Behavior Analysis

Posted: December 21st, 2008 under communication, socialization.
Tags: , , ,

Years ago I took a graduate school class in Animal Behavior.   The study of animal behavior had made great leaps forward in the decade before, after pioneer students of animal behavior learned how to analyze animal behavior in detail.   The study of human behavior lagged badly…it’s now catching up, but still bedeviled by the very assumptions we were taught to avoid when studying animal behavior.

All behavior, we were taught, is meaningful–it means something, it communicates something about the subject.  Probably not what you first think of, either.   For instance, most of us interpret behavior in terms of a critter’s conscious intent:  we think of a cow or a horse or a small child as “stubborn” when they don’t do what we want.  We may think they’re “trying to make me mad.”   In autistic terms, we fail to demonstrate a theory of mind–the understanding that reality, to the other person or animal, is not necessarily our reality.

When I first began reading studies of child development and psychology, in order to help our autistic son, I realized just  how bad the interpretations of child behavior were (as then published.)    A lot of it was a simple binary–behaviors were normal or not.   A child building a tower with blocks (if he said it was a tower) was normal.  A child lining up blocks in a row (if he didn’t say he was pretending to make a train) wasn’t.   A child pushing a toy car was normal; a child turning it upside down and spinning the wheels was not.   The behavior of autistic children was routinely described in the literature as “random” or “meaningless”–terms my professor in grad school would not allow us to use.   (The cow cropping various plants in a field is not exhibiting “random” behavior–we had to do “bite analysis” and find out what the cow was really doing.   Nibbling grass and weeds convinces the student that a cow likes contrast, just as we do in a meal…a little sour, a little sweet, a little tangy…there are patterns, relating both to the relative abundance of the different forages and to the cow’s preferred rhythm–three bites of this, one bite of that, two bites of something else, three of the first…)  In other words, behavior is full of meaning, and looking at the context in which the behavior occurs helps tease out that meaning.

Infant and child behavior reveals what is working, as well as what is not working, in that child’s neurology.  If the child orients to red, for instance–walking around the room looking at, and touching, red things–then you know the child can see red as distinct from other colors.    If the child can recognize a cow in a field–but not in a photograph–that indicates something unusual in visual processing.    (Our son could recognize clear line drawings of objects, but not photographs of those objects: color photographs were the last he learned.)   By careful observation (tedious but necessary) you can map the sensory and sensory-processing strengths and gaps, and also the cognitive level for each component.

Behavior is a response to something–internal or external, and often both.   Repeated behaviors are the result of repeated inputs…if a child has a meltdown at 6:30 pm every day,  something is happening at that time every day.  What?   A certain noise?  A certain level of tension among family members (including fear of another meltdown at 6:30…)?   Someone arriving home, or leaving?   The dog comes inside for its dinner?   A level of hunger?   A performance demand (such as “go wash your hands for supper”)?   Whenever behavior forms a pattern, something is sustaining that pattern–changing the behavior requires changing what sustains it (and retraining, but first fix the trigger.)

In general, people (like animals) repeat behaviors that are positively reinforced, and decrease behaviors that are negatively reinforced…but it may be difficult to define what a positive reinforcement is, for someone whose sensory processing is not average.   A big smile or loud “Attaboy!” may be a negative reinforcement for a child who cannot read facial expressions or understand tones of voice….and thus produce the opposite result from what you’d expect.   Again, careful, detailed observation will reveal what that individual finds pleasurable…it may be a touch, or a soft word, or a certain piece of music, or a specific toy or object to hold.  Food is often used as a reinforcer, but that has its limits and its long-term bad results, too.  The more you know about what an individual finds pleasant, the more varied reinforcements you can provide.

A constant temptation is imputing negative motivation–assuming an undesired behavior is done on purpose, to annoy or defy.   It may be–but more often, with autistic children especially–something else is going on.  The child is experiencing stress he/she can’t handle (doesn’t know how to handle), or is in pain (including from something that wouldn’t bother you),  or is being asked to perform at a level he/she is not yet able to reach, etc.    Just as a crying infant isn’t crying to annoy the parent (though a half hour of crying will bring most parents to a high level of adult frustration), and a good parent will consider reasons the baby may cry–tired, hungry, wet, dirty, colic–so an older autistic child is likely to have reasons for undesired behavior that fit a younger child’s model.

