Function of Behavior: What Is Your Child on the Autism Spectrum Trying to Tell You?

Your child is communicating through their behavior. But what does it mean? An expert at Gateway Pediatric Therapy explains how ABA therapy uncovers the function of behavior.

Children on the autism spectrum, particularly those who experience difficulty communicating with others, express their wants and needs through their behavior. When they want your attention for instance, they may tap you on the arm — or they may yell loudly. Behavior Analysts refer to this as a function of behavior. Through Applied Behavior Analysis, or ABA therapy, Behavior Analysts seek to discover the reason why a particular behavior might be occurring so they can help children learn new ways to meet their needs, says Board Certified Behavior Analyst Nicolai Kowalski, Assistant Clinical Director at Gateway Pediatric Therapy in Sterling Heights.

There are four different functions of behavior, or reasons why behavior occurs: escape (avoiding an undesirable situation), social attention, access to a tangible object and sensory stimulation. These functions of behavior apply to all individuals, not just those on the autism spectrum. Positive or negative, when a child’s behavior achieves the desired result, they tend to continue to use that behavior.

“With ABA, we identify these functions which help us decrease challenging behaviors and replace them with safer or more appropriate behavior that still helps a child get their needs met,” Kowalski explains.

By replacing challenging behavior with more appropriate behavior, ABA therapists also help individuals communicate more effectively across multiple situations — and that means they can be understood more easily by a wider range of people.

How ABA uncovers function of behavior

Each child is different and each has a unique way of communicating through their behavior, but ABA therapists are uniquely qualified to watch closely and gather data.

“We observe and write down what happened before the behavior occurred and the outcome. What was the consequence?” says Kowalski, adding that individuals, including parents, can unknowingly reinforce challenging behaviors by giving the child what they want in order to alleviate the situation. Here’s where ABA therapy can help, by changing the response of the parent, and, in turn, the behavior of the child.

“An example is self-injury, like head hitting, when a child wants access to a favored item, like a tablet. A parent will instantly come to their child’s aid out of concern for potential injury and provide access to what they want,” Kowalski explains. ABA therapy seeks to replace self-injury with safer behavior. “When head hitting results in having access to that favorite item, the child is more likely to repeat that behavior in the future to create the same outcome. Parents can teach an alternative behavior, like encouraging the child to point and then immediately reinforce that positive behavior by giving access to the tablet.”

When a child learns that pointing to the tablet helps them achieve the desired result with less effort than self-injury or hitting, they are on their way to recognizing that they can apply these more appropriate behaviors to other situations, too.

The benefit of ABA therapy

Replacing challenging behavior can be difficult depending on the severity or safety concerns surrounding the behavior, where the behavior is occurring, and the resources and time available to the family. It is much easier to work through challenging behavior in the comfort of your own home than at the grocery store or a movie theater, for example.

Lean into the expertise of your ABA therapy team and put a plan in place to respond more effectively, no matter when or where the behavior is occurring, Kowalski suggests. “Once we figure out the function and why a specific behavior is occurring, we can create a behavior plan and help families learn what they need to do when this behavior occurs, in terms that make sense to everyone,” he says.

“We want parents to know that their BCBA isn’t just for their child, but for the whole family. We are here to help.”

Gateway Pediatric Therapy offers best-in-class ABA therapy at 14 locations in Michigan. Learn more at

Claire Charlton
Claire Charlton
An enthusiastic storyteller, Claire Charlton focuses on delivering top client service as a content editor for Metro Parent. In her 20+ years of experience, she has written extensively on a variety of topics and is keen on new tech and podcast hosting. Claire has two grown kids and loves to read, run, camp, cycle and travel.


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