What is extinction and why is it important?


Anna DeFrancis, MS, BCBA

“What do you mean by ignore them?”

As we all know – whether we are a parent, an aunt, a cousin, a family friend, or an ABA therapist – ignoring our kids is hard. And what do we mean by ignore? When you first hear “just ignore them”, it’s hard to think of anything but ignoring our child when they really need us and we cannot even bear to think of that. But, many times our ABA therapist tells us to ignore the behavior or it may get worse.  Sometimes they even use the phrase “this is what we call extinction.”

But, what is “extinction”? The formal definition of extinction is “the termination of a response-reinforcer relation through the discontinuation of reinforcement for a previously reinforced behavior.” Still not so sure what extinction is or what your job is? That’s okay – extinction is simply ignoring the behavior we want to go away. Whether this behavior is kicking our seat in the car or that dreaded scream that signals a tantrum is right around the corner.

But, what if we are at the grocery store and we hear that scream? We can’t ignore the behavior, what will other people think? Let’s break it down with a real world example. Every day you go to the vending machine in your office and put in a $1.50, press that coca cola button, and out pops your afternoon pick-me-up.  Then, one afternoon, you go to the vending machine, put in $1.50, press the button and nothing happens. What! You need that coke to get through the rest of your day – it is only 1pm!  What do you do next? Maybe you press the button a couple more times, nothing. Then, you may even hit the machine – you are really upset, you need this coke! Finally, you may even resort to shaking the machine. And voila! Out pops that 20 ounces of pick me up. So, the next day, you go down to the vending machine like normal, put in your $1.50, press the button and nothing. Well, yesterday when this happened, you began shaking the machine and out popped your coke so you go straight to shaking the machine and boom, there’s your coke. This is what we call an extinction burst.

So, back to our kids – imagine this as a tantrum. First, your child with autism begins screaming and nothing – no reaction. So, next, they may throw themselves to the floor; but, you are still ignoring them. Finally, they begin kicking their feet and hitting the wall and that gets your attention. Like our vending machine example, the next time they begin to have a tantrum and that initial behavior of screaming doesn’t work, they are going right to that fall to the floor kicking and screaming because that got our attention last time. So how do we make this stop? Extinction! That extinction burst may be hard to get through, it may make you want to scream, but, I promise extinction works!

So back to “what do I do”? Stay calm, just breathe, and ignore, ignore, ignore! In the short term, this may seem hard, and it is; but in the long-term, extinction will help to not only reduce these behaviors, but when paired with reinforcement of alternative, positive behaviors, those awesome things we want to see our children do, like ask for something or accept no when things don’t quite go their way, will increase!