Autism Behavioral Strategies: FBA vs. FA

Most funding sources require a Functional Behavior Assessment (FBA) before treatment for autism can be started. Sometimes an FBA is required at regular intervals, especially if new problem behaviors occur. There’s also a lot of confusion between an FBA and a Functional Analysis (FA). Last week I got an email from a psychologist that said that he wished more BCBAs would stop focusing so much on an FA and start using my common sense approach. So today I wanted to talk to you about the difference between an FBA, FA and my common sense approach.

As I said, I received an email last week from a psychologist who’s been a psychologist for 40 years. It was in response to my video blog about a speech therapy student who read my book and did a book report and presentation on it. She learned two big autism lessons. This is the email:

Mary, the two big lessons that were learned from your book I found very interesting. The recent trend in ABA is that as soon as any problem behaviors emerge, drop what you’re doing and complete a Functional Analysis. My approach is simply to change something that I can see as a problem right away and move on without losing lots of time. Your point about if problem behavior emerges, it’s probably too difficult, is easily fixed by reducing difficulty right on the fly. 

The other point about the reinforcement not being powerful enough is another thing that can be fixed on the fly. Both of these quick operations can have a drastic positive effect on teaching without resorting to a complicated FA that delays progress that can be made in a couple of quick changes on the fly. 

I’ve been doing the things this way for over 40 years and I’m glad to see you talk about it in your video. What you were saying is a lot more significant. The TAG teachers (teaching with acoustical guidance) and clicker trainers have been doing it this way since they began. If the SeaWorld animal trainers had stopped to do an FA, every time the animal had a problem behavior, we would have no SeaWorld shows. They solve the problem on the fly by changing something as you suggest.


I did another video blog on why I believe my approach is different and better and one of the reasons is because I use a common sense ABA approach. I have done Functional Behavior Assessments, which is really just gathering all the data that you can, interviews, surveys, some observation, and review of the records, and coming up with a hypothesis of function.  Functional Analysis can be part of an FBA but that is when we experimentally control the variables and really test the hypothesis. The problem is that FAs, in my opinion (compared to FBA), can really only be done in clinical settings with at least a safe room where you have a 2 way glass to measure the alone condition.

Start making a difference for your child or client with autism or signs of autism through free training!

Attend a FREE Workshop!

So, what I’ve found in schools and in homes is that most problem behavior is really caused by both socially mediated positive reinforcement – that being, a past history of attention or access to tangibles – and socially mediated negative reinforcement – that being a past history of escape from demand. It is usually both in my experience. Now, one may be higher than the other; it might be like 70% escape and 30% attention and access tangibles or the opposite. In general, all we need to do is back up, do an assessment, like a VB MAPP assessment for instance, and put good programming in place to shift this around. While FBAs are certainly required for funding and need to be done, I agree with the psychologist’s email. Let’s not jump into FAs. Let’s not jump into even formal FBAs unless they’re really necessary.

The Importance of Observing Language and Academic Skills

I completed a Functional Behavior Assessment (FBA) recently on a 9-year-old boy I’ll call Sam. His mother decided to homeschool Sam because she was worried that the public school her son attended might call the police if his behaviors continued to escalate.

Sam was diagnosed with high-functioning autism just after the age of three. He was included in general education classes since his IQ was in the normal range. Sam spoke in full sentences and could reportedly read at grade level. Sam’s outbursts, however, were very disturbing to the teachers and other students. While at school, Sam was sent to the principal’s office on multiple occasions and was suspended once when he knocked over a desk.

While an FBA is conducted to analyze the function of problem behaviors, I believe that a big part of an FBA should be dedicated to examining the child’s language and academic skills. In Sam’s case, his language deficits were very apparent to me as I completed a VB-MAPP assessment, even though he was a puzzle to school district personnel.

Sam displayed defective mands throughout the assessment since almost all of his requests revolved around escaping work. He asked his mom, “Can we be done?” and “Is it almost time for a break?” 30 times during a 20-minute work session. During the full day evaluation, Sam also only asked a few general questions starting with words such as “what,” “can” and “does.” I didn’t hear any complex mands for information with “why,” “how,” or “which” questions.

While Sam’s tacts were relatively strong, things fell apart for Sam when he was asked questions and needed to respond intraverbally. When I asked Sam to tell me some animals, foods, colors, and pieces of clothing, or asked him simple “what” and “where” type questions, he was fairly accurate. However, when I asked him to tell me some things that are usually red, he looked around the room (looking for something to tact). I then asked him to close his eyes and tell me some things that are usually red and he demonstrated problem behavior. He screamed, “Don’t tell me to close my eyes!” Similar problem behaviors were seen when “how” and “why” questions were asked.

The VB-MAPP assessment showed major skill deficits in manding for information and in the intraverbal repertoires. Sam’s problem behavior was primarily related to a history of escape from work involving high intraverbal demands. A few of the interventions recommended were the introduction of a token economy system, teaching Sam how to mand for information and using tact to intraverbal transfers to teach him to more effectively answer complex “wh” questions. An SRA program called Language for Thinking as well as a BCBA for six hours per month to oversee programming were also recommended and implemented.

Assessing Problem Behaviors

If a student is displaying problem behaviors that are disruptive to his learning or the learning of others, the “problem behavior” box should be checked off on one of the first pages of the IEP. If this box is checked, a FBA needs to be conducted, preferably by a Board Certified Behavior Analyst (BCBA). A Behavior Intervention Plan should also be written and, once staff are trained on the plan (by the person who wrote it), it should be followed closely. Ongoing analysis and support for staff is also needed.

I believe that assessing the verbal and non-verbal operants as well as all academic areas should be a part of every FBA. Professionals who conduct FBA’s, as well as other professionals and parents who are working with students with significant problem behaviors need to understand the difference between mands, tacts, and intraverbals and the importance of assessing the verbal and non-verbal operants. A focus on the skill strengths and deficits (and not just on the problem behavior) will help each student with autism reach their full potential.

If you’re seeing real big problem behaviors, demands are probably too high and reinforcement is probably too low. And you really, in my opinion, need to take a common sense approach and learn more about transfer procedures. To learn more about my approach, attend a free online workshop at

My goal is for each of my clients and my 2 boys to reach their fullest potential, be as safe as possible, as independent as possible, and as happy as possible. I use a very different approach that parents can use and professionals can use no matter what type of professional you are. My goal is for everyone to climb the mountain together and to really help kids reach their fullest potential. Remember to check out my free workshop by going to

Start making a difference for your child or client with autism or signs of autism through free training!

Attend a FREE Workshop!