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J Appl Behav Anal. 1994 Summer; 27(2): 215–240.
PMCID: PMC1297800

The functions of self-injurious behavior: An experimental-epidemiological analysis


Data are summarized from 152 single-subject analyses of the reinforcing functions of self-injurious behavior (SIB). Individuals with developmental disabilities referred for assessment and/or treatment over an 11-year period were exposed to a series of conditions in which the effects of antecedent and consequent events on SIB were examined systematically by way of multielement, reversal, or combined designs. Data were collected during approximately 4,000 experimental sessions (1,000 hr), with the length of assessment for individuals ranging from 8 to 66 sessions (M = 26.2) conducted over 2 to 16.5 hr (M = 6.5). Differential or uniformly high responding was observed in 145 (95.4%) of the cases. Social—negative reinforcement (escape from task demands or other sources of aversive stimulation) accounted for 58 cases, which was the largest proportion of the sample (38.1%). Social—positive reinforcement (either attention or access to food or materials) accounted for 40 (26.3%) of the cases, automatic (sensory) reinforcement accounted for 39 (25.7%), and multiple controlling variables accounted for 8 (5.3%). Seven sets of data (4.6%) showed either cyclical or inconsistent patterns of responding that were uninterpretable. Overall results indicated that functional analysis methodologies are extremely effective in identifying the environmental determinants of SIB on an individual basis and, subsequently, in guiding the process of treatment selection. Furthermore, an accumulation of assessment data from such analyses across a large number of individuals provides perhaps the most rigorous approach to an epidemiological study of behavioral function.

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Selected References

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