Let’s Talk About Extinction…

Extinction is without a doubt the most annoyingly effective tool for parents of toddlers. Maybe even more so for parents of toddlers with Autism Spectrum Disorder. The entire idea behind extinction is to do nothing. Do not acknowledge the behavior. Do not respond to the behavior. Pretend as if the behavior is not happening at all. And then, if you are lucky, over time the behavior becomes extincted. I call this method annoyingly effective because that is exactly what it is. Have you ever tried to completely ignore something that is driving you completely mad? A flickering light bulb. A buzzy sound coming from an appliance. These thing are all annoying. These things all aggravating. And when these things happen near us we cannot help but get involved. We replace the lightbulb or bang on the appliance. We take action to fix the problem. But mostly we take action so that we can alleviate the annoyance.

In our house extinction has been the answer to a number of Grayson’s behaviors. Before we started working with our Mercy Options team we had no clue about extinction. So we would beat ourselves blue in the face trying to redirect Grayson and politely discuss changing his behaviors. We would try, and fail, to introduce rewards and punishments in hopes of diminishing the behaviors. Nothing worked. When we started our MOAP treatment we were going on month 18 of high pitched screaming. Yes, that’s right I said 18 months. Every day for 18 months Grayson communicated to us in high pitched screams. Happy screams. Sad screams. Scared screams. Anxious scream. Curious screams. We lived in a constant state of neck ache from the way our shoulders thrust upward each times his scream caught us off guard. Looking back at it today feels a bit like looking back to childbirth…it is hard to remember it really being “that bad”. But if I am being completely honest; it was absolutely terrible. It was such a stressful way to live. We knew that everyone around us was sympathetic. But we also knew that the screaming was getting to them. How could it not? We started distancing ourselves from public places because we just could not handle the “can you please control your child” glare that we got. And for the better part of the screaming timeframe we did not have a diagnosis. So we did not understand why it was happening. In our dark moments we felt the same way as those judgmental strangers; how in the world were we completing incapable of taking control of this situation. And then we started with Mercy and we started learning about the way Grayson’s brain works. We realized that most of what we had been trying would just perpetuate the screaming. We took a crash course in extinction and set out on a mission.

Now, anyone who has ever done this can tell you that it is really really really really hard. Walking around your home and carrying out your daily duties while completely ignoring the screaming 3 year old at your heels should be an Olympic sport. And all it takes is one weak moment, one simple slip, and all of our efforts come undone. One simple “Grayson stop screaming” is all it takes to derail our extinction plan. And then we are back at the beginning. Starting the extinction over again. But when we can stay focused and see it through, it makes us feel incredibly strong. Grayson responds to the extinction method the way that many kids on the spectrum respond. He has what is known as an “extinction burst”. In simple terms that means that he has one final grand finale of the behavior just before extinction. It is almost like his final effort to see if he can break us. And believe me, sometimes he does.

Screaming was not the only behavior we extincted. After screaming came hitting. Some people on our team believed that he just replaced the screaming with hitting. Something that is important to understand is that autism therapy is about behavior change. Autism is a lifetime diagnosis and today there is no known cure. So behavior change therapy helps to adapt symptoms into more manageable and socially appropriate behaviors. And to do this you have to understand the antecedent (the thing just before) the behavior. In fact our team spends a lot of time tracking this kind of data. What happens in the moment just before the behavior? It is a look? A gesture? Because understanding the antecedent may help us to understand the reason for the behavior. We know for sure that Grayson’s behaviors are emotional and physical. We know that they are a part of the way that his brain processes things. In those moments he “needs” the behavior.

Hitting was difficult to extinct for a lot of reasons. The most important reason being Rowan. We had to draw the line between extinction and just letting our one year old get wailed on. Another reason was that Grayson was in a classroom environment 2 days a weeks and we had a responsibly to the other children in the classroom. So hitting took a combination of things. We extincted at home when he hit James or I. And in fact we still do that today when the behavior randomly reappears. It is incredibly difficult not to react when you get slammed in the face 5 times in a row. But, the best way to make sure it does not happen again is to extinct it. Do not give it any energy. At school and with Rowan we used redirection and punishments. We always tried first to verbally redirect Grayson towards anything other than hitting. If that did not work he would go into a time out.

Other behaviors we have instincted include door slamming, biting, running away from therapy, and picking things up to slam them down. Each time we encounter a behavior we go into our methodical extinction mode. We have learned to tune the things out that drive us crazy. We have learned to say nothing when we want to scream out loud. We have learned to look left when he is completely losing it to our right. We have learned to pick Rowan up and remove him from the room when the behaviors start. We have learned to extinct. Because we had to. And there are still a lot of days that we are really bad at it. There are days when we are not as strong as we need to be. There are days when the behaviors get the best of us. When we take a step back instead of forward. And we have learned that slipping like this is what makes us human.

Just remember that things are not always what they might seem. Remember to be nice and give people in public the benefit of the doubt. It may look like I am being a “bad mom”. Like I am ignoring my child or letting him get away with bad behaviors. But in my world that strategy is a part of my son’s autism treatment plan. I am not a bad mom. In fact, I am an incredibly headstrong and patient mom. Because any less of a mom could not follow through on extinction. It is hard and unpleasant and sometimes it beats us down and makes us feel like complete failures. But it is also working! And in our house we have learned that sometimes short term pain is worth the long-term gain. One day at a time.



2 thoughts on “Let’s Talk About Extinction…

  1. Cindy says:

    As always thanks for sharing! You are an amazingly strong young Mother & James the best of Fathers who are teaching us all what love can endure every day…. Grayson is so blessed by not only his parents who love & adore him but his grand parents & all of us in his life who embrace him & will continue to try & learn how we can help & contribute to making his life & yours always the best! Love you all!


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