Using ABC Behavior Charts for Autism

Instructor: Bethany Calderwood

Bethany has taught special education in grades PK-5 and has a master's degree in special education.

If you teach students with autism, you'll encounter many tools that can be used to address challenging behaviors. In this lesson, you'll learn about one such tool, the ABC chart, including what it is and how to make and use one.

Identifying the Goal of ABC Charts

Sometimes an autistic student demonstrates a negative behavior repeatedly and you don't know how to help him or her stop the behavior. Before helping a student reduce or eliminate a behavior, you need to understand the behavior. The purpose of an ABC chart is to help you discover what might be the cause, purpose, or reason a student is behaving in a certain way.

Defining the Terms

Before using an ABC chart for your autistic students, you need to know what ''ABC'' means. In ABC charts, the letters stand for antecedent, behavior, and consequence.

  • Antecedent: the event that happens immediately before a student performs a target behavior.
  • Behavior: a specific action or set of actions. For the purpose of an ABC chart, the behavior is usually habitual and undesirable.
  • Consequence: while we often think of consequences as negative, in this case a consequence is simply the immediate result of a behavior, or whatever happens immediately after a student performs a target behavior.

Understanding Functions of Behavior

There are four basic functions of behavior, or reasons an autistic student might perform an action. These include tangible reinforcement, escape and avoidance, attention, and sensory reinforcement.

Tangible Reinforcement

When seeking tangible reinforcement, a student receives something when he or she engages in a certain behavior. For example, when Susan whines and cries in the grocery store, her mother gives her a cookie to get her to stop her crying. Susan engages in the behavior to get a cookie.

Escape and Avoidance

When using the escape and avoidance function, a student wants to get out of a situation. For instance, Jeffrey throws a tantrum in science lab, and the science teacher sends him back to homeroom class. Jeffrey's behavior helps him escape from science lab.


In relation to this behavioral function, a student gets attention for engaging in a certain behavior. For example, Lisa refuses to cooperate during circle time, requiring the teacher to repeatedly talk to her about her behavior. The other students stare at her and giggle at her inappropriate actions. Lisa refuses to cooperate to get attention from her teacher and peers.

Sensory Reinforcement

Sometimes, students receive some sort of sensory reinforcement from their behaviors. Consider Keaton, who is constantly putting pencils, toys, books, and clothing in his mouth. Keaton wants the sensory input in his mouth. Keaton's behavior has a sensory cause.

Once you know what benefit a student receives from a behavior, you can develop a plan of response that matches the behavior's function. An ABC chart is a means of determining the function of a behavior.

Creating the Chart

Identify the Behavior

An ABC chart is used to address a single, specific behavior. The first step to creating a successful ABC chart is to clearly identify the behavior. Note that an autistic student may have multiple behaviors that you consider problematic, but when you create an ABC chart you need to look at one behavior at a time. When you identify a behavior, make sure that anyone reading the chart can understand what you mean, not just someone who knows the student, as noted below.


  • Unclear behavior definition: Susan is mean to others.
  • Clear behavior definition: Susan hits another student.


  • Unclear behavior definition: Jeffrey has tantrums.
  • Clear behavior definition: Jeffrey has tantrums lasting at least one minute in length and including two or more of the following actions: hitting, kicking, screaming, biting, or throwing himself on the floor.

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