Reinforcement in Autism Therapy: From Challenges to Triumph

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Autism is a neurodevelopmental disorder that affects how individuals react, interact, and communicate with others. Intervention is often used to improve  ASD symptoms, and while autism is incurable, individuals do learn to develop skills when reinforcement and other strategies are used to increase desired behaviors.

There are many resources out there that aim to help individuals with autism.  One such tool is ABA–applied behavior analysis. ABA  is evidence-based and supervised by a Board Certified Behavior Analyst® (BCBA®) who determines the function of an autistic individual’s behavior and arranges the environment to increase desirable behaviors at the expense of undesirable behaviors. They employ various reinforcement techniques tailored to the special needs of each autistic individual to achieve the best results in partnership with the family and individual being treated.  

Reinforcement as Therapy for Autism?

Reinforcement is a principle of the science of behavior and has been studied in humans and animals for many years.  When a behavior is reinforced, future occurrences of that behavior increase and replace other behaviors that are detrimental to the individual or those around them.  

BCBAs are professionals who can guide parents and caretakers to help determine the best interventions and how to carry them out to benefit the child with autism and their family, classmates, and friends.  

Reinforcement can be used to build self-esteem and confidence in individuals with autism as they learn to navigate through life.

What is Positive Reinforcement?

Positive reinforcement is the addition of something (often a reward, like a preferred item or activity) after a behavior occurs that makes it more likely that behavior will happen again in the future. The “reward” in this case acts as a reinforcer that encourages them to respond in a certain way.

For example, the therapist can reward the child by signing a funny song or engaging in a fun activity if the child completes a difficult task such as tying shoes, or a math problem. As a result, the child associates good things with completing beneficial acts.

What are Good Reinforcers?

Reinforcers items provided after a behavior has occurred that the child prefers or enjoys. Reinforcers don’t always need to be tangible.  They can be in the form of praise or even that good feeling that a child gets when accomplishing something.  A compliment or a round of applause can also be positive reinforcement to encourage a certain behavioral outcome.

Everyone has access to and responds to a variety of reinforcers.  For example, some children like playing with toys, or have favorite foods or activities.  A therapist can reward an autistic child for making their bed by providing access to a preferred toy.  This toy would be considered a primary reinforcer, because the child directly enjoys the item.   A can also pair clapping or praising the child with the toy.  Praise might be considered a secondary reinforcer because it usually leads to good things.   Multiple reinforcers make it easier for a therapist to find something that will increase beneficial behaviors in the future.  It is important to note that something that is a reinforcer for one person may not be a reinforcer for another.  This is why it is so important the treatment be individualized.   

Takeaways

Positive reinforcement, when done correctly, often results in win-win situations. Behaviors that increase have been reinforced.  This is an undeniable principle of behavior.  Therapists don’t always get to control the reinforcer, but if they can determine what best reinforces a behavior, they have a better chance of increasing behaviors that benefit the autistic child and improve their life.  

Most therapists and parents agree that positive reinforcement is one of the best techniques with any child, or adult for that matter, because it focuses on what is meaningful for that specific individual, and it is enjoyable for both the therapist and the child.  Rather than catching a child “acting bad” and punishing them for it, why not catch them “being good” and celebrate!.

What is Negative Reinforcement?

Negative reinforcement involves removing or resolving the cause of the problem to encourage a desired response from the autistic individual. It focuses on increasing the probability of the good response/behavior occurring again by removing something unpleasant from the environment.

For example, an employee can be exempted from planned overtime if they consistently complete tasks ahead of the project deadline. The possibility of not staying back at work for extra hours encourages them to complete their work early, which may have been otherwise delayed due to procrastination or demotivation.

Difference Between Positive and Negative Reinforcement?

Contrary to what the term sounds like, negative reinforcement is not the opposite of positive reinforcement but is a different approach entirely.

Positive reinforcement is adding something to the environment that is preferred by the individual and therefore increases behavior.

However, with negative reinforcement, there is something aversive to the individual in the environment that is being removed to encourage behavior.  Negative reinforcement is often seen as coercive, but may exist naturally.  For instance, if a child is cold and puts on a sweater, the act of wearing the sweater may make the child more comfortable, and therefore more likely to wear a sweater in the future.   

Takeaways

Negative reinforcement is an effective strategy for building a pattern or a consistent habit by making inconvenient experiences easier with a small change. Therapists may rely on negative reinforcement to teach autistic individuals to get through inflexible and necessary actions or tasks. 

While negative reinforcement is just as effective as positive reinforcement, both the therapist and the child tend to prefer positive reinforcement.. 

Common Mistakes in Reinforcement Implementation

BCBAs are certified and often licensed professionals who can offer the best guidance for implementing reinforcement in therapy plans for autism. It is important to understand the nuances involved with both of these strategies and make the appropriate changes to keep the therapy as helpful as possible.

Autism treatment cannot be implemented with a “one-size-fits-all” type of approach. ABA Therapy is not a bag of tricks to be applied in the same manner for one child as it is for another.  It takes a professional who understands how to determine the function of a child’s behavior to make sure that a misstep isn’t made and that harmful behaviors aren’t accidentally increased!  However, here are some common mistakes that should be avoided.

Common Mistakes in Positive Reinforcement:

  • Not providing an incentive that is rewarding enough or valuable to that specific individual.
  • Not gradually fading artificial reinforcement in favor of naturally occurring responses to a behavior may result in autistic individuals only completing the task when the reward is provided, and not otherwise.
  • Overdoing it so the recompense ceases to be rewarding and the individual loses motivation to complete the task. 
  • Allowing access to the reinforcer in other ways so that the reinforcer is not actually contingent on the behavior you want to increase

Common Mistakes in Negative Reinforcement:

  • Creating uncomfortable situations just to be able to remove them
  • Therapist becoming associated with aversive environmental effects 
  • Not understanding the pace at which problem behaviors need to be addressed – not all of them can be resolved in one therapy session. 

It is relatively easy to make these mistakes if you do not know how to customize an approach and determine what reinforces certain behaviors. This is why it is important to seek the guidance of professionals who are trained for this job and can offer insights that can derive the best results.

Measuring Effectiveness – is Reinforcement Working?

How can parents tell if their child is learning the necessary skills to become independent with reinforcement? The answer lies in the overall behavior of their child and their accomplishments. If there is an increase in the frequency of the desired behavior, then that behavior is being reinforced.

Here are some examples of what that translates into in real-life scenarios:

  • Getting good grades.
  • Doing homework independently.
  • Completing a project before the deadline.
  • Decrease in tantrums or resistance to a previously disliked task like doing chores.

Caregivers or parents have to observe these changes and improvements over time. They need to track the frequency, intensity, and probability of the desired behavior to know if they have found the right reinforcers  for their autistic loved ones. Furthermore, they should always seek an expert opinion to ensure that the functions of the child’s behaviors are truly understood.

Conclusion

Reinforcement is a principle of science of behavior and is used to develop and sustain new skills, which leads to a reduction of problem behaviors. 

With guidance and practice, parents and caregivers can better understand the role that reinforcement plays in boosting the confidence of autistic individuals and equipping them to manage day-to-day activities easily, and more importantly, successfully.

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Christy Evanko, BCBA, LBA
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