The obvious behaviors–talking or not talking, hitting or  not hitting,  doing as told or not doing as told–are easy to see (though the context may not be), but the little behaviors are just as important.   The unconscious body language and facial expressions of an autistic child are much the same as with a nonautistic child–just used in different circumstances, because they are relaxed and happy less often.   Adults are often not good at reading children’s faces (many adults aren’t good at reading adults’ faces–persons of high authority, for instance, have been shown in research to be unable to recognize common expressions, whereas persons at the bottom of the social/economic ladder can–because they must to survive.)   Adults routinely ignore/deny obvious signs of distress–“You’re not really frightened!” and “Of course you’re having fun!”–because it’s convenient for the adults (who have the power.)

With the nonverbal, in particular, it’s important to notice the outward signs of inward emotional state–relaxation vs. tension,  a “real” smile vs. a nervous smile, confusion, anxiety, worry, fear in varying degrees, excitement/anticipation,   glee.   Posture and gait reveal emotion too.    Keeping in  mind that every behavior means something–is a form of communication–the study of an individual’s behavior moves away from a sterile determination of Normal or Abnormal.  Instead,  the details of behavior in context suggest not just what is “wrong” with someone, but what is working, so that a plan of action based on strengths can be made.


  • Comment by AnnMCN — January 5, 2009 @ 8:08 pm


    I had had some behavior analysis in college psych classes which were a huge help in dealing with my own children; however years later when I went back to school and earned certification in Special Ed, I was horrified at how few people working in the school system wanted to be bothered by looking for the A-B-C (Antecedent, Behavior, Consequence), and wanted to just punish if rules were broken. As you said, it really is faster in the long run to take the time and attention to see and try to understand.

    was central to dealing with all sorts of behaviors, but when I tried to use that as a teacher, my co-workers and even the parents acted as if it was ju

  • Comment by Elizabeth — January 5, 2009 @ 9:25 pm


    The simply right/wrong, reward/punish dichotomies are deep in the culture (in many cultures, not just ours.) In the short run, domination provides a reward to the one who dominates–a biochemical rush, a rise in testosterone. That it provides worse long-term results is either not known or accepted as the price of that short-term gain.

    And it even works, for neurotypical kids, if there’s enough reward for right, not just punishment for wrong (but the world is full of stingy dominants, for whom nothing is ever worth reward.) Does not work worth beans with autistic kids.

    Do you know Karen Pryor’s books?

  • Comment by AnnMCN — January 7, 2009 @ 5:30 am


    Yeah, I *knew* that spanking and yelling were counterproductive with my oldest, but there was always the pull to a fast fix. He was a handful until high school. On the other hand, a little behavioral analysis kept me paying attention, and not escalating physical confrontation.

    Did a quick Wikipedia and Amazon search for Karen Pryor, and I bet I had her breast feeding book, back when I was doing that. I did not know she was the one who started clicker training, but I’ve seen a lot of different applications of that with animals (recent NYT article about unusual service animals had a clicker trained miniature horse that was a guide animal for someone blind).

  • Comment by Elizabeth — January 7, 2009 @ 9:36 am


    Her books on training are great. I had bought _Lads Before the Wind_ back in grad school, mostly because it had a picture of dolphins on the cover (!!) but later used it to retrain my first horse. Her next, _Don’t Shoot the Dog_, is the best intro to behavior analyis and modification I’ve ever seen–brief, witty, precise, and immediately useful to novices (I’ve given it to teachers, parents, etc. and am presently without a copy myself.) We used it a lot with our son–it was hilarious then to see him using perfect technique (better than mine!) to “shape” therapists and a psychiatrist. His timing on reinforcement was impeccable and his ability to plan ahead told me that he had way more social ability than anyone but me thought. He had an early intervention speech therapist (whom he didn’t like) taking him to the toilet every five minutes–she was afraid he had a kidney problem and *did not realize she was being trained.*

  • Comment by AnnMCN — January 7, 2009 @ 11:25 am


    BWHAHAHA! That is hilarious! Intelligence is there, but not manifested in the way the therapist was expecting. I’ll look up her books.

