Teachers often want to move autistic students whose behavior they find disruptive out of their ordinary classrooms and into special education classrooms, or classrooms just for students with autism in the same school, or even into separate schools. These segregated environments do offer smaller class size and more adult supervision. However, they almost never provide the same academic opportunities as mainstream classrooms—separate is far from equal. This is why the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) requires that students with autism be taught in the least restrictive environment possible for them. And this is why teachers and administrators must take certain steps before changing a student’s placement from a less restrictive to a more restrictive environment.
The 1997 and 2004 re-authorizations of IDEA require schools to at least attempt to resolve the problem, by working to change the disruptive behavior, before a student can be removed from the mainstream classroom. Schools must conduct a Functional Behavioral Assessment (FBA) of the student, to get a better idea of the reasons for the unwanted behaviors, and then use that information to develop and implement a Behavior Intervention Plan (BIP), designed to minimize or eliminate those behaviors.
In FBA, data is collected on when and where the target behavior occurs, what its “antecedents” were and what its “consequences” are. Various instruments are used to track behaviors and what happened just before and after in a systematic way; interviews are also conducted with the teacher, the parents, other adults familiar with the student, and ideally (but, in the case of autistic students, not very often) the student himself or herself. The person doing the assessment then analyzes all this data in order to determine what function the behavior serves for the student. (Does it help to attract attention? Provide sensory stimulation? Allow the student to escape from difficult tasks?) Once the function or functions are identified, then the school team (teachers, aides, administrators, psychologists, etc.) can develop a Behavior Intervention Plan. They can decide how the student’s environment and interactions with others might be modified in order to discourage the disruptive behavior and how the student can be encouraged to engage in more positive behavior. For example: if a student tends to scream every time the bells ring for class change or for a fire alarm, then the environment might be modified by covering up nearby alarm bells to dampen the sound. The teacher could let the student know when regular alarms are about to sound, and the student could be encouraged to put on noise-cancelling headphones when those regular alarms are about to go off. A student who runs away during transitions from one classroom to another can be given positive attention for learning each of the steps required for a safer transition (stop and wait by the classroom door, hold the teacher’s hand in the hall, etc.).
The FBA/BIP combination is the best means we currently have for helping autistic students with “disruptive” behaviors remain in mainstream classes. However, it is far from being a perfect solution. One serious problem is that the law only vaguely defines the conditions under which a FBA/BIP is necessary. The re-authorized IDEA requires them ONLY if the disruptive behavior is considered a “manifestation of the student’s disability”—whatever that means. State laws and regulations are not much clearer. In practice, this vagueness allows students to be removed from mainstream classrooms and even removed from ordinary public schools without any attempt to modify their behavior, if that behavior is not obviously a “manifestation” of their disability. Autistic students engage in many behaviors that can be, and all too often have been, incorrectly understood as “willful” or “manipulative,” rather than arising from their autism. As a result, many have been moved to more restrictive environments without any effort at all being made to help them.
Another problem is lack of expertise. Ideally, a skilled school psychologist or other experienced specialist would be in charge of the FBA/BIP process. In practice—especially in impoverished rural or inner city school districts—the burden often falls on teachers, who may have had no training at all in behavior analysis and intervention.  However well meaning these teachers may be, they are basically operating on the fly, and their attempts to modify complex student behavior are often ineffective. And if their efforts fail, the autistic student is generally moved out of the mainstream classroom.
A final issue is the very nature of FBA/BIP. Like ABA, the FBA/BIP process has its roots in the behaviorist school of psychology. The focus is on observable behaviors rather than on the mental processes that lead to those behaviors. And in interpreting those behaviors, the emphasis is always on observable antecedents and consequences, which provide some clues to the target behavior’s function for the person engaging in it. Skilled behavior analysts can often learn why a particular behavior is happening, and can then develop a plan for modifying it. But the reasons for other behaviors elude them, because the people they are studying actually have complex mental processes, in which long-term memory and reasoning, as well as simple reactions to the environment play a role.
No matter how finely honed the instruments used for tracking behavior may be, they are not meant capture the internal experience of the autistic student. Invisible stressors go unnoticed, especially if the student is never interviewed during the FBA process, but also when an interview has taken place, unless the student is unusually self-aware. The behavior analyst may not understand the extent of the student’s sleep deprivation, or the impact of chronic stomach pain. They may not realize that a student who has been systematically bullied for many years has come to see apparently innocuous remarks by teachers and other students as insulting and infuriating. They may not recognize that a particular smell arouses memories of a traumatic experience many years earlier.
