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ABA therapists rely on the functions of behaviors to determine the reasons behind challenging behaviors in children with autism and devise suitable treatment plans. Keep reading to learn more about the different types of functions of behavior and how they are used in ABA therapy.

What Are the Four Functions of Behavior?

Applied behavior analysis (ABA) therapy is based on the assumption that all behavior serves a function or purpose. When a child with autism behaves in a disruptive way, it is because this behavior meets that child’s specific need.

Identifying and understanding the functions of behaviors can help ABA therapists prevent challenging behaviors in children with autism and teach them other, more appropriate ways to have their needs met. 

ABA distinguishes among four main functions of behavior: 

  • Escape
  • Attention
  • Access to tangibles or activities
  • Sensory stimulation 


Children with autism engage in escape behaviors to delay or avoid undesirable activities or interactions with others. Escape behaviors often result from a lack of motivation or ability to perform a complex task.

Typical escape behaviors include:

  • Running away when asked to do a difficult task
  • Hiding when confronted with a challenging situation
  • Tantrums or physical aggression when faced with an uncomfortable situation 
  • Throwing objects on the floor to escape an activity
  • Avoiding certain people or situations
  • Self-injurious behavior

While all children occasionally engage in escape behaviors, children with autism show much higher rates and greater intensity of these behaviors than their neurotypical peers. 


Children on the autism spectrum engage in attention-seeking behaviors to force others to pay attention to them or to provoke certain reactions. These reactions can be positive, for example, seeking recognition for doing something good, or negative, such as eliciting anger or scolding from parents and teachers.

Dysfunctional attention-seeking behaviors include:

  • Raising voice
  • Crying
  • Whining
  • Throwing a tantrum
  • Aggression towards others (hitting, kicking, or biting)
  • Self harm

When managing attention-seeking behaviors in children with autism, it is essential to consider safety as these behaviors can be dangerous, either to the self or others. 

Access to tangible items or activities

A child with autism may behave in a certain way to gain access to a preferred toy, food item, or activity. In this case, the child is not trying to avoid a situation, but is actively doing something in order to get what he or she considers to be a reward. 

Access behaviors include:

  • Throwing a tantrum
  • Crying
  • Whining
  • Aggression
  • Taking the desired object away from someone else
  • Self-injurious behavior

Unlike escape and attention-seeking behaviors, behaviors whose main function is access are often positive. For example, a child might get dressed or do their chores quickly to be allowed to play outside. 

Sensory stimulation

The sensory behavior function refers to the child’s repetitive body movement or sounds whose purpose is to provide a calming feeling, reduce sensory overload, or remove an uncomfortable internal sensation, like pain or itching. Contrary to escape, attention seeking, and access to tangibles, the purpose of this function of behavior is not to gain attention from others. 

Behaviors that have sensory stimulation as a function include:

  • Rocking back and forth
  • Scratching
  • Picking at hair or skin
  • Cracking knuckles
  • Hand flapping
  • Twisting hair
  • Humming 

Although some of these actions may appear as self harm, this is not the goal of sensory behaviors. They are not necessarily negative, unless they hurt the child, like severe hand biting, or affect their attention to the outside world. 

Can a Single Behavior Have More than One Function at Once? 

A single behavior can have more than one function. For example, a child may throw a tantrum in class both in order to gain attention from a teacher and to escape from completing a difficult task. What’s more, some behaviors serve all four functions at once—they can be used for attention, escape, access, and sensory stimulation. 


In ABA therapy, behaviors that have more than one function are referred to as multiply controlled behaviors. They usually have a primary and a secondary function. The primary function occurs more often and with more intensity than the secondary one.

How Aba Works with the Four Functions of Behavior

A therapist will start by observing the child in their environment to determine what happens before and after the problem behavior occurs. Once the therapist understands why the child engages in disruptive behavior, he or she can develop an intervention strategy and teach a replacement behavior. It is essential that this behavior can meet the same need as the negative behavior, but in a more socially acceptable way.

Positive reinforcement technique

ABA therapists use the positive reinforcement technique to reduce problematic behaviors. To do so, they first need to identify the consequence that is reinforcing the behavior and remove it, a process referred to as extinction. For example, if a child yells out to get the teacher’s attention in the classroom, the teacher has to stop giving attention to avoid reinforcing the negative behavior.

The therapist will also use aspects of reinforcement to replace negative behaviors with positive ones. If the child is using disruptive behavior as means of obtaining attention, not only does this behavior need to be discontinued, but the child also has to learn how to get attention in a more appropriate way, for example, by raising a hand before speaking.

Children with autism thrive on predictability and with consistent practice, they will learn that problematic behaviors are not useful and will engage in them less often. Because every child with autism is different, ABA therapists work with the child and parents to find the best approach for addressing the challenging behavior.


The ABC method is one of the techniques used by ABA therapists to identify functions of behavior in children with autism.


ABC stands for:


  • A – Antecedent
  • B – Behavior
  • C – Consequence


Antecedent or what happens right before the child engages in the target behavior. In some cases, the antecedent is the root cause of the behavior of the child. For example, the child hasn’t had a cookie in a while.


Behavior follows the antecedent, for instance, the child asks for a cookie.


The consequence is what happens directly after a behavior. For example, the child gets a cookie after pointing at the cookie jar. Repeated consequences will reinforce the behavior.


Seeing behavior as a logical chain of progression allows therapists to better understand why a child is acting in a certain way.

Recording ABC data

Recording in-depth ABC data helps determine what factors lead to a child’s behavior and hypothesize its function. This way, the therapist can estimate what environmental triggers may cause the negative behavior, at what time of day it is more likely to occur, and how long it may last.


ABA therapists use ABC data sheets to map out specific behaviors and examine the function of behavior. They observe and record all instances of behavior, as well as what happened right before the behavior (antecedent), what happened immediately after the behavior (consequence), and what outcome did the child achieve (the function of the target behavior). 


By looking at the entire cycle of behavior, the therapist can gain a greater understanding of a child’s behavioral patterns and, as a result, create a comprehensive treatment plan.


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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