    On the flip side, my son preferred the “Opportunity Room” (alone, with no decorations or amusements) to being in the classroom, and he told me so. When I told the teachers during a conference that he misbehaved in order to go there, and that they were rewarding him, they said that it was policy to do that and they couldn’t change. It took years to break him of causing trouble to get out of class.

  • Comment by Elizabeth — January 7, 2009 @ 11:43 am


    I remember in my own school days that creating a diversion (sometimes trouble, sometimes another ploy) to get out of the work the teacher intended was pretty common. Some teachers never caught on that the earnest-eyed student asking questions was really acting for self and friends in delaying (for instance) a quiz until the class period had run out. Fake bomb threats were another “get us out of this place” ploy.

    And with autistic kids, who can be so different in sensory processing, the punishment/reward thing goes haywire (as with your son) if teachers/caregivers don’t pay attention to what is reinforcing for that individual. M’s adventure with the psychiatrist, when he shaped her to get out of her revolving chair so he could get into it, was hysterical–but I’d been told to sit quietly in the corner and not intervene, so I didn’t. He faked stumbling toward/into something breakable–it was clearly a fake (to me, who knew him well, and anyway he shot me a glance to see if I was going to stop him) and she left her chair…and he was in it and whirling around in circles before she realized what was what. It wasn’t his only trick that day, but it was the funniest.

    The others were sad–he didn’t like her, he didn’t like being in that place, and he could not recognize that performing way under his usual ability was not a good long-term strategy. Heck, he was only six…not many six-year-olds do think long-term.

  • Comment by sari — January 7, 2009 @ 5:05 pm



    Our experience was similar to yours. My son loved ISS (suspension room): small, white, devoid of decoration, one person. In twenty minutes he completed all the work he’d refused to do the three days prior. The next morning he asked to go back.

    When asked to remove suspension from the table, the principal said she’d try something different. He was suspended a half day in the white room with no work and a silent proctor. Punishment? Any other kid would’ve been bored silly, but he spent four hours–our tax dollars at work–observing a spider. Again he begged to go back.

    All this was pre-diagnosis. We replaced punitive actions with a positive reinforcement system, including a little closet room (known as Z’s office) where he could retreat when he felt overwhelmed or on the verge of a meltdown.

  • Comment by AnnMCN — January 7, 2009 @ 7:09 pm


    Yes, Sari, very similar. He was diagnosed ADD and the classrooms with a half dozen work groups and brightly colored labels on everything exacerbated his lack of focus. Now he’s grown, and has been doing well in the Army for 5 years — he’s chosen his structure.

  • Comment by Margarita — December 11, 2015 @ 1:30 pm


    I worked for a long time with a viearty of people with issues on the spectrumMy son has Asperger’s its been an interesting journeyThe people I have worked with have given me a great understanding and he helped me understand themStepping into their world and doing things their way is a massive learning experienceDrawing them into mine was made easier a balance was found according to each individualWith my son a lot of it was unconscious on my part drawing him out into the world with patience and fun he wasn’t diagnosed until he was 18The person who assessed him was interested in his coping strategies of which he has manyHe is doing very well the journey is not over but then mine isn’t eitherEach flower blooms in its own time and the more patience and encouragement (without pressure) they receive the more amazing the bloomThe boy who would not be hugged has a partner and a child and is studying Psychology because he wants a better understanding of what makes him tickHe used to meditate always had to have candles and liked nothing better than a bath with oils candles and musicThe kite is much closer to the earth than it used to be it does need to travel further away occasionally but isn’t that all part of flying?He has his grounding stone’s(dependable people he trusts) and if you wait and let him come to you it works x

  • Comment by Elizabeth — July 29, 2021 @ 9:22 pm


    Yes,indeed. Beautifully said.

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