Functions of Behaviors

Categories: ASD and DD, Child-focused

By Serra Langone, M.S., M.Ed., BCBA

Children with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) and other developmental disabilities often engage in problem behaviors such as throwing tantrums, flapping their hands, bolting away from parents or teachers, and injuring themselves. These behaviors can be very stressful and frustrating for already overworked caregivers.
They may ask: Why is he flapping his hands? Why does she always run away from me at the grocery store? The fact is, engaging in a problem behavior is the easiest way for children with special needs to communicate what they want or need.
There are four functions or “motives” for problem behavior: attention, escape, tangible, or automatic (it just feels good). Note that these four functions apply to all people, not just people with special needs.
When you are working with a child with autism or another developmental disability, determining the function of, or reason for, a particular behavior is the first step in discovering why he or she is engaging in that behavior. Is he throwing a tantrum to get extra attention? Is she running away to escape an unpleasant situation? Is he rocking back and forth because it makes him feel good? The following descriptions of the four functions of behavior will help parents and other caregivers determine why a child is engaging in a problem behavior and begin to formulate a plan to decrease the incidence of that behavior.
Some behaviors are exhibited to gain attention. It could be the person wants praise for something good they have done, they want to have a social interaction, or they are looking to get a “rise” out of someone. For example, a child might tell his or her parents about the good grade s/he got in school and expect to receive attention and praise.
Sometimes a person acts in a certain way to attempt to escape or avoid something he or she does not want to do. The behavior is an effort to get out of doing that unpleasant task. For example, a child may yell and scream about math to get out of doing a worksheet. Or we hit “ignore” on the phone when the caller ID shows our mother-in-law’s number because we do not want to talk with her. 
 When a child wants something tangible such as a candy bar from the grocery store, he or she may throw a tantrum as a way to get it. Or a child may grab a toy away from another child if it is something that he or she especially likes.
Sometimes the reason for a behavior is that it produces a pleasant sensation and makes you feel good. Examples of behaviors that have an “automatic” motive are rocking in a chair, tapping a pen, flapping your hands, or stomping your feet. 
Discovering the function of, or reason why, a child with ASD or other special needs is engaging in a problem behavior can help parents and caregivers find ways to decrease the occurrence of that behavior in the future. When caregivers understand why a child is behaving in a certain way, they can work on teaching that child a more socially appropriate way to get what he or she wants, alleviate frustration, and make everyone’s life much less stressful.  
Serra Langone, M.S., M.Ed., BCBA, is the Clinical Director of the May Center School for Brain Injury and Neurological Disorders in Norwood, Mass. She can be contacted at For more information, call 800-778-7601.

May Institute is a nonprofit organization that is a national leader in the field of applied behavior analysis, serving individuals with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) and other developmental disabilities, brain injury and neurobehavioral disorders, and other special needs. Founded more than 65 years ago, we provide a wide range of exceptional educational and rehabilitative services across the lifespan. In addition to the May Center School for Brain Injury and Neurobehavioral Disorders, May Institute operates five schools for children and adolescents with ASD and other developmental disabilities. For more information, call 800.778.7601  or visit