Why Does My Child Keep Doing This? (A Return to the Basics.)


Submitted by: Lauren Green, BCBA

You parents are rock stars! You are there for every boo boo, every success, every failure, and every meltdown. Sometimes, even though you are used to the behavioral challenges that accompany Autism, you beg for an answer to the question “Why can’t they just get past this?” or “When will these behaviors just stop?”

The first thing to know is that even if you are a trained professional, these behaviors can still surface randomly over time. In ABA we call this “spontaneous recovery”. It is also important to know that behavior doesn’t change overnight and that there is no miracle to halt all problem behavior in a day. Behavior change takes time. But where do you start?

Let’s return to the basics of all human behavior: Our ABC’s! (Antecedent: What happens before the behavior? Behavior: The behavior of interest. Consequence: What happens immediately following that behavior?) We need to know our ABC’s to determine the function of a behavior or why the behavior is occurring. I’ll cover this in more detail after a brief discussion on functions of behavior.

Every person performs any behavior for a reason. Every time we talk, walk, eat, drink, or do anything, we do it for a reason (also called a function). There are 4 functions to all human behavior and they can be remembered by the acronym SEAT:





Sensory behaviors (automatically reinforced behaviors) are any behaviors that happen on their own without access to other people or items. If you were in a room without anything in it, what behaviors might you do? For me, I would probably sing to myself or braid my hair over and over. Children with Autism engage in a variety of automatically reinforced behaviors such as toe walking, hand flapping, scripting scenes from their favorite shows, etc.

Escape behaviors are any behaviors that allow us to escape something we don’t want to do or things that are aversive to us. These behaviors may also allow us to temporarily avoid those things. What are some escape behaviors that you engage in? I hate folding the laundry. I will make up 100 reasons why I don’t have time to fold it. Sometimes when I’m shopping, I will turn down an aisle that I don’t need to be on just to avoid someone that I don’t feel like seeing. Children with Autism also engage in behaviors to escape or avoid certain tasks, activities, or items.

Attention maintained behaviors are exactly what they sound like. They are for the attention of others. We say “hi” in hopes of getting a response from someone else. We ask questions because the information that someone else has may be valuable to us. Comedians value attention from others and that is why they tell jokes. If our attention weren’t valuable to them, they would stop telling jokes. Children with Autism engage in attention seeking behaviors that aren’t always appropriate to the situation.

Tangible maintained behaviors are behaviors that consistently result in the access to a preferred tangible item. I go to the grocery store because the behavior results in me getting food. Young children ask parents to get things off of the shelves for them and it results in a tangible item. Children with Autism don’t always know how to communicate their needs and they may engage in disruptive behaviors because those behaviors result in a preferred tangible or they may engage in disruptive behavior if a preferred tangible item isn’t available.

You now understand the different types of behavior, but how does that actually help you? I will now show you how the ABC’s and the functions of behavior go together.

When your child is continually engaging in specific behaviors, you are going to want to get a pen and paper and write your ABC’s. Here’s an example:

Antecedent Behavior Consequence
Mom says no to a candy bar at store Billy starts screaming Mom gives him candy to be quiet
Mom says we are out of popsicles Billy starts screaming Mom tries to give him other things to calm him down
Mom says it’s time to get out the pool Billy starts screaming Mom says “okay you can have 10 more minutes”


Now behavior isn’t always this clear, but the more we write down, the more we can see patterns in behavior. When we look at our ABC’s above, what pattern do we see? Review the acronym SEAT and determine what the function of Billy’s screaming is.

Did you choose tangible? If so, you got it! Billy wanted a preferred item or activity, he began screaming, and he got the item. This is a very straight forward example of behavior that happens for access to a tangible.

All of this information doesn’t change the behavior that is happening, but it helps you determine the biggest question which is “why does my child do this?” Once you can determine why it is happening by collecting and reviewing your ABC’s, you can then begin the process of changing your child’s behavior. We will delve into that in another blog. Good luck parents. Continue being rock stars. Remember to take a SEAT and review your ABC’s.