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Understanding Motivations for Behavior can be Helpful for Children with Autism

Parents and caregivers should focus on rewarding appropriate behaviors rather than punishing inappropriate behaviors, says autism expert

January 25th, 2017

Story Contact: Sheena Rice, 573-882-8353,

The views and opinions expressed in this “for expert comment” release are based on research and/or opinions of the researcher(s) and/or faculty member(s) and do not reflect the University’s official stance.

COLUMBIA, Mo. –For many families, normal activities, such as going to a large family gathering or an amusement park, can be difficult to navigate with a child with autism, as the child may act out due to being overwhelmed by extra noises and stimulation. To help families deal with such situations, specialists at the University of Missouri Thompson Center for Autism and Neurodevelopmental Disorders have been successfully integrating applied behavior analysis (ABA), the science of understanding why people behave in various ways and how understanding those motivations can shape behavior. SungWoo Kahng, associate professor of health psychology in the School of Health Professions, says that parents and caregivers can work with therapists to implement ABA-based activities at home to support the overall behavior treatment plan.

Understanding Motivations for Behavior can be Helpful for Children with Autism from MU News Bureau on Vimeo.

This video is available for broadcast-quality download and re-use. closed captioning video is also available. For more information, contact Nathan Hurst: 

“The question we get asked most often is, ‘Why is my kid doing this?’ Kahng said. “That’s exactly the kind of question ABA can try to answer. However, the answer will be different for every patient. We look at what motivates that person to behave in a certain way. For example, they could be avoiding completing a task or trying to attract attention. Once we know the ‘why’ behind a specific behavior, we can help parents and caregivers address behavioral issues for children with autism.”

ABA specialists are able to analyze behaviors and determine what motivates that person to reform problematic behaviors. Once the reason for a behavior is understood, specialists can help to reduce problem behaviors and increase appropriate behaviors. Kahng says parents and caregivers can help children with autism live happy and productive lives by monitoring the ABA treatment and participating in training sessions and consultations with the ABA specialist.

“Parents and caregivers can help support a child’s treatment by planning ahead, particularly for public outings or large family gatherings,” Kahng said.  “To plan ahead, parents should understand what the challenges might be and talk to the host in advance to explain plans to handle potential problems. For example, parents might identify a quiet place where the child can take a break if things get too overwhelming or they might bring something the child prefers, like a favorite toy or comfort item, so that appropriate behavior can be rewarded while away from home.”

Kahng recently developed a new master’s degree program in ABA at MU to address the provider shortage of trained ABA specialists across the country. Kahng has authored more than 60 peer-reviewed journals articles and nine book chapters and serves on the board of editors of the Journal of Applied Behavior Analysis and Behavioral Intervention.

The MU Thompson Center for Autism and Neurodevelopmental Disorders is a national leader in confronting the challenges of autism and other developmental conditions through its collaborative research, training and service programs.

Editor’s Note:
This expert comment from the Thompson Center for Autism and Neurodevelopmental Disorders is the first video in the Autism Support Video Series.