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Positive Reinforcement and Autism
By Alan Harchik, Ph.D., BCBA

Correct use of positive reinforcement is one of the most important components of effective educational and behavioral services for children with autism and other developmental disabilities. Positive reinforcement, more simply known as "rewards," occurs when a desired behavior (language, social interaction, academic work) is followed by a desirable outcome, or reward (such as attention, or a special treat or activity). Successful positive reinforcement results in a behavior occurring more frequently in the future. It can make learning fun, increase participation and cooperation, and help children learn valuable skills.

Positive reinforcement is more than simply rewarding good behavior. "Reinforcement" means strengthening something to make it more durable and long lasting. Builders and engineers use reinforcements on buildings, bridges, and other structures to make them stronger and more resilient. Likewise, teachers and parents can use reinforcements to help children strengthen fragile, newly-learned skills. Over time and with practice, these skills become familiar, and children learn to use them consistently and in all kinds of situations.

There are a variety of positive reinforcers that teachers and parents can use to support learning and good behavior. Many parents do this on a regular basis by offering praise or extra attention. However, children with autism and other developmental disabilities often do not have a natural interest in the kinds of activities and rewards that are more naturally reinforcing to typically-developing children. Good behavioral programs will identify rewards that are meaningful and personal to children with special needs. Edible rewards - such as raisins, pretzels, candy, pudding or juice - are often very effective for these children, especially when they are learning a new skill or struggling with a serious behavior problem.

Some teachers and parents may have concerns about using positive reinforcement. They may feel that kids should do their work without special rewards or that using edibles is more appropriate with a pet than with a child. While I understand these concerns, scientific literature strongly supports the effectiveness of positive reinforcement for children with special needs. I believe educators and parents should consider using this technique because it is a powerful tool that can help improve children's skill acquisition and behavior.

I would like to add a word of caution, however. Without thoughtful implementation of a reinforcement program, problem behaviors can be accidentally rewarded with attention or even with the removal of task demands - precisely the outcomes we want to avoid. Poor outcomes can also result from a program that is inconsistent or not individualized to the needs of the child. Poor implementation can create a system that repeatedly threatens the child with the loss of rewards instead of one that recognizes and celebrates positive behaviors.

Parents should make sure their child's educational program takes full advantage of the power of positive reinforcement. The following guidelines can help parents determine if a positive reinforcement program is most likely to be effective:

- The desired behavior is clearly described in observable and measurable terms rather than in a broad and vague manner.
- The program specifies exactly what the child needs to do to receive the reinforcer, such as verbally naming an object without any assistance from the teacher.
- Reinforcers are chosen based upon the child's personal preferences and past successes. (There are many categories to choose from, including edibles, materials, sensory items, activities, and tokens or points to save and trade in.)
- Teachers and staff give the reinforcer as immediately as possible. (A delay increases the chances of accidentally rewarding some other behavior.)
- When a reinforcer is given, the teacher also gives enthusiastic praise and describes the behavior to the child.
- Reinforcement is used regularly and consistently.
- The reinforcer is controlled so the child does not have easy contact with it at other times.
- A record of the child's performance is kept so the effects of the program can be determined in order to decide if changes should be made.

May Institute operates schools for children and adolescents with autism and other developmental disabilities in Chatham, Randolph, West Springfield, and Woburn, Mass., and in Freeport, Maine. The Institute also provides residential and day services for adults. For more information, call 800-778-7601, or visit www.mayinstitute.org.

Dr. Harchik can be contacted in West Springfield at 413-734-0300, or at aharchik@mayinstitute.org.

The information presented on this site is intended solely as a general educational aid, and is neither medical nor healthcare advice for any individual problem, nor a substitute for medical or other professional advice and services from a qualified healthcare provider familiar with your unique circumstances. Always seek the advice of your physician or other qualified healthcare professional regarding any medical condition and before starting any new treatment.

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