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ABA Therapy and Reducing Harmful Behaviors

Table of Contents

Repeatedly banging their head against the wall, destroying a piece of furniture, or pushing someone else for no apparent reason are all harmful behaviors. 

Though these undesired behaviors are not unique to children with autism, 59% of autistic individuals have engaged in harmful behavior at some point in their lives, including self-injury, aggressive behavior, and destructiveness.

Harmful behaviors can be incredibly disruptive to an autistic child’s daily life and to those of their families. 

They never know when your child will act out, how to calm them down, or if they’ll harm themselves or others.

Yet, there is help. 

The first step is to examine the harmful behavior’s causes.

Then, develop a treatment plan using Applied Behavior Analysis or ABA Therapy.

At Heartlinks, we have helped many families understand the underlying causes of their child’s harmful behavior. 

We’ve watched our young clients move beyond their destructive behavior and live fulfilling lives using individualized ABA therapy.

The once harmful behavior that controlled the life of your autistic child and the rest of their family is either subdued or completely gone, all thanks to ABA therapy.       

What are Common Harmful Behaviors in Autistic Children?

The term ‘harmful behavior’ is a broad definition of any behavior exhibited by a child, whether autistic or not, that is detrimental to them, others, or their surroundings.

There are three sub-categories of harmful behavior: self-injurious, destructive, and aggressive.

Self-Injurious Behavior:

Any behavior that results in physical harm to the child is considered self-injurious. Examples of this type include:

  • Pinching
  • Biting
  • Headbanging
  • Slapping
  • Cutting
  • Scratching
Upset child

Aggressive Behavior

Hitting, kicking, or punching others are all examples of aggressive behavior in autistic children. Unlike self-injurious behavior, aggression is directed at other people. The intention isn’t necessarily to hurt the other person. Instead, it’s the child’s way of communicating their displeasure, anxiety, or lack of understanding of a specific situation.

Destructive Behavior

Breaking or dismantling furniture, making holes in walls, scratching window glass, and even a smashed iPad are all examples of destructive behavior. Unlike aggressive or self-injurious behavior, destructive is aimed at inanimate objects, not people. 

Why do Children with Autism Behave Differently?

Autism is a neurological spectrum disorder. There is a wide range of behavior that falls under the autism umbrella. The way one child with autism acts can be pretty different than that of another.

Yet if your autistic child exhibits harmful behavior, the cause of the behavior can be divided into one of three categories:

  • Biological
  • Social
  • Biological exasperated by social consequences

Biological Cause

From anxiety to painful gastrointestinal issues, the range of biological causes of harmful behavior in an autistic child is wide. 

Other natural causes can be sensory processing issues, which many adults and children experience on the spectrum.

Social Cause

The social reasons for a child’s harmful behavior can be traced back to their desire for positive or negative attention. They may also be exhibiting this behavior to avoid a particular situation (i.e., recess with their peers) or a specific object (i.e., having to use the toilet).

Social Consequences Can Aggravate Biological Causes

The initial cause of the harm might have had a biological origin, such as physical pain, but continued due to social consequences

Therefore, maybe your autistic child demonstrated dangerous behaviors when consuming certain foods due to a gluten allergy. However, once that was fixed, they still participated in harmful behaviors due to the attention they received.   

It’s important to remember that the harmful behaviors observed in an autistic child are understood to be a form of communication. Whether your child is non-verbal or has challenges communicating, everything from stimming to tantrums and the most extreme aggressive behavior is your child’s means of expressing themselves. 

What are the Behavior Reduction Strategies Used in ABA Therapy?

When a child presents with harmful behavior, the first thing that needs to be done is a functional behavior analysis (FBA). This is a standard assessment strategy designed to unveil the underlying causes of a child’s harmful behavior. 

An ABA therapy plan cannot be developed until a therapist can identify the context and function of a child’s harmful or challenging behavior. 

Once the cause and context of the harmful behavior are identified, it’s time to apply the behavior reduction strategies of ABA therapy. 

  1. Personalized Treatment Plan

One of the most popular aspects of ABA therapy is that it can be customized to the specific needs of a child on the spectrum. This type of personalization can be applied when working on reducing harmful behavior.

A personalized treatment plan could include many interventions, including speech and language therapy, behavioral therapy, social skills training, occupational therapy, and medication management. 

The elements of a child’s personalized treatment plan are chosen based on their needs, weaknesses, and strengths relating to their harmful behavior. 

  1. Reinforcement

The most popular and vital applied principle of behavior analysis is reinforcement. 

Simply put, reinforcement entails consequences to strengthen desired behavior. Strengthening a behavior means increasing the likelihood that it will continue to occur.

young girl getting reinforcement from her mother

There are positive, negative, and differential within the reinforcement realm.

Whether verbal praise, a favorite food, or tangible items like toys, it is a reward specific to the child and the desired behavior.

Positive reinforcement occurs when a reward such as a sticker, verbal praise, or a toy is given to the child when the desired behavior occurs.

Negative reinforcement is the opposite of positive. Something is taken away from the child when the desired behavior occurs.

For example, if the child reads independently for 20 minutes, they have removed the demand to complete 10 minutes of math because they’ve done what is asked.

Unlike positive and negative reinforcement, designed to increase desired behaviors, differential reinforcement withholds reinforcement for inappropriate behavior.

  1. Self-regulation skills

Teaching a child on the spectrum about regulating their emotions can be approached in various creative ways. The goal is to show them that self-regulation is more than what to do when undesired behaviors occur. Instead, the emphasis is on preventing these harmful behaviors from happening altogether. Practice is critical when learning about self-regulation skills. 

There are many strategies for teaching emotional regulation, including the following:

  • Meditative, deep breathing
  • Progressive muscle relaxation
  • Exercise
  • Stretching
  • Drawing or painting 

Get The Best Out of Your Child with Heartlinks

The goal of ABA therapy is to reduce harmful behaviors by working with autistic children to build the skills that enable them to communicate their needs in the healthiest ways possible. 

At Heartlinks, to accomplish this, we must realize that each child who walks through our doors has different skills and learning styles. We must adapt our behavior therapy processes to meet their young needs to reduce their harmful behaviors. 

It is a challenge we enjoy and undertake with the utmost care!

For more information on how Heartlinks can help your child with harmful behaviors, contact us here.

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