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Extinction Bursts in ABA: What They Are & More

When a behavior that's studied completely fades away due to reinforcement that's used in a situation, it's known as extinction.

steven zauderer
Steven Zauderer
September 15, 2023
min read

What is an extinction burst?

When a behavior that's studied completely fades away due to reinforcement that's used in a situation, it's known as extinction. But what about extinction bursts?

This happens when the reinforcement that produces behavior that previously went away is observed again. It's done when a patient tries to receive a boost that motivates them when they continue with the same behavior. When the outburst is over, the behavior is lowered until it becomes extinct.

To simplify, an extinction burst is a shift in intensity, time, and frequency of one's witnessed behavior right before it gives out, or becomes extinct.

It's related to operant conditioning, which is the habit-forming behavior reinforced through one being provided a reinforcer.

However, negative reinforcement takes away their reinforcer that's perceived as indifferent. When the extinction occurs, the reinforcer is erased and the negative behavior halts in occurrence.

The process of the extinction event usually does away with a behavior that's targeted but a slight rise can be seen during the initial period of its extinction. This burst is common in both people and other animal species.

Not every extinction passes as an extinction burst, however. They can spring forth in small percentages when witnessed during a subject's treatment.

Examples of extinction bursts

The first example of an extinction burst could be seen in a hypothetical situation, such as when a person used a soda machine. In this event, think about your reaction to putting money in the soda machine, only for the unit not to work.

The last time that you did it, the machine had no problems working after you placed your money inside, and quickly disposed of your favorite soda.

The behavior conducted by you to obtain the soda was reinforced through the history of you getting soda quickly during previous visits to the machine.

When the outcome changes and the machine fails to provide you with a drink, the reaction may result in you pressing different buttons with increasing frustration. Thing is, the button pressing has happened before as well and delivered you the soda. But this time, it simply doesn't work.

Because of this, the button pressing continues. The act of hitting the buttons in a panic is the extinction burst. When the burst is over, the behavior you exhibited dies down until it's no more.

In another example, pretend that you have a son or daughter that tags along when you need to make a run to the bank. Your child dislikes this since going to the bank is boring. Complaining ensues and you give them a piece of candy as a countermeasure to them complaining about the visit.

It ceased the complaints and creates an association with banks that's positive for them.

From that point forward, every day when you go to the bank, you make sure to give them the candy, and no whining is heard from your child again. You may think that the issue is solved.

However, you begin to consider that the candy you're giving them isn't healthy and stop providing it after a couple of weeks pass. You may consider it good for their health, but they definitely won't agree with your decision.

On the next day of your bank visit, you refused to provide your child the candy, whereby they immediately go back to the whining and complaining that you witnessed before.

Yet this time, it doesn't get them the candy they want, which increases the severity of the complaints. It can go on like this for a while, according to how long you previously gave them the candy without thinking twice about it.

How to control extinction bursts

Here's what you can do to control such extinction outburst in your child:

  • Stay determined - An adult that interacts with a child shouldn't give up or reinforce the behavior that caused the event to occur in the first place.
  • Consistency is key - Adults should never switch just because the event doesn't produce an expected outcome on the first try. Instead, a replacement behavior should be taught to the child.
  • Patience is very important - Changes in behavior never occur when you want them to. Adults must reinforce novel replacement behaviors as the right reaction that should be exhibited for the child to get what they want.
  • Preparation is key - Formulate a plan to take on behaviors that are wanted so that it doesn't become repetitive.
Autistic children usually exhibit different outbursts, such as those previously described.

But for them, they do it from not understanding how to articulate themselves so that they can get what they desire.

The outbursts, even while unwed, are their only known way of communicating to other people that they want something since it usually gets them what they wished to have during a previous event.

How long is an extinction burst?

The amount of time that it takes for an extinction event to go away is predicated on how well the reinforcement and behavior progress. The majority of extinction events are short but can become intense situations that devolve into self-harm, especially with small children.

The usual timeline of extinction bursts that occur alongside tantrums is about a week before the behavior goes away. Keep in mind that this is the average time after the child doesn't get what they want.

What is an extinction burst in ABA therapy?

Are there things that parents should anticipate when their child begins ABA therapy for exhibited extinction bursts? Many parents aren't even familiar with the term until after it's told to them by a behavioral therapist. Could there be issues with behavior that keep them from learning new things?

The answer is that behaviors are habit-forming and very hard to stop.

When an autistic child has issues regarding their behavior, an extinction burst can spring forth whether in behavioral therapist initially starts courses with them. It is a part of the job that therapists do for people suffering from autism, not just for children.

Extinction bursts are understood by therapists and usually expected, depending on the complications of one's autism symptoms. All kids use familiar behaviors to get what they want, as do many adults.

Some of their exhibited behavior isn't appropriate, which can go on for a long time since it might've gotten them something they desired from their parents.

A child's temper might not provide them more time spent doing an activity they cherish, such as playing video games.

But there could be a time when their parents are tired and allow the child to play, just to prevent them from acting out. This is intermittent reinforcement and can be all that's needed to keep repeat unwanted behavior going on for a long time.

ABA therapists are trained to teach children how to overcome their problems through better social skills in an environment that promotes positive reinforcement. Practices can even be taught to parents to help them avoid putting their child in an extinction burst event while at home.

steven zauderer

CEO of CrossRiverTherapy - a national ABA therapy company based in the USA.

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