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Recent developments in the field of autism and related disabilities have included two prominent themes: (a) the emergence of functional assessment (FA) as a requisite step in behavioral support and (b) a growing acknowledgment that families represent the most essential resource for the social, intellectual, emotional, and behavioral development of their children. In the vast majority of cases, families are the most committed, enduring, and knowledgeable source of personal support available for their children. Therefore, families are considered vital contributors in the educational process and, increasingly, in the application of FA and assessment-based behavioral interventions. This article provides a discussion of family involvement in the process of FA and offers some key considerations pertinent to the appropriate and optimal incorporation of families in the FA and intervention process.
In the last few years, researchers, practitioners, and family members have increasingly focused attention on the use of functional assessment (FA) as the means to develop effective interventions for ameliorating problem behaviors (e.g., Carr et al., 1994; Neef & Iwata, 1994; Repp & Horner, 1999; Vaughn, Dunlap, Fox, Clarke, & Bucy, 1997). Interest in FA has heightened considerably since the advent of the 1997 amendments to the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA). These amendments stipulate, among other requirements, that a "functional behavioral assessment" must be conducted prior to disciplinary actions that result in a student's being placed in an alternative educational setting (IDEA, 1997). Although the actual language within the amendments is vague, interpretations of the law clearly relate "functional behavioral assessment" to the empirically validated, behavior-analytic tradition of using "functional assessments" as the basis of intervention plans (Sugai et al., 2000; Tilly et al., 1998).
Functional assessment (which is used in this article interchangeably with functional behavioral assessment) is defined as a process for developing an understanding of the interactions between a specified behavior and events in the environment. In particular, an FA identifies the consequences that represent the behavior's function, or purpose, and the contextual events and circumstances that are predictable antecedents of the behavior (Foster-Johnson & Dunlap, 1993; O'Neill, Vaughn, & Dunlap, 1998; Tilly et al., 1998). Many articles and books have described useful direct and indirect methods for conducting FA (e.g., O'Neill et al., 1997), and a substantial corpus of empirical research provides testimony to the efficacy and feasibility of the FA approach (Carr et al., 1999; Repp & Horner, 1999). A crucial (but sometimes overlooked) point to remember whenever FA is employed is that the essential reason, and the full justification, for conducting a functional assessment is to develop an effective, assessment-based plan of intervention.
FA is central to the approach for addressing problem behaviors known as positive behavior support, which is referred to in IDEA as "positive behavior interventions and supports" (Sugai et al., 2000; Tilly et al., 1998). Positive behavior support (PBS) involves applying individualized approaches, based on behavioral principles and derived from functional assessments, to effect appropriate behaviors and reduce problem behaviors in a manner that produces durable improvements in a person's lifestyle (Horner et al., 1990; Koegel, Koegel, & Dunlap, 1996). Proponents of PBS advocate for a team-based approach (e.g., Bambara & Knoster, 1998; Hieneman & Dunlap, 1999) that includes input and participation from all individuals who are invested and involved in the life of the focus individual. Naturally, a team-based approach to FA and PBS mandates a large measure of family involvement.
We include PBS in the discussion because we believe that FA is inseparable from its sequela--the design and implementation of the behavior support plan that is based on its findings. Although the discussion here places the processes of FA and PBS in a broad and comprehensive context, we acknowledge that these processes can be, and often are, employed in situations that are confined to single behaviors in limited circumstances. For example, FA and PBS are commonly used to resolve an isolated behavior (such as head banging) that disrupts classroom operations in relatively few identified situations during school hours (such as when difficult work is assigned). The focus here, however, is on those circumstances where behavior problems are more pervasive--for example, when problem behaviors are present across environments and when, as a result, a child's functioning, development, and social participation are compromised in multiple settings. This orientation means that FAs must account for the full purview of a child's life and that behavior support plans must be designed for similarly comprehensive implementation. When a child has a significant communicative or cognitive disability, such as autism, this more comprehensive approach to assessment and intervention would seem to be particularly helpful. In these circumstances we believe it is especially urgent that careful attention be paid to the child's behavior in all settings, and thus family involvement must be viewed as particularly vital.
Throughout this article we refer to "family" involvement. In most cases, "family" is equivalent to "parent," and indeed we have chosen to use "parent" on occasion. However, many different relations (by birth, adoption, or foster arrangements) may function as family members and in parent roles. We use "family" and "parent" in the broadest contexts. Furthermore, there is often very good reason to have multiple family members involved in the processes of FA and PBS. The involvement of multiple family members (parents, grandparents, siblings, extended family) in assessment and intervention is highly desirable.
In the following sections we first review the rationale for family involvement and explain why full and meaningful family …