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Is Positive Reinforcement Good for Autism?
When a child with autism is learning new behaviors that are socially appropriate, they are usually unlearning socially inappropriate behaviors at the very same time. In fact, many times the new skills or behaviors that these children are learning in their ABA sessions are carefully planned replacements for socially inappropriate behaviors that the BCBA and parents have discussed and determined to work on as part of the child’s treatment plan.
One of the most successful methods of teaching and sustaining new skills and behaviors is the use of positive reinforcement. Positive reinforcement is simply the addition of a reinforcing stimulus (incentive) immediately following a behavior that makes it likely that the behavior will be repeated again. For example, if a child washes their own dishes after dinner without being asked and gets rewarded with compliments from mom and dad and a bowl of ice cream- the chances are high that this child will wash their own dishes again after dinner.
The ice cream is the stimulus immediately following the desired behavior of washing the dishes. As long as the ice cream is reinforcing to that child, they will most likely wash dishes with a smile on their face. It’s also a win-win because all parties are happy. Mom and Dad don’t have to argue with the child to wash the dishes and the child gets dessert.
Why is positive reinforcement more effective than punishment?
Positive reinforcement is more effective than punishment because it has more beneficial outcomes all the way around. Positive reinforcement involves adding something that is motivating and reinforcing to the child with autism while punishment requires subtracting or taking something away from the child. Taking things away from a child with autism can be frustrating for them and end up causing the exact opposite of the behavior goal in mind.
Just as an adult goes to work to earn a paycheck at the end of each week (positive reinforcement), it would cause great frustration and it would feel like punishment to be expected to work hard all week with little or no reward at the end of the week if a paycheck were reduced or withheld.
The idea behind positive reinforcement in ABA Therapy is to elicit a response or increase the likelihood that the child will repeat positive behavior. The goal is to teach appropriate social, academic, communication, and behavior skills that will become a regular part of their repertoire. Positive reinforcement is ideal for this because as human beings we are drawn to positive words and actions and we tend to find ways to avoid things we don’t like.
Positive reinforcement works because it encourages a child to comply without having to resort to yelling, threatening, punishing, shaming, or any other sort of damaging and ineffective technique that may result in long-term emotional harm like chronic anxiety or fear. Rather, positive reinforcement helps to develop good character, self-discipline, personal responsibility, and healthy self-esteem.
Children who are raised with parents who use positive reinforcement feel loved and cared for. They tend to exceed behavioral expectations as they seek more positive reinforcement and their behavior is consistently compliant on a more long-term basis rather than on a short-term basis because they are not responding to the moment in fear of punishment. They are confident and comfortable. They feel good about themselves and their surroundings and they show it in their behavior.
Why is reinforcing positive behavior important?
The most important reason for reinforcing positive behavior is that it teaches children with autism what is appropriate and acceptable. There is no cure for autism that will magically make it go away. However, according to a study by Lovaas in 1987, ABA has been successful at treating autism to the extent that half of all children with autism were considered “indistinguishable from their peers” after receiving intensive applied behavior analysis therapy for forty hours each week. Another 90% showed significant improvement.
Autism affects social skills, and without treatment, children with autism do not have a clear understanding of what is socially appropriate and inappropriate. Many children with autism lack the ability to filter their comments when they are speaking to their peers or adults and may seem rude or uncaring by saying exactly what they are thinking.
They may fail to be discreet with bodily functions or table manners. It may not occur to them to wait or raise their hand before speaking. They may cut others off in line without understanding why this would anger someone.
Whatever their atypical behavior may be, a new skill will need to be learned in order to establish a replacement behavior. The best way to teach a new skill is to continuously reinforce the appropriate behavior. The most successful way to reinforce a new skill so that it is likely to be repeated and generalized into other areas of the child’s life is to use positive reinforcement.
How is positive reinforcement used?
Positive reinforcement is delivered immediately following the desired behavior to encourage the child to repeat that particular behavior. But, that isn’t all there is to it. When a child is evaluated for ABA services, they are also evaluated for their preferences- their likes. What motivates your child? Do they like drawing? Playing outside? Video games? Dancing? Playing board games? Whatever it is that your child loves is what will motivate them to work with the ABA therapist as they learn new skills. When they complete a task the way that they are supposed to they earn their preferred item or activity.
Sometimes their preferences change and the things that motivate them aren’t inspiring anymore. That’s okay! There’s always something else that will encourage them and that’s what keeps ABA exciting for the child and the therapist! As the child learns, the sessions evolve, the treatment plans change and things can get pretty challenging for the child and therapist! But all the while, when the child is displaying appropriate behavior, the therapist is delivering positive reinforcement.
Positive reinforcement can be any of the following depending on what works for the child:
- A tangible item (i.e. preferred item- toy, bubble, game, tablet)
- Verbal praise delivered with enthusiasm ( “wow! Great job!)
- An engaging play activity (tickles, tag, swing, trampoline, etc)
- Food item (small snack, candy, cookie- with parent permission)
- Break from “working”
The idea is to keep it interesting and to make it feel rewarding and fun. If it doesn’t feel rewarding and fun, then it isn’t positive and the child will not feel like completing any of the tasks during a session. Momentum during a session is part of keeping it positive.
What are some examples of positive reinforcement in the classroom?
Is your child going to school? Some schools are gracious enough to allow ABA sessions in the classroom. More and more teachers are aware of ABA and learning how to implement some of the concepts in the classroom with success.
Some easy ways to use it in the classroom are to use the very same ideas mentioned above. When a student is on task- offer verbal praise instantly- right then and there! Catch them while they are on task and praise them with enthusiasm!
If a student is easily frustrated, allow that student to work in smaller segments of time, and before he/she gets to the point of frustration offer that student a break and tell them how good they are doing and tell them that you notice how hard they are working. Keep it positive!
When a student finishes a task, offer them a reward. Have a basket of snacks or small items available to reward them for completing a task. Praise them for getting the work done so quickly. Or just praise them for trying so hard.
Look for opportunities to deliver praise and encouragement. Try to praise students so much that it outweighs the correction. This is positive reinforcement!
How often reinforcement should be delivered is different for each child. For some children, it might take continuous praise to keep them focused and staying on task. This means that each and every time a child does the right thing, they should receive an enthusiastic response. One reinforcement for each appropriate response (1:1). You will know which child needs this because the one time that they don’t receive the positive reinforcement- the inappropriate behavior comes back. This one-to-one ratio (1:1) needs to keep happening until the appropriate behaviors start becoming automatic. In time, it will become possible to reduce the reinforcement to every other, or perhaps every third response, and eventually fade out reinforcement completely as the child becomes independent.
How Positive Reinforcement is used in ABA
Positive reinforcement is at the heart of applied behavior analysis and it is at the heart of what we do at Circle Care Services. Your child’s treatment plan is specifically designed to accommodate your child’s needs and our staff is trained to keep the experience fun and motivating for your child. By keeping the experience positive for your child, all of the work will feel like play!