Behavior analysts also often miss the cumulative impact of multiple stressors, especially when the earlier stressors are not easily observable. When a student keeps getting up and using the pencil sharpener in math class immediately after lunch, for example, the behavior team will usually, and quite reasonably, assume that the chaos in the school cafeteria is creating so much stress that the student cannot deal with the demands of math problems immediately afterwards and is trying to escape from them. They may try to modify the student’s lunchtime experience, by letting him or her eat in another setting. However, this won’t solve the problem if the demands of math class represent the breaking point in a day that has involved not only the chaos of the lunch room, but also (unobserved) teasing from a sibling during breakfast, (unobserved) bullying on the bus, (unobserved) failure to understand a reading in English class, and (unobserved) feelings of humiliation in gym class. If the lunchtime experience has been improved, and yet the student keeps on going to the pencil sharpener during math, this may actually represent the student doing his or her best to avoid a complete meltdown, rather than a student trying to “escape task demands.” Under the circumstances, there are more humane responses than declaring the BIP a failure and taking the student out a math class altogether.
I am not trying to suggest that the FBA/BIP process is useless—far from it. The schools that make use of it are at least trying to keep autistic students in mainstream classrooms, at a time when many other schools are not. And often Behavior Intervention Plans do actually work, and unwanted behaviors are diminished or eliminated. But sometimes BIPs don’t work, so teachers, aides and administrators might want to think more broadly and more creatively about ways to help students remain in their classrooms even when “disruptive” behaviors (so long as they are not actually harmful to people or property) continue.
I will return to the issue of the more harmful behaviors in the next post.
 Cynthia Dieterich, Nicole Snyder and Christine Villani, “Functional Behavior Assessment and Behavior Intervention Plans: Review of ther Law and Recent Cases,” Brigham Young University Education and Law Journal (2017), 195-217.
 On functional assessment of behavior in a clinical setting, see Pamela Neidert, Griffin Rookes, Makenzie Bayles, Jonathan Miller, “Functional Analysis of Problem Behavior,” in Derek Reed, Florence Di Gennaro Reed, and James Luiselli, eds., Handbook of Crisis Intervention and Developmental Disabilities (New York: Springer, 2013), pp. 147-67. On FBA as actually practiced in schools, see George Noell and Kristin Gansle, “Introduction to Functional Behavior Assessment,” in Angeleque Akin-Little, Steven Little, Melissa Bray and Thomas Kehle, eds., Behavioral Interventions in Schools: Evidence-based Positive Strategies (Washington, DC: American Psychological Association, 2009), pp. 43-58; Alison Bruhn, et al., “Assessing and Treating Stereotypical Behaviors in Classrooms Using a Functional Approach,” Behavioral Disorders 41 (2015), 21-37.
 Nancy Stockall and Lindsay Dennis, “Stop the Running: Addressing Elopement in Young Children with Disabilities,” Young Exceptional Children 19 (2016), 3-13.
 Lauren Collins and Perry Zirkel, “Functional Behavior Assessments and Behavior Intervention Plans: Legal Requirements and Professional Recommendations,” Journal of Positive Behavior Interventions 19 (2017), 180-90.
 Michael Couvillon, Lyndal Bullock and Robert Gable, “Tracking Behavior Assessment Methodology and Support Strategies: A National Survey of How Schools Utilize Functional Behavioral Assessments and Behavior Intervention Plans,” Emotional and Behavioural Difficulties 14 (2009), 215-28; Lindsay Oram, Sarah Owens and Melissa Maras, “Functional Behavior Assessment and Behavior Intervention Plans in Rural Schools: An Exploration of the Need, Barriers and Recommendations,” Preventing School Failure 60 (2016), 305-10. Many schools have no trained psychologist available to conduct FBAs. In 2014-15, there was only one school psychologist for every 1,381 students in the United States: National Association of School Psychologists, Shortages in School Psychology: Challenges to Meeting the Growing Needs of U.S. Students and Schools, Research Summaries (Bethesda, MD: National Association of School Psychologists, 2017).