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The Benefits of Vicarious Reinforcement in Autism Spectrum Disorder

May 24, 2024

If you’re an autism parent, you have likely come across the term “vicarious reinforcement.” But what does it mean, and how can it help your child on the spectrum?

Reinforcement in psychology involves recognizing and rewarding good behavior to motivate such behavior to be repeated. Essentially, vicarious reinforcement is about people’s tendency to copy the behaviors they have witnessed others being rewarded for. 

Teaching by example isn’t just a cliche phrase you hear. In the world of autism therapy, it plays a pivotal role in the development of the child on the spectrum. In this article, we will explore vicarious reinforcement, how it relates to autism and practical ways to implement it in your child’s life.

The Benefits of Vicarious Reinforcement in Autism Spectrum Disorder

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What is Vicarious Reinforcement?

Vicarious reinforcement is observational learning or learning through demonstration, and it happens when individuals learn something basically through perception without direct rewards or disciplinary action.

It happens when:

  • An individual notices someone else (a model) act with a particular goal in mind and experience an outcome they perceive as rewarding.
  • Thus, the observer processes the information and acts as the model did.

For instance, a bashful kid at school notices another pupil commended by the educator for speaking up in class. The reinforced model is the observed model.

On the off chance that the shy youngster might want to be lauded by the teacher in the same manner, they learn to speak up. Many social learning theories show the relationship between behaviors and rewards in the wide scope of learning experiences in everyday life.

Reinforcement learning theories express that learning is driven by errors between the anticipated and genuine results of activities. Albert Bandura advanced this hypothesis. It has been generally used in the classroom, work settings, and neuro-rehabilitation.

Why Vicarious Reinforcement Matters in Autism

Children with autism often face unique challenges in their development and social interactions. Vicarious reinforcement can have a profound influence on their lives. Here are some of the most common ways of how this phenomenon affects them:

  • Social learning: Children with autism often struggle with social interactions and communication. This method allows them to observe and learn from their peers or caregivers.
  • Behavioral modeling: By witnessing desired behaviors being rewarded and praised, children with autism are often motivated to replicate those behaviors themselves.
  • Enhancing communication skills: Vicarious reinforcement can be a powerful tool for improving communication skills in autistic children.

Using Vicarious Reinforcement With Your Autistic Child

Learning by watching others get rewarded has huge instructive and social ramifications. Suppose a child with autistic symptoms can successfully learn by noticing the rewards conveyed to another child. In that case, it can diminish main instructional time and budgetary costs associated with intensive personal guidance and lead to the achievement of socially desirable conduct. This increases their opportunities for social integration.

However, current studies have shown that some kids with autism show deficiency in the major skills fundamental for observational learning. Many children with autism who are under evidence-based guidance start school in intensive 1:1 instruction with a teacher or parent in a profoundly organized format with all-around and repeated routines.

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Sadly, these instructional formats may not be financially achievable for the long haul and are seldom available in general education environments. A child with developmental disabilities in these settings may be required to learn in a group like their counterparts.

Children with autism who make significant strides in learning in individualized settings may gain important abilities, empowering them to be included in most school settings.

Consequently, parents and teachers must distinguish procedures to move guidance from a coordinated setting to guidance introduced in a gathering where learning opportunities might be increased with vicarious reinforcement. This will necessitate that the child is shown the fundamental behaviors and skills to learn by observing his companions’ reactions.

Limited attention must be addressed in these settings or wherever vicarious learning is utilized. Deficiencies in attention, for example, poor or evasive eye contact, not orienting to toys, and inability to participate in joint attention, are perceived to be some of the core diagnostic indicators of autism.

Attention deficiency can affect a kid’s capacity to learn through vicarious learning. To learn by noticing other people, the child will need to respond to different stimuli at the same time and sustain attention for a long period of time.

For example, a child with autism observing a lesson that is presented by a teacher about signs of traffic has to attend to the presentation of the teacher as well as:

  • The teacher’s question or directive to other students
  • The student’s answer to the teacher’s question
  • The teacher’s reaction/reward to the student’s response
  • The response of the student following the teacher’s reaction/reward
  • Other learning materials related to the lesson, such as visual displays of traffic lights

Practical Strategies for Using Vicarious Reinforcement

Learning some practical strategies for implementing vicarious reinforcement is crucial for it to be effective in the context of autism parenting, therapy, and teaching. Let’s explore some useful strategies that will help you achieve this.

