Extinction Bursts and the Importance of Full Disclosure

This blog post was written by Dr. Aleck Myers, Clinical Director for the Autism Society of North Carolina.

Recently, I wrote a behavior support plan for an individual who frequently tantrums. Great methodology, if I do say so myself! It was well written and explained the rationale of the program to family and staff, stressing the importance of strengthening functional communication (the individual was communicating beautifully, just not the way we wanted him to! There’s nothing like a good sit-down-and scream-bloody-murder to let us know when he wants something or wants to quit something!).

We need to give people acceptable tools to express their wants and needs. So the program offered ways to do that. And the program stressed the importance of not paying any more attention to the tantrum behaviors than absolutely necessary. In other words, tantrums were to be placed on “extinction” (removing all attention to the behavior. Note though: not the person; the behavior). So this psychologist left the training feeling good about the program and the willingness of family members and staff to implement the program correctly and collect all of the necessary data.

Two and a half days later, I received a distressed email from Mom. Tantrums were through the roof in frequency, she was exhausted, and she felt that the program was making the individual’s behavior worse. It was then I realized, with great chagrin, that I had failed an important part of my training…I hadn’t described the “extinction burst.”

When you begin to ignore behaviors that are socially reinforced, the behaviors will increase in frequency and intensity almost immediately. This is the extinction burst. You can think of it as, hey, this used to get me what I wanted, now it doesn’t…that makes me mad, so let’s try harder! As a professional, when I see this burst in behavior, I feel assured that the program is going to work. From this parent’s point of view, though, not having been warned, things were getting much worse. Luckily, I was able to reassure the mother that this was not a bad sign, and if she and the staff hung in there, things would improve soon. Mom is a real trooper, and she, Dad, and the staff persisted.

I called the mother a couple of days later and was greatly relieved that a) she was still talking to me, and b) the afternoon after she had emailed me, the unwanted behaviors decreased, and that things were definitely improving now. This was further enhanced by an email two days later, indicating considerable improvement. And that the emphasis on strengthening communication was continuing.

Now if I can just improve my own functional communication!  I think I learned my lesson…

You can reach Dr. Aleck Myers at amyers@autismsociety-nc.org.

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