The term extinction covers any decision that ends reinforcement of a specific behavior.

In applied behavior analysis (ABA) therapy, this may start with finding behaviors that the parent, teacher, or therapist engages in which accidentally reinforce maladaptive behaviors in the child with autism. For example, if the parent yells at the child for a repetitive, disruptive behavior, this attention may cause stress, but it can also accidentally reinforce the repetitive behavior so the child engages with it more often.

An ABA therapist may also create an extinction plan for positive reinforcement. The child with autism will be rewarded directly for learning an adaptive behavior. As they demonstrate that this behavior is retained, the therapist will slowly remove the reward. Extinction typically works best in combination with positive reinforcement.

What Is ABA Therapy?

Applied behavior analysis (ABA) therapy is an evidence-based therapeutic practice that uses behavioral psychology to identify maladaptive behaviors. Then, the therapist determines a treatment plan that aims to teach adaptive behaviors, end maladaptive behaviors, and retain positive behavioral changes outside of therapy sessions.

ABA therapy is the leading treatment for autism, a developmental disorder that manifests primarily in behaviors associated with social skills, communicating, personal interests, attention span, and some motor functions.

Autism is a spectrum disorder, meaning that some people may not have noticeable symptoms except for struggling with one or two issues, like understanding sarcasm. Others may have significant physical and mental impairments, so they cannot express themselves verbally. Some people with autism may struggle to walk or stand, or be unable to focus on tasks outside of some core obsessions.

Behavior therapists trained in ABA use several techniques to help clients with autism manage symptoms of this condition. They create a treatment plan and monitor the results of implementing this plan, so they can determine through objective measurements whether the client is making progress or struggling. When a client with autism struggles to reduce maladaptive behaviors and learn adaptive behaviors, the ABA therapist will adjust their approach because a different method of building skills might work better.

How Extinction Is Used in Behavioral Therapy

ABA therapy comes from a psychological approach of behavior analysis that is based on theories researched by B.F. Skinner in the 1950s. These are Skinner’s basic principles of behavior:

  • Reinforcement
  • Punishment
  • Extinction
  • Stimulus control
  • Motivation

With these basic principles, Skinner described not only how a certain stimulus can elicit a specific behavioral response in an organism, but how responses to the organism’s behavior could influence whether the behavior was repeated or not. His studies involving rats and pigeons, for example, showed that punishments would deter specific behaviors, and rewards would encourage specific behaviors. He also demonstrated that some behaviors that received positive reinforcement would continue once the reward was gone or when the reward appeared intermittently.

In ABA therapy for people with autism, especially children with autism, punishment is not specifically used, although removal of a reward may be implemented to discourage maladaptive behaviors. Sometimes, any attention (including punishment) might act as a reinforcer of a behavior, so extinction can be applied to remove that reinforcer.

The term extinction in ABA therapy applies to no longer providing reinforcement for any behavior that had previously been reinforced. This might include a reaction in anger if a child with autism does something disruptive. It might include slowly removing rewards from a token economy that encourages a child to develop a positive behavior, as long as the child demonstrates that they can maintain that positive behavior.

The Extinction Burst

Treatment plans in ABA therapy often start with providing rewards to encourage learning a positive behavior while ignoring maladaptive behaviors. Over time, the therapist must implement an extinction plan, in which rewards or reinforcers are removed.

Extinction may also involve withdrawing or removing negative reinforcers, like direct punishment of a disruptive behavior, which is a practice cultivated by the therapist, teacher, or parent as a change in their response to the child. The term extinction covers the removal of a specific stimulus, which can help determine whether a certain behavior continues or not.

Behavior therapy reports that clients often experience an extinction burst. This is a common psychological phenomenon that occurs when a maladaptive behavior suddenly gets worse before it gets better. This happens to many people, whether they have autism or not, as they attempt to change behaviors.

For example, someone trying to lose weight may do well with a diet and exercise program for several weeks. Then, they crave a candy bar, eat it, and suddenly feel terrible about breaking their diet. This leads to quitting the diet and exercise routine in frustration or despair, which is an extinction burst.

It takes time to learn new behaviors, and when an extinction burst occurs, this may be coupled with aggression and emotional reactions. Continuing to implement the program is important, especially for ABA therapists working with children diagnosed with autism. Otherwise, they reinforce the maladaptive behavior’s return. Using positive reinforcement in combination with extinction supports behavioral change more effectively than extinction alone.

Combining Extinction With Rewards in Differential Reinforcement

Extinction may be used as part of differential reinforcement, a process focused on reducing problematic or challenging behavior. The process is a combination of positive reinforcement for good or adaptive behaviors, and extinction of certain normal or usual responses to a negative or maladaptive behavior. By stopping negative reinforcement, the goal is to eliminate the problematic behavior.

Applications of differential reinforcement may include:

  • Differential reinforcement of zero rates (DRO). This process involves providing a reward, or reinforcer, for zero occurrences of a challenging behavior. For example, if the child sucks their thumb, their ABA therapist may reward them with playtime with a favorite toy if the child can go 10 minutes without sucking their thumb.
  • Differential reinforcement of incompatible behavior (DRI). The ABA therapist may reward a behavior that otherwise makes it hard to perform the challenging behavior. For example, if the child screams with excitement during conversation, the therapist will reward them for using a normal vocal level during conversation rather than screaming. The child is unable to scream during conversation if they are talking at an appropriate vocal level, so that positive behavior is rewarded.
  • Differential reinforcement of alternative behavior (DRA). Rewards or reinforcers may be given when the child performs a different action rather than a challenging behavior. For example, if the child struggles with self-injurious behaviors like hitting their head with their fist, the therapist may reward the child for coloring in a coloring book instead of performing the harmful action.

Adding positive reinforcement for behavioral changes reduces the risk of extinction bursts. Researchers examining 42 instances of extinction through intervention strategies like differential reinforcement found that clients benefited more from the addition of positive reinforcement, which reduced extinction bursts. There were 15% fewer cases of extinction bursts when positive procedures were combined with extinction procedures.

Extinction Is an Important Concept in ABA Therapy

The term extinction can apply to a few practices in ABA therapy, from slowly reducing how often a reward is given so the child can learn to internally motivate the behavior, to ending a practice that accidentally reinforces a maladaptive behavior.

Putting extinction into a treatment plan for a child with autism supports the child’s learning process so they have reduced stress that can lead to the resurfacing of challenging behaviors. The process is important as one of several approaches during ABA therapy.

If your child’s ABA therapist is using extinction in sessions, make sure you are on board with your interactions with your child. You can reinforce positive behaviors and discourage negative behaviors by using some of the same approaches your child’s therapist is using. When everyone is on the same page, the results from ABA therapy take hold faster.


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