Home > Other Concepts > Extinction Burst

Extinction Burst

In writing about effectively employing “I’m not discussing this anymore”, it brought up another concept: extinction burst.

The term extinction means removing an unwanted behavior.  My Autism Specialist uses this expression frequently.

Before the behavior is eradicated, it is quite common for the behavior to get worse before it gets better.  This is so important that I will repeat it: before the behavior goes away it will get worse.  This is important because it appears as though what we are doing is not helping, when it actually is.

Eventually, the child goes through an extinction burst.

Often, it is so difficult for parents to withstand the buildup to the extinction burst that they will give in to the want of the child before the child gives up.  I will say this once and then reiterate it: this is NOT easy to do, especially with your own child.

To better explain what an extinction burst is, My Autism Specialist uses the following analogy:

Imagine we walk up to a vending machine to buy a soda.  We put our only available change in the coin slot and push the button for Pepsi.  Nothing happens.  We push the Pepsi button again.  Nothing happens.  We push the Pepsi button several times, each time increasing the force we apply.  Still nothing happens.

So we try some of the other soda buttons.  We didn’t want a Diet Pepsi but it’s better than being thirsty, right?  Nothing happens.  So we hit 7up, Mountain Dew, Orange Crush and, yes, heaven forbid, we even try the button for Coke.  None of them work either.

“Maybe the coins didn’t go in properly”, we think, so we try the coin return lever.  Nothing happens.  We bang on the front of the machine hoping to jar the coins loose so we either get them back or so we can buy our Pepsi.  Nothing happens.  So we hit the front of the machine harder while forcefully moving the coin return lever up and down and up and down.  Still nothing happens.

Now we are frustrated since we are out of change and don’t have our Pepsi.  Do we walk away?

No way!  We start forcefully pushing all of the buttons on the machine.  But this is to no avail.

At this point, the road forks as there are some people who would resort to punching and kicking the machine, maybe even shaking the machine to try to get their soda out or their change back.  Some may walk away at this point.

Eventually, once we try everything that we can think of, we all end up walking away.  That is an extinction burst.

And, just like in the example above, the level to which the extreme behavior rises will vary from person to person and child to child.

Now, let me ask you this: what if when you started banging on the front of the machine, your change came out?  Would you be more apt to get to this same level of behavior because it worked the last time?

What if when you started kicking the machine and your soda came out?  Next time this happens, would you remember the time you kicked the machine and it worked?  If kicking the machine didn’t work a second time, would you maybe try something even more extreme?

This is the same thing that our kids will do when they are trying to get their way.  If we let them get their way, then they will try it again another time.

So what do we do?  We try to hold out longer.  This is like the kid in the supermarket screaming because he wants a candy bar.  If the screaming successfully rewards the child with a candy bar, the child is more apt to try it again.  If the same level of screaming does not produce the desired result next time, it will be intensified.

However, if we establish that no matter the level of screaming, they are not going to get their way, eventually this unwanted behavior will be extinguished.

If we give in before the extinction burst, it is almost certain that the behavior will be as bad if not worse the next time, much worse.

Again, this is NOT an easy thing to do.

We love our kids so much that to hear them scream and cry for something breaks our heart.  We need to remember that they are not hurt; they are doing this to manipulate us into giving them their way.  By giving in to their behavior, we are actually encouraging them to do it again next time – or any time – we say “no” when they want something.

This works with typically-developing kids as well.  I use this tactic with my 9-year old that used to frequently ask for things multiple times in a cunning attempt to get his way.

I had the opportunity to witness a full-blown extinction burst over the summer.  As I was writing about it, I determined that it would make this article far too lengthy and decided to make it another article and post it in the “Stories” category.

Stay tuned for that one.  I promise you that you will be entertained.  But you will learn at the same time as I did.

I welcome comments, questions and suggestions as well as your own stories. You can send the emails to myautismspecialist@gmail.com.

Thank you for reading.

  1. December 29, 2010 at 11:03 pm

    Very interesting blog, you have to improve your site graphics

    • January 2, 2011 at 9:03 pm

      Thank you. I am new to this and it is a work in progress 🙂

  2. Angela
    March 18, 2011 at 12:24 pm

    Thank you for posting this, I am a trainer at an agency that works with children at risk of a diagnosis of autism and walks families through the evaluation process. I ran across this blog posting on extinction burst, as i was trying to find a good analogy to describe the concept that both my employees and families could understand. I was wondering if you wrote this or if it came from an article of from Joy? If it did come from an article, would you be willing to share? Thank you so much. I surely honor your journey with your son, it is a joy, no pun intended, to read through your process.

    • April 15, 2011 at 2:49 pm

      Thank you for your wonderful comments! The analogy of the soda machine came from Joy so I am afraid that I can’t point you to another article.

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