Use the ABCs when managing problem behaviors in autism

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Despite a lack of evidence, polypharmacy often is used to treat autism spectrum disorder (ASD),1 while educational techniques are underutilized. Compared with the general population, children with ASD may be more prone to the adverse effects of the medications used to treat symptoms, such as antipsychotics and antidepressants.2 Therefore, when addressing problem behaviors, such as tantrums, aggressiveness, or self-injury, in a patient with ASD, before prescribing a medication, consider the ABCs of these behaviors.3

Antecedents. What happened before the behavior occurred? Where and when did the behavior occur? Was the individual unable to get a desired tangible item, such as a preferred food, toy, or another object? Was the individual told complete a task that he (she) did not want to do? Did the individual see someone else getting attention?

Behaviors. What behavior(s) occurred after each antecedent?

Consequences. What happened after the behavior occurred? Did the caregiver give the individual the item he wanted? Was the individual able to get out of doing work that he did not want to do or become the center of attention?

Having parents document the ABCs is useful not only for finding out why a behavior occurred, but also for objectively determining if and how a medication is affecting the frequency of a behavior. Charts that parents can use to document ABC data are available online (eg, http://www.positively­ Once this data is collected, it can be used to implement appropriate interventions, which I describe as DEFG.

Differential reinforcement of other behaviors is a procedure that provides positive reinforcement for not engaging in a problem behavior or for staying on task. For example, use a token board to reward positive behaviors, with physical tokens or written marks. However, some patients require immediate reinforcement. I suggest that parents or caregivers carry small pieces of preferred food to give to the patient to reinforce positive behavior.

Exercise. A review of 18 studies reported that physical exercise, such as jogging, weight training, and bike riding, can help reduce problem behaviors in individuals with ASD.4 Among 64 participants with ASD, there was a decrease in aggression, stereotypy, off-task behavior, and elopement, and improvements in on-task and motor behavior such as playing catch.

Function. Refer to the ABCs to determine why a specific problem behavior is occurring. Each behavior can have 1 or multiple functions; therefore, develop a plan specific to the reason the patient engages in the behavior. For example, if the individual engages in a behavior to avoid a task, the parent or caregiver can give individual tokens that the individual can later exchange for a break, instead of engaging in the problem behavior to avoid the task. If a behavior appears to be done for attention, instruct the caregivers to provide frequent periods of attention when the individual engages in positive behaviors.

Go to the appropriate placement. By law, persons age ≤21 have the right to an education and to make meaningful progress. If a patient with ASD exhibits behaviors that interfere with learning, he is entitled to a placement that can provide intensive applied behavior analysis. If you feel that the child needs a different school, write an evaluation for the parent or guardian to submit to the school district and clearly outline the patient’s needs and requirements.


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