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Vicarious Reinforcement: its Uses for Children with Autism

February 1, 2022

If you’re an autism parent, it’s likely you have come across the term “vicarious reinforcement”. But what does it mean? Well, reinforcement in psychology involves recognizing and rewarding good behavior to motivate such behavior to be repeated. So, vicarious reinforcement is about a person’s tendency to copy the behaviors they have witnessed others being rewarded for.

Vicarious Reinforcement: its Uses for Children with AutismVicarious reinforcement real-life examples include:

  • Your child learns to say “please” because he/she saw a sibling say the same and get rewarded/praised for it. The child learns to eat his/her vegetables to get dessert because he/she saw a sibling finish their veggies and was allowed the sweets.
  • A child finishes his/her homework (without you reminding him/her) because he/she saw a classmate get praised by the teacher for finishing work on time.

Vicarious reinforcement is, in other words, 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 that they too 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.

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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.

Using vicarious reinforcement with your ASD child

Learning by watching others get rewarded has huge instructive and social ramifications. If a child with autistic symptoms can successfully learn by noticing the rewards conveyed to another child, it can diminish main instructional time and budgetary costs associated with intensive personal guidance and lead to the achievement of socially desirable conduct, increasing 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.

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 as their counterparts.

Children with autism that make significant strides in learning in individualized settings may gain important abilities empowering them to be included in most schooling 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 the traffic has to attend to the presentation of the teacher as well as:

a) The teacher’s question or directive to other students

b) The student’s answer to the teacher’s question

c) The teacher’s reaction/reward to the student’s response

d) The response of the student following the teacher’s reaction/reward

e) Other learning materials related to the lesson such as visual displays of traffic lights

Edibles and praise capture the most attention

Many studies have addressed various ways to improve children with autism’s attention when learning in a group setting. A couple have outlined specific approaches for improving eye contact. For instance, data from a study by Jessica Donnelly show greater increases in task materials when food and praise were used for a child with autism. The same can be applied in vicarious reinforcement.

Consistent reinforcement is key to learning

In another study, Tarbox, Ghezzi found that tokenized reinforcement could build eye contact during one on one guidance. When tokens were eliminated, eye contact was reduced, showing that continuous reinforcement is necessary to maintain eye contact and learning. Repeatable and tokenized vicarious reinforcement autism may work better than a one-time observational learning event.

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 his/her 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 that turns in his/her 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 he/she imitates you in putting away the dishes while a sibling with autism is listening. The ability to imitate, which is 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 the way they expected. One way to successfully incorporate vicarious reinforcement is by telling them what will happen next.

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For example, “whoever turns in their homework earlier gets a bar of chocolate.” After observing their sibling earn the treat, it becomes easier for them to relate the reward with the action.

Key behaviors to teach by vicarious reinforcement at home are:

  • Desirable gestures and motor skills
  • Completing chores
  • Compromising and being flexible
  • Playing nicely with other children
  • Concentrating on the task
  • Waiting patiently

When using vicarious reinforcement for a child with autism remember to:

  1. Do it in a group setting so he/she can observe the behavior and actions of others.
  2. Use approaches to improve the attention of the child with autism throughout the whole exercise.
  3. The reward comes following the action and not before, for then, it would be a bribe for both the reinforced model and the observer.
  4. Reinforcement should be done consistently, then decreased over time. Vicarious reinforcement for a child with autism requires consistent repeatability to address their learning challenges.
  5. Repeat the same action-reward cycle repeatedly to make up for his/her difficulty in taking sensory input, then decrease the reinforcement overtime to make the learned behavior a natural part of them.
  6. The reward should be something that interests the child with autism. Before even getting into the exercise, understand what they like and don’t like and incorporate their favorite treats and activities into the training. 

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 he received no consequences or was 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 on.

Psychologist B. F. Skinner, on the other hand, believed that classical conditioning is restricted to existing practices that are reflexively evoked, and it doesn’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 that learning is the string of effects behaviors that depend on the law of effect, which was first suggested by Edward Thorndike, a psycologist.

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.

The take-home message

Human learning and behavior are largely shaped by observing what happens to other people. Vicarious reinforcement is teaching 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 for 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.

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