How Do I Know if it is the Autism or “Just Behavior?"

By — Autism Society
Updated on Apr 24, 2014

How do I know if it is the autism or just behavior? Restated, this question is, “How can I tell if a behavior is a result of autism or if it is a willful choice?” This is a very important question.

Consider Bob, a 10-year-old boy with Asperger Syndrome (AS). Every morning, as his classmates enter the room, he hits them. His teachers assumed that Bob was being aggressive. Knowing that communication challenges are a hallmark of all autism spectrum disorders (ASDs), including AS, Bob’s parents suggested that he was simply attempting to greet his classmates. In response, school staff taught him to greet his peers with a “high five.” Over time, he learned to give a high five as his classmates arrived. One student, however, would not give Bob a high five, so Bob persisted hitting only her every morning. The school was disturbed by this and sent Bob to the office. After lecturing him, the school resource officer wrote Bob a ticket for assaulting a peer. But there was something special about this situation. More on Bob later.

Young people with AS may choose to “misbehave” in the same way as any young person may. When this happens, a response that is designed to decrease the likelihood that the person will make the same choice in the future, punishment, may be logical and appropriate; however, what if “it is the autism?” What if the underlying autism has resulted in the behavior of concern? Punishing a person for having AS is never the correct choice.

Understanding Behavior with a Functional Behavior Assessment

Behavior is complex and may occur for multiple reasons. Examination of the visible aspects of behavior—antecedents, behavior and consequences (the ABCs)—may shed light on the purpose or function of the behavior. This is known as a Functional Behavior Assessment (FBA).

Events that precede behavior, including setting events and trigger stimuli, are known as antecedents. Setting events occur outside the immediate setting (e.g., missing breakfast, medical conditions). Triggers are discrete events that immediately precede a behavior and reliably predict that the behavior will occur.

In order to conduct an FBA, problem behaviors must be defined so that they can be measured and observed. Defining a behavior as “acting out” is too vague. Instead, it should be described as seen (e.g., he says “no” and leaves the classroom).

The term “consequence” is sometimes equated with “punishment,” which is not accurate. The term refers to events (desired or undesired) that follow a behavior. The chart below describes Bob’s behavior using the ABCs.




Antecedent • Events that precede behavior: setting events, trigger stimuli • Classroom, morning, proximity to classmates • One peer does not return high five
Behavior • Visible, observable, measurable • Hitting one peer as she passes Bob
Consequence • Events that follow a behavior • Teacher says, “Stop” • Sent to office • Peer cries • Issued ticket

Examining the ABCs helps to determine a purpose or function of a behavior. Common functions of behavior include:

  • Escape/avoidance
  • Attention
  • Tangible item
  • Preferred activity
  • Sensory stimulation

When Bob’s parents were notified that he was ticketed for assault, they requested an FBA. Before conducting the FBA, school staff assumed that Bob was being mean to his classmate. After considering the ABCs, they concluded that Bob chose to hurt his peer in order to gain attention from her. Staff felt that this was “behavior” and not autism; therefore, they felt that punishing Bob was necessary.

The ABCs did not tell the whole story. Bob’s classmate was visually impaired and could not see Bob’s gesture. This amplified the staff’s interpretation of his behavior as “mean.” The autism consultant encouraged staff to consider Bob’s underlying autism.

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