A functional analysis of a behavior is an assessment procedure that yields an understanding of how the unwanted behavior functions for a child—what needs the child is addressing through the use of the behavior (what reinforcements are maintaining it). This evaluation involves interviews and observations to develop a hypothesis about the functions of the behavior and then controlled manipulations to test the hypotheses. Detailed procedures for performing a functional assessment of behavior are available to practitioners (O’Neill et al., 1990).
The approach generally referred to as differential reinforcement of other behaviors, or differential reinforcement of incompatible behaviors, involves replacing the unwanted behavior with a more desirable behavior, built on the same reinforcing consequence that is currently supporting the unwanted behavior. This approach requires that the replacement behavior is just as powerful (quick, easy, efficient, and successful at gaining the reinforcement) as the unwanted behavior. For young children, the replacement behavior is very often a conventional social-communicative behavior (“functional communication”).
Extinction involves the removal of the consequence from an antecedent-behavior-consequence chain. It is often used in combination with a differential reinforcement approaches, so that the unwanted behavior is no longer followed by the reinforcing consequence (extinction), while the new, adaptive behavior, is followed by the reinforcing consequence. This results in an increase in the frequency of the adaptive behavior.
In antecedent manipulation approaches, instead of manipulating the behavior-consequence part of the chain, the focus is on the antecedent-behavior links. In some functional analyses, a very specific antecedent can be identified, and this antecedent can be manipulated in such a way that the behavior is not performed (and therefore not reinforced). For example, if an analysis reveals that a child hits in response to an adult saying “Don’t__”, the adult may change the antecedent instruction to “Would you please__”. Use of prompts is a common way of performing antecedent manipulations.
Behavioral instruction of young children with autistic spectrum disorders often involves use of multiple interventions in an environment. One example might be the use of clearly marked visual cues (antecedent interventions) along with communication training to make requests and refusals (intervention by differential reinforcement of incompatible behaviors) (Watson et al., 1989).
In a developmental approach, the skills of a child with an autistic spectrum disorder are compared with the skills of a developmental sequence seen in typical children. Patterns of typical development for each