If your child is receiving ABA therapy, you’ve probably heard a lot of vocabulary. Let’s take a look at one of the more common ones used.
Extinction burst refers to the increase of the undesired behavior when its reinforcers are cut out. It’s what happens when you stop reinforcing a behavior, or you stop giving the child what they want when they engage in a particular behavior. The behavior can be one that you want them to continue, or one that you want them to stop. When there’s no more reinforcement, the behavior will temporarily happen more often, before it will slow down and stop. Sometimes the behavior will change slightly, becoming more variable to see if a more effective alternative is used.
So what does an extinction burst look like?
My favorite example is one we’ve almost all seen, or if you haven’t experienced it, you’re very lucky.
Have you ever gone to a vending machine? You put your money in, select your snack, hit the button, and then the machine does its thing and spits out your treat. Very simple, very satisfying. Except sometimes you hear the machine whir. If it’s a snack machine, you watch the circular piece of metal spin to push your snack out. And then it stops. Your bag of chips is trapped in the machine, out of reach, and it’s not falling to the compartment you grab it from.
If you’re like most people, the first thing you do is try to press the buttons again, hoping if you push them the right way, it will spit out the snack. Next, you start pressing your palm against the key pad and telling the machine to “Come on” and “Just give it to me.” There’s all manner of variability in your response. You’ve both increased the behavior of interacting with the vending machine, and you’ve tried different iterations.
This pattern continues, sometimes to the point where you’re shaking the machine, kicking it, maybe yelling, depending on your tolerance for the loss of a snack. And eventually, the machine not spitting up your food through all of this, you give up and walk away. Your behavior has successfully been extinguished.
This is the process we’re talking about when we discuss extinction and extinction bursts!