Reinforcement and Autism
By Alan Harchik, Ph.D., BCBA
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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
- 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
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.
Harchik can be contacted in West Springfield at 413-734-0300, or
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.