Peer Playgroups

Organizing playgroups with neurotypical peers can create an ideal environment for vicarious reinforcement. Autistic children can observe and imitate social behaviors, leading to improved social skills.

Visual Aids

Using visual aids such as charts and diagrams can help autistic children better understand cause-and-effect relationships, reinforcing desired behaviors.

Role Modeling

Parents and caregivers can play a crucial role as positive role models. Demonstrating desired behaviors and rewarding them is a great way to instill positive habits in autistic children.

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Using Vicarious Reinforcement in an Everyday Setting

Examples of vicarious reinforcement at home or in an everyday environment include:

  • Giving a piece of candy to a child for picking up their toys in the presence of a sibling with autism. Accompany that with praise to capture the most of their attention and help influence future behavior.
  • Handing out gold stars to a child who turns in their homework on time. Timing and observation are essential for the child with autism to associate the given reward with finishing his/her homework on time.
  • Cheering, high-fiving, and telling a child, “Great job!” when they imitate you in putting away the dishes while a sibling with autism is listening. The ability to imitate, a critical part of learning, is significantly diminished in children with autism. Reinforcing imitation in a group can help teach the youngster to imitate desirable actions and responses of peers.

Let the child know what is coming next. A kid with autism can easily be frustrated or lose general interest when an event doesn’t go as expected or there’s a change in their routine. One way to successfully incorporate vicarious reinforcement is by telling them what will happen next.

The Science Behind the Approach

In his Bobo doll study, Bandura showed that children would imitate a vicious and violent activities’ grown-up model. In the test, youngsters watched a film in which a grown-up repeatedly beat up an inflatable doll. After the film, kids were permitted to play with a real-life Bobo doll like the one in the film.

Kids were found to mimic the grown-up’s violent activities when they received no consequences or were rewarded for aggressive behavior. Kids who saw film cuts in which the grown-up was rebuffed for this forceful conduct were less likely to mimic the practices later.

Psychologist B. F. Skinner, on the other hand, believed that classical conditioning is restricted to existing practices that are reflexively evoked and don’t represent new practices, for example, riding a bicycle. He proposed a hypothesis about how such practices occur.

Skinner accepted that behavior is shaped by the results a person gets for their behavior. His thought was that learning is the string of effects behaviors that depend on the law of effect, which was first suggested by Edward Thorndike, a psychologist.

As per the law, behavior followed by satisfying consequences is more likely to be repeated. If one accomplishes something that achieves an ideal outcome, they are bound to do it once more for self-accomplishment. Actions that lead to less desirable outcomes are less likely to be modeled.


Human learning and behavior are largely shaped by observing what happens to others. Vicarious reinforcement teaches imitation of positive behavior by rewarding an exemplary model in the target observer’s presence.

Improvements in understanding and managing ASD in the coming years will be driven by more specific studies in the cognitive neural mechanisms that affect interaction from the observation of reinforcement or punishment as it happens to others.

Proper timing and consistency are key to success in improving learning in children with autism using vicarious reinforcement. Continuous vicarious reinforcement from the start to the end of the activity might serve to hold the targeted child’s attention.


Q: How can I encourage vicarious reinforcement in my child with autism? 

A: Create a supportive environment where your child can interact with peers and role models. Encourage social activities and provide positive reinforcement for positive behaviors.

Q: Are there any potential drawbacks to vicarious reinforcement? 

A: While it can be beneficial, children with autism may also learn negative behaviors. It’s crucial to monitor their interactions and provide guidance when needed.

Q: Can vicarious reinforcement improve social skills in teenagers with autism? 

A: Yes, it can. Adolescents with autism can still benefit from observing and learning from their peers. Social skills development is an ongoing process.

Q: Is it possible to overemphasize vicarious reinforcement? 

A: Yes, balance is key when it comes to vicarious reinforcement. While this approach can be a useful tool, it should be part of a broader strategy that includes other forms of therapy and support.

Q: How can educators incorporate vicarious reinforcement in the classroom? 

A: Educators can create inclusive classrooms that promote positive social interactions. They can also use role-playing and peer modeling to utilize vicarious reinforcement.

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