What is extinction in ABA therapy?

extinction in applied behavior analysis and aba therapy

The simplest way to explain extinction is withholding reinforcement from a previously reinforced behavior.

When something used to exist but is no longer available, it is said to have become extinct. Extinction in applied behavior analysis simply refers to the gradual elimination of unappealing and undesirable behaviors. This is accomplished through a series of therapeutic processes that are carried out with care and positivity.

All procedures applied in the extinction process are based on the principle of extinction. In a nutshell, the principle states that all behaviors occur for a reason, and they get us what we want. Therefore, if one stops getting what they want even after engaging in the behavior, then the behavior will fade away since it does not serve the purpose anymore.

When reinforcement is done correctly in ABA, it can encourage a turnaround, leading to positive behavior. However, during extinction, we want to withhold all reinforcement from the undesirable behavior. It is important to point out that extinction is not a form of punishment, even though extinction works to eliminate behavior.

Extinction can be effective in eradicating unwanted behavior. For example, you might find a situation where a student with ASD keeps pinching other students whenever they gather. In such a scenario, an ABA technician can try removing this student from the crowd whenever the pinching occurs, depriving them of the luxury of being with other students without telling them the reason. However, whenever this child joins other students but doesn’t pinch them, the technician will respond by giving them a token or positive reinforcement. This shows that the extinction process aims not just to eliminate negative behavior but also to replace it with a positive one. Replacement behaviors should always be part of the extinction intervention. Known as the fair-pair rule, if you are taking away a behavior, you need to replace it with another that serves the same function. This is typically accomplished through differential reinforcement.

One thing to note about extinction is that the goal should be reducing the behavior to an absolute zero. Therefore, the reinforcement schedule should not be thinned or intensity reduced just because the subject has shown some signs of improvement. Extinction is only extinction if it occurs 100% of the time.

Can Extinction be done by ignoring a behavior?

Yes, it can. Generally, when trying to wipe off an undesirable behavior, one can ignore it completely; no eye contact with the person, no talking to them, no verbal confrontations, no physical contact. For instance, there are situations where during a class, a student just decides to create a disruption. Most are the times when the rest of the class reacts by laughing. This, in turn, fuels and reinforces this behavior, raising the chances of the same child disrupting the class again. However, when this child disrupts the class again, but this time everyone else just gives it a blind eye and lets the lesson proceed, the behavior will be eliminated. This means that bad behavior was eradicated without any reinforcement or confrontation, just choosing to ignore. However, extinction is not the same as just ignoring a behavior. Extinction procedures should be modified to address the need at hand. Ignoring can be part of the extinction plan, but it isn’t always the treatment. A very common mistake RBTs make is confusing extinction for ignoring.

What behaviors can be stopped by extinction?

  • Sleeping problems
  • Eating problems
  • Aggressive behaviors
  • Communication behaviors
  • Unwanted social behaviors

What is an Extinction Burst in ABA?

When extinction is administered it is common to see behaviors temporarily increase in frequency and intensity. This increase in intensity is called an extinction burst and is a normal part of the extinction process. Because you know an extinction burst is likely to occur, you must prepare yourself and others for the extinction burst. Extinction burst is a term you need to know for the RBT exam. If you are preparing for the RBT exam, check out our RBT practice exam and other materials here.

Consider this: a child refuses to do his homework so that they can watch television. The parent might choose to restrict their child from watching TV before they are done with their homework. In the past, the parent gave in and let the child watch, but now the parent is implementing extinction and withholding the reinforcement. The child might exhibit an extinction burst where the behavior temporarily increases in intensity and frequency to try and gain access to the television.

What should an ABA practitioner do before they apply extinction?

Firstly, the practitioner should identify the unwanted behavior and the function of that behavior whether it be escape, tangible, attention, or automatic. This includes how frequently it occurs, the duration, the intensity, and the most common place where it occurs.

After identifying the behavior and function, the practitioner should determine what is reinforcing the target behavior. Knowing the function allows the BCBA to choose a replacement behavior, and knowing the reinforcer allows the BCBA to identify what to withhold during extinction. If they are working as a team, the practitioner should share this plan with every team member so that there is consistent service delivery. If they are working alone, the practitioner can encourage people around the subject, such as classmates or parents, so that they are in the know. This is also important since they can receive extra help and support, making the extinction process even easier. It is also helpful to make others aware of the possible extinction burst.

The practitioner should come up with an extinction burst safety plan. This comes in handy as they will be ready to deal with the outburst in case it happens.

Take Away for RBTs and ABA practitioners

The extinction process is effective. However, it requires patience, determination, and consistency.

Want to learn more about applied behavior analysis, or what you need to know as a registered behavior technician? Check out my YouTube channel: RBT Exam Review – RBT Competency and Exam Practice

Browse all of our RBT Exam Prep which includes practice exams and study guides.

For BCBA study materials check out Behavior Analyst Exam Review

2 thoughts on “What is extinction in ABA therapy?”

  1. Hello, I want to say thank you for the videos that you published on Youtube, and the study guide materials for the RBT exam. I love the flashcards.
    The contents of the study materials are excellent. However, I find I quite bias when you talking about the supervisor. How come there is no mention of what should an RBT does when they encounter a supervisor who is not very supportive of the RBT or even does a thing against their ethics codes. I’m a mother of two children on the spectrum. My sons are nine and they had ABA services for several years. I find that more than often that I didn’t get a good service which led me to terminate the service in a short time. I experienced BCBA therapists who cheated hours on my sons’ services to get paid more. ( can you imagine seeing people take advantage of your special needs children?) I assumed that you used to work as an RBT at the beginning of your career, so I believed that you know this issue or heard of it. I lost trust in the ABA services and providers that’s why I’m studying to become an RBT and planning to become a BCBA myself. First it for my sons then I’ll also want to help other children and families who experience similar situations like me. I took an online 40 hours training on Autism Partnership, the training said the same thing as you. BCBA/supervisor is absolutely correct and RBTs just obey. I understand that a technician who doesn’t have training and education as a supervisor should follow instructions. But, I think the board BCBA is biased for BCBA and shows no protection for RBTs and the clients. A friend of mine, she used to work as an RBT, she worked with a client, and she saw her supervisor bullied the family, one day she couldn’t stand it anymore, she told the parents the truth and quitted her RBT job. Does it sound fair? I think deep in your heart, you know exactly what I mean. It’s extremely difficult to find a trusted ABA service and even harder to find a therapist who has their heart focusing on helping a child with autism, easing the burden for the family.

    1. Hi Rachael,

      First off, I am so sorry to hear about your experience with ABA. As a BCBA, it hurts to hear our families and our kiddos being taken advantage of in any way. I’m excited to hear that you are starting the process off becoming an RBT and a BCBA – I can already tell you’re going to be great.

      As far as what RBTs should do when they encounter a supervisor who is acting unethically or inappropriately – you are right. I try and gear my training towards the things that I believe you need to know to pass the RBT exam, first and foremost. But,there are actions RBTs can, and should, take to ensure that our clients are getting the best services possible. I posted a new video on ethical questions today and included situations where the RBT should act on a supervisor acting irresponsibly.

      Please reach out to me at rbtstudy@gmail.com with anything you need – I am more than happy to help you on your journey. Your passion is obvoius.

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