Attention and Behavior Problems

Written by Stephen M. Edelson, Ph.D.
Center for the Study of Autism, Salem, Oregon
One reason why some autistic individuals engage in behavior problems is to obtain attention. That is, they may have learned that by ‘acting up,’ they will receive some form of attention (i.e., reinforcement). Even though the attention given to them may be negative, such as a caretaker saying ‘Stop that,’ the child may still interpret the interaction as positive.

If a person tends to receive attention following a behavior problem, then the caretaker should do his/her best to ignore the behavior. If this is not possible because the person may hurt him-/herself or others, then the caretaker should minimize contact with the individual while displaying little or no facial expression (neither approving nor disap-proving). Consistency is very important because the behavior problem will continue if the individual receives intermittent attention for the behavior. In fact, the behavior will be stronger and more resistant to extinction if intermittently reinforced.

Several behavioral strategies have been developed to provide attention to an individual but not contingent on the behavior problem. These strategies include:

Differential Reinforcement of Appropriate Behavior (DRA) – The person receives attention to an appropriate behavior (determined in advance). For example, if the person works on a specific task for a certain amount of time and does not engage in the behavior problem, then he/she is given positive attention.

Differential Reinforcement of Other Behavior (DRO) – Attention is provided to the person for any appropriate behavior. For example, if the person acts, in general, appropriately during a certain period of time and does not engage in the behavior problem, then he/she is given positive attention.

Differential Reinforcement of Incompatible Behavior (DRI) – Attention is given to behaviors that are incompatible with the behavior problem. For example, if the person, who is known to tantrum, sits quietly for a certain amount of time, then he/she is given positive attention.
Functional analysis. It is important to conduct a functional analysis of the person’s behavior problem in order to determine whether the behavior serves to obtain attention or occurs for some other reason (e.g., to avoid a demanding situation). The information obtained from a functional analysis should include: Who was present? What happened before, during and after the behavior? When did it happen? and Where did it happen?

Attention is important for social development, and it is natural for a person to seek attention from others. Thus, individuals with autism and other related disorders should receive attention, but the attention should not be contingent on a behavior problem.

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