with autism who has limited functional verbal communication. How are they communicating? Many of them are likely communicating in the same way that your 12 to 14 month old tried to communicate. It doesn't mean that they're functioning intellectually at that level; it just means that their communication skills are stuck at that level. Imagine the amount of frustration that a child with ASD feels on a daily basis when he cannot communicate what he wants.
One important component of applied behavior analysis is the component of functional behavior analysis (FBA). Functional behavior analysis is the process of identifying the communicative intent of one's behavior. The primary functions of behavior are escape/avoidance, attention seeking, and trying to obtain a tangible item or sensory input. This process allows you to look beyond the initial behavior to see what the child is trying to tell you. This process works for not just children with autism spectrum disorders but for all people in general. You see, we all use our behavior to communicate.
Have you ever asked yourself "I don't know why he's doing that?!" Has a child's behavior ever appeared random, nonsensical, deliberate or devious? If you've thought either of these two things, then it's probably the time to perform an FBA.
First, you need to identify or define the troublesome behavior. Your description needs to pass a pretty important test — the stranger test. Why is this important? Because as you discuss the behavior with other individuals who are supporting the student with ASD you need to be on the same page. The stranger test simply means that you have defined the behavior in such a way that a complete stranger could read this description and say whether or not the behavior had occurred. If I said the child hit me — what comes to mind? Some of you might envision the child drawing back, clinching his fist and punching you somewhere on your body. Others may have seen the child slapping someone with an open hand. Still others may see that any physical contact with the child's hand to another's body could be considered hitting. I think that we can all agree that there is a huge difference between a closed fist punch and a touch.
Second, you need to describe the setting in which the behavior occurs most frequently. Include the physical setting, the time of day and the people that may be involved. Many times you can actually see patterns with a child's behavior that is specially associated with the setting in which the behavior occurs. There may be a specific time of day in which you see an increase. There may also be specific people which also trigger the behavior.
The third step is identifying specific antecedents to the behavior. What are antecedents? Those are the things that occur right before the behavior happens. For instance, has the teacher or parent just made a request to the child? Has the child just been asked to leave one environment and go to another? Many times you will find that a specific antecedent always trigger a child's inappropriate behavior. Remember antecedents can also be slow triggers. What is a slow trigger? It is an event that starts the process of a behavior that may not be visible until much later. For example, a child gets up late and doesn't have time for breakfast. He does a great job waiting for snack time but when he makes a request for his favorite fruit snack but they have run out of them. The next thing you know the student is climbing on the table and grabbing the snack choice and throwing it across the room. The slow trigger may have been rushing in the morning which started the chain of events.
The fourth step is identifying the consequences of the behavior. Once the child exhibited the behavior what happened? Did someone try to console the child, was the child sent to timeout, was the child given what he wanted. It's important to identify the consequence that ends up positively reinforcing the behavior.
The fifth step is describing any environmental variables that might impact the behavior. Environmental variables can be anything from the child's diet, to the amount of sleep he's getting, to the weather outside, to a substitute teacher. Some of these things, we have absolutely no control over, however knowing the environmental variables that set off the behavior helps us to be able to predict when the behavior will occur. If we can predict it we might be able to avoid it.
And finally, you need to develop your hypothesis. Why do you think the behavior is occurring? Once you've figured out the function of the behavior you can develop a plan of intervention. Understanding the communicative intent or function of the behavior increases the likelihood that an intervention will be effective. If your plan works, great! But if the plan doesn't seem to work, review the information that you've collected because the behavior may be serving a different function than you thought.
The process of an FBA may take time, but the benefits are immeasurable. The child you are supporting is exhibiting the behavior for a reason and that reason is very meaningful for that child. As individuals who support and live with children and adolescents, it's the least we can do! Remember, behavior equals communication!