Talk the Talk: What’s the Function? Tangible/Access and Sensory/Automatic Functions of Behavior

Talk the Talk: What’s the Function? Tangible/Access and Sensory/Automatic Functions of Behavior

Hello friends! Welcome back to Talk the Talk, where we break down some of those tricky ABA concepts and provide real-life examples.

As you remember from last month, we are working through the four functions of behavior. In our last post (which you can find here) we discussed escape and attention functions. Today we will cover the final two functions, access to tangibles and sensory/automatic.

Remember, every behavior an organism engages in occurs for one of four reasons (See Right)

A quick and easy way to remember the four functions is to remember that Everybody E.A.T.S. (Escape, Attention, Tangible, Sensory)!

OK, let’s dive in!

Tangible (Access)

When a behavior is maintained by access to tangibles, this means that the target behavior is reinforced by gaining access to something physical. According to Cooper, Heron, and Heward, “items such as stickers, trinkets, school materials, trading cards, and small toys serve as tangible reinforcers. An object’s intrinsic worth is irrelevant to its ultimate effectiveness as a positive reinforcer” (2020).

Behaviors maintained by an access function allow an individual to gain ACCESS to something. As always, it can be helpful to view this in the three term contingency using ABC data (check out our post on ABC data here!), so let’s look at some examples

Other common access maintained behaviors:

    • — Opening an Amazon box to get your latest order
    • — Asking your spouse to hand you the salt at dinner
    • — Driving to the store because you are out of milk


Sensory (Automatic)

When an individual engages in sensory maintained behavior, they engage in responses that bring them any type of sensory stimulation that’s reinforcing. This function is also known as automatic; It is called automatic in that the behavior is automatically maintained, or in other words, the behavior itself is reinforcing. While this is not always the case, individuals often engage in automatically maintained behavior because it “feels good” to do so.

Let’s look at some examples:

Other common examples of sensory or automatically maintained behavior may include things such as:

    • — A child is hand flapping in his room in the absence of other people or task demands
    • — Bouncing your leg while you sit at your desk
    • — Running your hands under a fountain of water because it feels nice
    • — Child pulling at the string on their shirt until it unravels completely


Access to tangibles and sensory/automatically maintained behaviors are all around us. In the examples, you’ll notice that there are both appropriate and inappropriate ways of getting the consequences we seek. Take a look at your own behavior and see what sort of responses you engage into either gain access to something or provide a pleasurable sensory experience. Try to identify which ones are more appropriate or less appropriate. Which ones are the most effective for you?

Using the four functions of behavior, we can learn so much about not only the behavior of those around us but about our own responses too.

Want to learn more ABA terminology? Check out our other Talk the Talk posts here!