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Demystifying Extinction in ABA Therapy

When your child begins their journey in the ABA world, so many new concepts and terms suddenly become part of your world. Your clinicians or the community of families you now lean on for support might be using various terms you may still need to learn. 

A term you may have heard before but never in reference to ABA therapy is “extinction.” And while it has nothing to do with dinosaurs, it’s important to understand what it is and when it’s appropriate for your child.

Defining Extinction

Extinction can be simply defined as withholding reinforcement that previously maintained a behavior. 

We can take a step back and define reinforcement, too. Reinforcement is a consequence that immediately follows a behavior and makes that behavior more likely to occur in the future. Essentially, reinforcement strengthens behaviors. For example, if someone praises a student repeatedly for performing well on their exams, the student may be more likely to perform well on an exam in the future. 

When we talk about extinction, we are referring to the process of gradually reducing a harmful or unwanted behavior by withholding the reinforcement that previously maintained it. Unwanted behaviors typically take time to decrease and require the efforts and coordination of the child’s entire care team. 

Extinction as a behavioral principle has a long history of implementation and years of research in both the experimental and applied literature in our field. There are ample cases of extinction being utilized as a very effective intervention for eliminating problematic behaviors. But just like any intervention, it is continually being perfected, as are the guidelines for use.  

Extinction in a child’s behavior plan will not always be appropriate, as there are many components to consider. Every individual learner is different, as are their needs and circumstances. What may be suitable and effective for one learner may not be for another. At BPI, we understand that each learner's unique situation requires personalized behavior plans to see meaningful growth and progress.

The “Considerations” 

The first thing that must be considered is the function of the behavior we want to decrease. This means that the clinical team must conduct an analysis to determine the variables or reinforcers that are currently strengthening the behavior or making it likely to occur. Identifying the function can be accomplished in different ways, and when the clinical team identifies the reinforcers maintaining the problem behavior, they can decide if extinction is the appropriate procedure to decrease that behavior. If extinction is deemed appropriate for the situation, the clinical team can develop a plan where that behavior will no longer access those reinforcers. 

Let’s explore an example of determining function related to extinction. The clinical team might observe that when a child engages in head-hitting, they are typically given a specific item or preferred food which then causes the behavior to stop. Delivering the item or food is likely strengthening the behavior. In this case, a plan of extinction would indicate that when this behavior occurs, the child will no longer gain access to that specific item or preferred food. 

Another factor that must be considered when implementing this procedure includes positive reinforcement and functionally equivalent replacement behavior. Extinction should rarely be implemented in isolation. The replacement behavior should be an easy behavior the learner can engage in that replaces the problem behavior and receives adequate quality and amounts of reinforcement. 

If we look back to our example, our learner engages in head-hitting behavior in order to gain access to preferred items and also has limited communication skills. The selected replacement behavior should still result in access to preferred items and must also be relatively easy to engage in. In this case, the extinction plan would likely include teaching the child an appropriate communication response to request preferred items while preferred items would be withheld following head hitting behavior. However, if you only withhold preferred items without teaching another way to get them, the plan will never work and will likely result in a lot of frustration for both the client and parents. Extinction cannot be purely about withholding reinforcement. Finding appropriate replacement behaviors is necessary. 

Consistency is another extremely important consideration. Implementing an extinction plan will only be successful with consistency. For extinction to reduce behavior, the reinforcer is withheld every time the behavior occurs.  That can be easier said than done in some cases and with certain behaviors.

Clinicians can sometimes fall victim to creating a plan of extinction only applicable in a very controlled environment. The issue is that children do not always live or receive treatment in a controlled environment. Inconsistent implementation of extinction has many risks. One risk is that it can unintentionally strengthen the behavior you are trying to decrease because reinforcers are delivered sometimes but not always. 

Finally, preparing for the possible unwanted side effects of extinction is necessary. Even with expert implementation and careful consideration, side effects are possible. Sometimes the unwanted behaviors may temporarily get worse before they get better, which is referred to as an extinction burst. Withholding reinforcers can result in emotional responding for the child and feelings of guilt or frustration for the parents. 

This is where your role, that of the amazing caregiver, comes into play. If extinction is recommended, it is beneficial to have a discussion with your BCBA about the feasibility of the implementation. Is it possible to consistently withhold a particular reinforcer outside of when your child is at the clinic or home? Explore this question with your clinical team when discussing extinction and if it aligns with the values you have for your family and your child’s treatment.

You should feel empowered to ask questions about what is expected of you, your family, your child’s teachers, and anyone else in your child's support system. You play a big role in consistency and feasibility, and it is okay if you feel that it will not be possible to implement. Remember that your BCBA is on your team and wants to discuss all possible options and concerns to build the best plan for your child. 

It is also important to feel empowered to ask your BCBA about their professional experience implementing extinction and about anyone on the team with extensive experience. Having a highly trained and skilled team is critical in implementing any ABA method, but especially extinction, as there are many nuances that a clinical team must be able to navigate. 

Things to Remember 

Extinction is a very well-researched, effective procedure, but it comes with many considerations and should not be implemented lightly. As research continues, different strategies and guidelines for ethical practice have emerged and shaped a better, more compassionate approach to these interventions. 

ABA should not be one-size-fits-all. It should focus on the learner and provide individualized care, opting for what is appropriate for their progress and growth. 

Chances are you are reading this because extinction may have been discussed as an option for your child, or you are simply researching your child's options for decreasing certain behaviors. If extinction is suggested for your child’s behavioral plan, remember to ask those critical questions. Those clarifying questions will help ensure you are prepared to be an active participant in your child’s care plan. 

And most importantly, remember: You’ve got this!

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Meet the Author

Erin O'Brien, BCBA
Director of Supervised Fieldwork

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