Behavior Reinforcement for Children with Autism
Here’s what I know for sure. If any behavior is increasing or happening frequently at a steady rate, it means that this behavior is being reinforced. So we have to find out what the behavioral reinforcement is that’s causing Roger to keep hitting his siblings when mom is not present.
So to address the situation with Roger, I taught mom how to prevent Roger from hitting his siblings. And when hitting did occur, we stopped having mom rush back in to give him a lot of attention. Within days he stopped hitting. Mom’s attention, unknowingly to her, was actually the reinforcement for that behavior. Of course, we also trained Roger’s siblings on how to not respond and not to egg him on especially when mom was not in the room.
What is Positive Reinforcement?
There’s a lot of confusion about this. Before I was a behavior analyst, I used to think reinforcement was just an item or an action that the child liked, that made the child smile. But in order for something to be considered a behavioral reinforcer, it has to maintain or increase a behavior. So, if a child is getting a sticker for peeing on the potty, but peeing on the potty does not increase, then the sticker is not a reinforcer even if the child smiles or takes it. Or, the sticker is just not a dense enough reinforcer for the behavior.
Kids with Autism usually lack a lot of language, and these kids need more tangible and immediate reinforcers like an edible treat, a special drink, a short clip of a movie, or bubbles blown after a good behavior or one we want to see more of. They simply don’t understand more long term reinforcers like earning 5 tokens to get a toy or earning stickers and then at the end of the week, cashing them in. Children with autism with very poor language skills don’t understand these systems, at least initially.
Reinforcement vs Bribery
There’s also a lot of confusion about positive reinforcement versus bribery. Basically reinforcement is planned. It’s adult-led and it follows a behavior we want. Bribery often follows behaviors we don’t want like crying or whining.
When I was like four years old, one of my first memories was when my mom would put me in the grocery store cart and give me a pack of animal crackers from the shelf. I would eat them throughout the store and then we’d pay for the empty box at the end. That’s a planned reinforcer to keep me quiet, to keep me in my seat, to keep me safe.
An example of bribery might be a child who gets to the grocery store and starts whining and crying and throwing themselves on the ground when they want candy and you say no. Then you start negotiating with a crying child or telling them if they quiet down, we can get the candy. That is bribery. So we want to make sure we are using planned reinforcement ahead of the behavior. And we’re not using reinforcers after the child starts displaying problem behavior.
Preventing Problem Behaviors
So, how do you figure out what is reinforcing the behavior you don’t like? In general, we need to spend 95% of our time preventing problem behaviors by reinforcing behaviors you want to see and stop being so reactive – like Roger’s mom was doing – when problem behaviors do happen.
Sometimes we accidentally reinforce behaviors we don’t want to see, and this can cause more problem behaviors. We want to focus on giving eight positives to every negative as Dr. Glenn Latham recommended in his book, Positive Parenting. I covered this book and how to be more positive in a positive praise blog a few years ago.
Behavior Reinforcement Help
In summary, behavioral reinforcement of good behaviors and making sure we’re not reinforcing problem behaviors can change a lot for children with autism. We need to focus on the good behaviors that we want to see, and this will oftentimes make the problem behaviors lessen and go away.