Often times when the doctor says a child has Autism, parents may feel an array of emotions, from being overwhelmed to being concerned about the potential hardships their child may face in life. While it’s normal to feel apprehension or fear in situations that are new, it should be noted that having Autism does not mean an automatic limitation to success. On the contrary, many Autistic individuals have gone on to lead successful, rewarding lives – demonstrating that Autism does not have to be an obstacle to joy. With proper support, Autistic children can make remarkable strides and reach their full potential. It is essential to recognize the signs of Autism early to obtain early intervention services, such as ABA. Early intervention services have been shown to decrease some of the characteristics of Autism that may impede an individual from learning, caring for themselves, or forming meaningful relationships.  In this article, we explore the functions of behavior, or basically why an autistic child would behave in a certain way.

Understanding the Function of Challenging Behaviors

In ABA, the word function of a behavior is used to describe why a particular behavior occurs. For instance, why a child always cover their ears during academic interactions? The function of behaviors can be categorized in four different ways. It’s easy to remember them using the acronym SEAT: Sensory, Escape, Attention, and Tangible. These categories give us a better understanding of why the child might behave in a certain way and how to intervene. Let’s explore each function.


Stimulus is basically the information taken in by our senses. For example, the light coming out from your laptop screen is a stimulus.; the temperature of your room is a stimulus. All these stimuli are processed into our brains so we can make sense of our surroundings. When a stimulus is overwhelming to us such as hearing a loud noise, our brain tries to either adapt or avoid it. In ABA, we learn that children do not just act for no reason; one of the reasons could be that they had an overstimulation of a stimulus – whether the stimulus was an allergic food, some screeching noise in the background, or a constant glare of fluorescent light. As some children may avoid stimulation, others may seek it, such as wanting deep pressure. It is essential to monitor stimuli to see what causes the children to tantrum & modify the environment to suit their needs.


Escape is another behavior function that children may exhibit when faced with an uncomfortable situation. For example, you might notice your child shake their legs restlessly (restless leg syndrome) or huddle in a certain corner of the room. This is a message that “please i don’t want to do this” or “this activity is difficult”. Perhaps they believe something will endanger them or feel apprehension or fear, and they can’t see any way to escape the situation. Escape behavior is seen as the child’s attempt to escape the uncomfortable situation and remove themselves from it.


Another function of a behavior is the need to get attention (often from an adult). Basically, a child may behave aggressively if they believe they are not getting enough attention from the authority in place. For instance, Tom has drawn a beautiful picture of a butterfly and is really proud of it. He does not receive the admiration or compliments he was looking for, so he takes the TV remote and throws it down to get attention. In this example, it’s easy to misconstrue Tom as impolite when in fact, it’s the parents who don’t give him the motivation that is needed. Sometimes attention can reinforce a bad habit, in which case the behavior should be modified using extinction.


A tangible is basically anything that a child can touch, hold or use. For example, candies are tangibles. When a child can’t get the tangible they want, be it candy or a toy, it may lead to inevitable outbursts. Perhaps the tangible was taken away from them, or they weren’t given it in the first place. This can prompt a temper tantrum.

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Rasheed, S., Fore, C., Jones, A., & Smith, L. (2012). The Use of a Functional Behavioral Assessment-Based Self Management Intervention for Students with Emotional/Behavioral Disorders.. Journal of the American Academy of Special Education Professionals.