Autism Behavioral Strategies: FBA vs. FA

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

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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 a couple of weeks ago about the speech therapy student who read my book and did a book report and a presentation and she learned two big autism lessons. So I want to read this email or at least part of it from the psychologist who’s also a behavior analyst with 40 years of experience.

He said “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 for those of you that don’t know what TAG is, and clicker trainers have been doing it this way since they began, if the Sea World animal trainers had stopped to do an FA, every time animal had a problem behavior, we would have no Sea World shows. They solve the problem on the fly by changing something as you suggest.

I really appreciated this email. I did another video blog on why I believe my approach is different and better and 1 of the reasons is because I use a common sense of 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 is 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.

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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 the 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. Let’s not jump into FAs. Let’s not jump into even formal FBAs unless they’re really necessary.

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. I just recently did a video blog on that. 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. If you liked this video, give me a thumbs up, share the video and I hope to see you right here next week.

Want to get started on the right path and start making a difference for your child or client with autism?