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Keywords:

  • avoidance behavior;
  • escape behavior;
  • extinction;
  • functional analysis;
  • negative reinforcement;
  • self-injurious behavior

Three studies are presented in which environmental correlates of self-injurious behavior were systematically examined and later used as the basis for treatment. In Study 1, 7 developmentally disabled subjects were exposed to a series of conditions designed to identify factors that maintain self-injurious behavior: attention contingent on self-injurious behavior (positive reinforcement), escape from or avoidance of demands contingent on self-injurious behavior (negative reinforcement), alone (automatic reinforcement), and play (control). Results of a multielement design showed that each subject's self-injurious behavior occurred more frequently in the demand condition, suggesting that the behavior served an avoidance or escape function. Six of the 7 subjects participated in Study 2. During educational sessions, “escape extinction” was applied as treatment for their self-injurious behavior in a multiple baseline across subjects design. Results showed noticeable reduction or elimination of self-injurious behavior for each subject and an increase in compliance with instructions in all subjects for whom compliance data were taken. The 7th subject, whose self-injurious behavior during Study 1 occurred in response to medical demands (i.e., physical examinations), participated in Study 3. Treatment was comprised of extinction, as in Study 2, plus reinforcement for tolerance of the examination procedure, and was evaluated in a multiple baseline across settings design. Results showed that the treatment was successful in eliminating self-injurious behavior and that its effects transferred across eight new therapists and three physicians. General implications for the design, interpretation, and uses of assessment studies are discussed.