ABA Lessons: Extinction Bursts will make you question why you became a parent

ABA Therapy: Applied Behavioral Analysis (recommended treatment for children with autism)

A central concept of ABA therapy is that you ignore negative behavior and respond enthusiastically to positive behavior with a reward.  Often, verbal praise and recognition is all that’s needed (at least that’s the end goal).  Naturally, being ignored can be stressful and downright irksome, resulting in even more negative behavior.  In the ABA world, they like to call this “extinction burst.”  Basically, the child is going to try even harder to be noticed until he/she finally figures out it’s not going to work.

Sounds fairly basic, even easy, right?

Allow me to provide a little “snapshot” from this evening before you make up your mind.


Big C’s 4-6pm ABA in-home session is just ending while I am setting dinner on the table for three (another late night for Daddy Catharsis).  Big C comes rushing out of the office, smiling and pleased.  Okay, that’s nice, I think.  His therapist and I chat for a few minutes, then she finishes up in the office while the three of us eat.

After about five minutes, Big C starts pointing his fork at me and muttering, “I’m going to stab you.”

Previously, my inclination would be to grab the fork and say, “No.  That’s not nice.  Eat your dinner.”  Instead, I remind myself to ignore it.  I take a deep breath and do exactly that, focusing more on 15-month old Little C who is right beside me, tossing parts of his dinner on the floor.

Suddenly, a fork goes whizzing past my face.

I whisper an expletive under my breath, calmly pick up the fork off the floor, walk into the kitchen, and place it in the sink.

“Hey!  Where’s my fork?” Big C comes rushing into the kitchen to see where I’ve placed it.  This begins our “dance.”  He grabs a chair, places it by the sink, and attempts to grab the fork.  I take him off the chair, then put the chair back.  I lost count how many times this went on.  A few punches are thrown (from his end).  He starts laughing. It totally becomes a game to him.  Probably I should have ignored it and stopped putting the chair back.  I don’t know.  This ignoring shit is complicated.

After a few minutes, Big C moves on into the office where the therapist is taking notes.  He starts throwing random stuff onto the floor.  I watch him do it from a distance.  He looks at her (who, naturally, is completely ignoring him), throws something on the floor, looks at her again, then does it again and again and again.  I have never witnessed, from the outside, such a blatant call for attention.

Once the office is trashed and the therapist has left wishing me well (thanks), Big C attempts to gain my attention again.  “Mommy, I have to show you something.  I was a bad boy.  I made a big mess.”  All of this is said with enthusiasm and a huge grin.  I refuse to acknowledge his existence.  I continually turn my head to avoid making eye contact.

That stresses him out.  “Mommy, Mommy, Mommy, Mommy, Mommy, Mommy……” (lost count on those too).  I am determined to ignore him until he does something positive.

However Big C decides more negative behavior is best.  As I am trying to clean up dinner (which includes putting away Big C’s largely uneaten meal: too bad buddy), Big C takes an exercise mat, ties it to a chair, then drags the contraption around the house multiple times, causing all kinds of destruction in its wake.

At this point, I’m holding Little C in my arms to ensure his protection, while muttering a tirade of expletives under my breath.

I then make a grand show of playing with Little C, verbally citing how wonderful he is and how much fun we are having with our Mega Blocks.

After about twenty minutes of this battle of wills, Big C finally walks over to me and says, “Mommy, I’m sorry.”  Those. Actual. Words.

A choir of angels appears.

I hug him and tell him I accept his apology and invite him to play with us.  While we are all three playing blissfully and peacefully together, I cannot deny the perfectionist side of my personality reeling from the havoc that I will be stuck putting back together later.  I push this aside for now though and savor in the moment.  It worked!

Silly Mommy Catharsis.  If it were that easy, everyone would do it.

Two more minor incidents occur, one involving a hammer aimed at  a glass door, but I won’t bore you with the details.  Suffice to say, I decide early bedtimes for both boys is a well-deserved treat for Mommy.

Too bad.   

While Little C goes down without a hitch, Big C is a little unsettled by the fact that he didn’t get to finish dinner, have snack, or watch the show he wanted.  Apparently, my chose of bedtime book also sucks, as he decides to rip every book off his shelf.  Then he decides being forced to stay in his room to sleep is ludicrous and tries to make a run for it.  I do not allow him to do so, calmly tell him good night, then close the door.  I know what’s coming though.  I keep a hand on the handle from the outside and, sure enough, he tries to open it.

Oh, is he pissed.

And may I just say at this point, I am dog-ass tired.

I keep a grip.  It is not easy.  My 40-lb three year-old is shockingly strong.  When that doesn’t work, I hear him make a running start and slam his body against the door.  He tries this at least a half dozen times.  I hear the startling smash of toys hitting the door.  I am in shock, and thankful, that his little brother is not waking up in the room next door.

Then, I hear the light switch turn on and the sound of Big C playing.

And now I get pissed.  Tears of rage and exhaustion wash down my face.  This isn’t supposed to be fun!  You are supposed to be asleep!

I walk in, pick him up, and literally toss him into his bed.

His smile is nearly evil in its triumph.

Score: Mommy Catharsis – O, Big C – lost count.


On nights like this, I like to think man invented wine solely for me.


mdanys / Foter / CC BY


Published by Miranda Keskes

I am a freelance writer, editor, and tutor with fifteen years of high school teaching experience. Helping young adults craft their unique writer's voice is one of my passions. As the mother of a child with autism, I also feel compelled to share our story, connect with fellow parents, and raise awareness for a diagnosis that is still quite misunderstood. Learn more at my business site, KeskesInk.com, and my personal blog, MommyCatharsis.com.

17 thoughts on “ABA Lessons: Extinction Bursts will make you question why you became a parent

  1. Hang in there. It WILL pass, you and I are in the same exact place!!!!!!

    Can I have a glass of that wine?


      1. I think I’ve created my own “hydration cycle”: coffee in the morning, wine in the evening, then coffee in the morning after the wine….then coffee after *that* wine…ect… (Giggles)


  2. Yeah, they’re paid, they’re not emotionally involved to the same extent as you, they get to go home afterwards and they don’t have to clear up your house. Of course it’s easier for them to stay calm! I read a quote recently, “It’s a marathon, not a sprint”, they were talking about eating healthily but I think that applies here too.


  3. When you get that “Mommy, I’m sorry”, your happiness and hugs are instinctive and appropriate. It is also not out of place to accompany these with:

    “I’m so happy you said you’re sorry. Now can you SHOW you’re a sorry boy by picking up the (—) you threw on the floor? I’ll help you so that we can be finished twice as fast!”


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