People like to be rewarded for a job well done. Rewards can be as simple as a parent praising a child for picking up toys or as significant as getting a promotion after years of dedication and hard work.
This reinforcement, known as a part of operant conditioning, helps an individual make an association between a particular behavior and its consequence, or reward. Whether we realize it or not, over time that reinforcement often shapes our responses to various situations.
Individuals with autism are no different. While the approach and reward system will vary with each person, studies have shown that operant conditioning has been successful in teaching individuals with autism a number of different skills.
Operant conditioning involves four main components:
Establish motivation by asking if, or observing what, the child wants to do. The task or object involved can become known to be the “reinforcer,” or reward. Often, you have to reward participation to make it more motivating. An antecedent is an event or item presentation that occurs before the behavior and can sometimes be a “trigger” to behavior. In operant conditioning, behaviors are observable and measurable – not about feelings but just what can be defined and observed. The consequence, or what happens as a result of the behavior, is the reinforcement (i.e., the reward). If the result is seen as a positive, the behavior is likely to continue.
An example that pulls these components together can be explained by a child that does not want to take a bath. The child has no motivation to take a bath, and the antecedent—in this case, just the word bath —is enough to trigger a negative response. Arguing about taking the bath will only result in continued negative behavior and will not motivate a child to take a bath. Conversely, assigning a motivation to the bath by first asking which toy the child wants to play with, from a choice of two desired items, in the bath accomplishes several goals:
1. Motivation is established through the reward of playing with the toy
2. The antecedent, or the question about the toy choice, automatically assumes the bath is going to happen, but some form of choice (which toy) gives the child power in the situation which may reduce stress
3. Choosing a toy allows the child to focus on the motivation for positive behavior—playing with a desired toy, and
4. The consequence, or reinforcement, is allowing the child to choose and play with the desired toy while performing the desired task.
In the example above, operant conditioning results in a less stressful bath time for both the caretaker and the child. Caretakers need to be cautious, however, in the execution of the operant conditioning, being careful to use a reward system rather than bribery. If the caretaker used a “bribe” strategy, “If you take a bath, you can choose a toy,” the reward may not outweigh the perceived choice of the child to take a bath. Additionally, reinforcement given too often can lower the value of the consequence.
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Studies conducted by the American Psychological Association have shown that “prognosis is poor for autistic children who fail to develop speech by age five.” In a landmark study in 1965, teaching speech to an autistic child through operant conditioning helped a four-year-old nonverbal autistic boy establish basic vocabulary when speaking. Through the use of various motivations and reinforcements, the boy’s speech “later began to acquire the characteristics of meaningful language.”
In a 2011 study, Johnnae Tatiana Sanderson, a student at Penn State University, noted some of the successes with operant conditioning she observed while working with children with autism, particularly in relation to repetition: “Working with Autistic kids requires a lot of repetition; therefore, using positive reinforcers to maintain and increase a good behavior and or skill is very beneficial to the child and their development. For example, in the lower functioning autistic class, operant conditioning is used very frequently, and rewards are earned very easily.”
Sanderson noted in her experiences that both lower- and higher-functioning children with autism responded when teachers used reinforcers to direct the child’s behavior. With the lower functioning class, teachers used small pieces of candy that were given as a reward when children showed they were merely making an effort to do what was asked of them—a concept at the core of teaching functional independence skills.
Consistency in program presentation is also important. Using the Functional Independence Skills Handbook or FISH at Springbrook Behavioral Health, the staff can use the same program effort by using the FISH lesson plans. In this way, progress toward the behavioral objective seems to occur more rapidly.
While the rewards may look different—candy, a favorite toy, screen time, or just an unstructured pleasant interaction—the operant conditioning process has been shown to produce results in children with autism.
 Hewett, F. M. (1965). Teaching speech to an autistic child through operant conditioning. American Journal of Orthopsychiatry, 35(5), 927-936.
 “Autism and Operant Conditioning.” Penn State University. September 2014. https://sites.psu.edu/psych256fa14/2014/09/11/autism-and-operant-conditioning/
This article was featured in Issue 88 – Knowledge is Power