disruptive behavior

One of the biggest challenges parents of children with autism face is managing disruptive behaviors. ABA therapists commonly rely on the ABC method to promote positive behavior in children on the spectrum. In this article, we describe the elements of the ABC technique and explain how they are used.

Disruptive Behavior and Autism Spectrum Disorder    

More than a quarter of children with autism spectrum disorder show disruptive behaviors. These behaviors may include: 


  • Screaming or yelling
  • Self-injurious behavior (SIB) like hand biting or head banging
  • Self-stimulating behavior, also known as stimming, such as flapping or rocking
  • Physical aggression, including biting, spitting, hitting, and kicking
  • Pushing others away
  • Taking apart or breaking objects.

Although your child may appear to go into a state of anxiety, panic, or rage for no reason at all, there are many possible triggers of negative behavior, including fatigue, emotional dysregulation, communication problems, and disruption of the child’s everyday routine or structure. 


In the following sections, we explain how the ABC method is used in ABA therapy to manage disruptive behaviors.

The ABC Method of Behavior Management    

ABC stands for antecedent, behavior, and consequence. ABA therapists use the ABC technique to determine the sequence of events that occurs before, during, and after the disruptive behavior and eventually replace it with a positive one.  


To understand and modify disruptive behaviors, it is essential to consider the events that precede them, also known as antecedents. For example, each time a teacher gives a child a challenging math problem to solve, the child throws the pencil and walks out of the classroom. In this case, the teacher’s request represents the antecedent of the unwanted behavior.

Certain antecedents can help minimize disruptive behaviors, such as: 

  • Giving a warning before the transition to a new activity or setting
  • Making your expectations clear
  • Providing the child with choices
  • Taking into account environmental factors, such as stress, hunger, fatigue, or distractions
  • Adjusting the environment accordingly, for example, removing video screens and other distractions before bed or scheduling breaks to prevent the child from getting overwhelmed.


Behavior is the specific action, either positive or negative, that the child does in response to an antecedent. This is the behavior that you may want to discourage or encourage.


The consequence is the result of a behavior. It directly affects the likelihood of the behavior happening again. While reinforcement makes behavior likely to reoccur, punishment such as timeout makes the child less likely to repeat the behavior in the future. The more immediate the consequence, the more influence it has on the child’s behavior.


To encourage appropriate behavior through consequences, it is important that parents:


  • Make sure that the expectations are clear and concrete
  • Remain consistent with consequences
  • Ignore negative behaviors
  • Use positive reinforcement in the form of rewards, praise, and other incentives to encourage positive behaviors.    

Applied Behavioral Analysis (ABA) and Disruptive Behavior    

ABA therapy focuses on reducing disruptive behaviors and replacing them with desirable ones. Early intervention and a comprehensive treatment plan can help children with autism successfully manage their behaviors and improve their quality of life.

Focus on function

When assessing disruptive behavior in children with autism, ABA therapists focus on the function of the behavior rather than its characteristics. Understanding what the child is trying to communicate will allow the therapist to create appropriate antecedent strategies to reduce these behaviors. 

Functional behavioral assessment

To identify the function of disruptive behavior and suggest strategies for improvement, ABA therapists use the method known as functional behavioral assessment (FBA)


A functional behavior assessment consists of the following steps:

  • Defining the challenging behavior
  • Gathering and analyzing information
  • Finding out the reason for the negative behavior
  • Devising a plan to encourage positive behavior.

A variety of techniques can be implemented to conduct an FBA, including: 


  • Indirect methods, such as questionnaires and interviews, and
  • Direct methods (observation) where live behavioral data is recorded   

Function-based treatment

Once the function of the disruptive behavior has been identified through a functional behavioral analysis, the therapist can develop a treatment plan targeting that function. The goal is to teach the child an alternative behavior that will allow them to gain access to the same reinforcer that motivates the disruptive behavior.  

Tips for Parents    

The most effective way to deal with your child’s disruptive behavior is to ignore it, while at the same time teaching the child how to handle anger and frustration. Paying attention to what triggers tantrums can help you act before your child’s emotions escalate beyond the point where they can control them. 


Below, we list some tips to help you deal with disruptive behaviors.


  • Start by identifying the function of your child’s behavior. Does it occur because your child wants to escape a difficult task, gain access to a preferred item or activity, or get your attention?    
  • If the aim of the disruptive behavior is to escape non-preferred tasks, try dividing them down into smaller parts and provide a break to fun activities after the completion of each individual task.    
  • If the purpose of your child’s disruptive behavior is to gain access to preferred items or activities, teach them how to ask for the items. It is essential to provide the item as quickly as possible when requested appropriately and ignore minor disruptive behaviors. 
  • Similarly, if your child engages in disruptive behavior to get attention, show them alternative behavior that would have the same result.       
  • If the function of the disruptive behavior is not clear, the strategies you use are not effective, or your child’s behavior includes extreme aggression or self-injurious behavior, it is important to seek advice from a Board Certified Behavior Analyst (BCBA) or a mental health provider who has experience using ABA therapy.    


Disruptive behavior is a common issue faced by children with autism spectrum disorder, which can significantly impact their daily lives and functioning. ABA therapy focuses on understanding the antecedent-behavior-consequence sequence of behavior in order to identify triggers and implement effective interventions. 


If you are ready to work with the best ABA therapy provider in New York, New Jersey or Indiana, give us a call at (732) 402-0297. Our dedicated team is ready to help and we will treat you like family.

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