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Discriminative Stimulus and Children with Autism

December 23, 2021

If you’re parenting a child with autism, you may have come across the term “discriminative stimulus” in relation to behavior therapy or techniques to use at home – but what does it really mean and how can this method be applied? This article offers an overview of discriminative stimulus and outlines some examples of how it can be used in a therapy setting, at school, and in the home.

Discriminative Stimulus and Children with Autism

What is discriminative stimulus?

Discriminative stimulus is a term that is used in behavioral therapy that provides a specific consistent response and is used to increase the desired behavior of a client. Discriminative stimulus is also used in classical conditioning, operant conditioning, ABA (applied behavior analysis) therapy, and any other type of psychotherapy where a behavior is being modified. The purpose of identifying the discriminative stimulus is to reinforce positive behaviors so that the specific behavior or response at that time is repeated each time the discriminative stimulus is presented. 

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ABA Therapy for Autism

Discriminative stimulus is used a lot in ABA therapy for children with autism, but can be used by a parent or teacher as well to help children or a student in school respond to their social environment in a more positive way with the presence of a discriminative stimulus.

How is discriminative stimulus used in autism therapy?

Discriminative stimulus is used in autism therapy to modify behavior. Children with autism often struggle in social situations with a delay in social skills and communication. Discriminative stimulus can be used to help children with autism understand when a response is required during conversation so that they will learn how and when to respond in social situations. With consistent training sessions, children may learn more appropriate ways to respond to a particular or specific social setting. 

In this context, an example of using discriminative stimulus to aid in teaching communication and social skills could be a parent bringing a package of their child’s favorite cookies for snack to the table. The discriminative stimuli is the package of cookies. The child associates the package of cookies with happy feelings and desire.  The child wants the cookies. The goal is for the child to ask politely: “May I please have a cookie?”. If the child comes running to the table screaming: “COOKIES, COOKIES, COOKIES!”, the consequences of that behavior is that the parent does not give the child a cookie. The child may cry or have an increase in negative behaviors in an effort to obtain the desired stimuli.  When the child is able to calm down and ask:”May I please have a cookie?”, the parent gives the child a cookie. The child then learns through the positive reinforcer of the discriminative stimulus that he/she will receive what he/she wants when they ask for it politely and with a calm body. 

The more this method is used, the more second nature the positive response seems and the child’s behavior has been modified. This modification in behavior can help a child with social skills and interactions with a teacher or classmates in school and at home in different settings.

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Discriminative stimulus can also be used to modify behavior as well. An example of using this method to change or prompt a change in behavioral challenges could be a trip to the park for a playdate.  Every time you go to the park, you bring a backpack full of treats and small toys to share with new friends on the playground. When your child sees you holding the backpack full of treats and toys, he/she knows they are going to the park. The backpack full of treats and toys becomes the discriminative stimuli. The child wants to go to the park and the child wants the backpack. 

The goal for the child is to walk with you to the park without any negative behaviors.  If the child walks next to you without any particular problems, when you arrive at the park, the child gets the backpack filled with his/her special toys and treats. If the child tried to elope or had any negative behaviors during the short walk to the park, he/she does not get their backpack of treats.  The positive reinforcer is the backpack of treats. The negative reinforcer, or consequence, is not getting the bag of treats. 

An example of how discriminative stimulus can be used in the classroom at school to support education and learning is the use of flashcards. If the teacher asks a question and gives the student a choice of four different flashcards to choose the answer from, the student will only receive a response when the correct flashcard is chosen. The correct flashcard is the discriminative stimulus. This can help increase learning at school in specific areas where skills are lacking or may require an extra prompt. This method can help students retain information and focus on their responses with the available resources in place to support them. 

Another example of teaching a correct response or behavior in school is using a ticket system to reward students for good behavior. When the teacher takes out the roll of tickets to be delivered to well behaved students, the roll of tickets becomes the discriminative stimulus. The students want the tickets to be given to them. The students whose behavior has been modified will become calm and quiet in the seats waiting to be given a ticket. The teacher has taught the students through the use of positive reinforcers to modify their behaviors as school and in the classroom to receive their desired discriminative stimuli. For students who do not modify their behaviors, the consequences are not receiving a ticket. 

Parents can also use this system at home with token boards to bring consistency into the home for related behavioral challenges with defined positive and negative consequences. 

Benefits of discriminative stimulus

The benefits of discriminative stimulus allow children or a student to learn more appropriate behaviors by using positive reinforcement to alter behavioral challenges thus improving the quality of life for children with autism and their typically developing peers in social settings. 

The Psych Web describes this specific set of skills by stating that: “Psychologists say an operant behavior is under stimulus control if it is triggered (or suppressed) by certain stimuli. Because an organism must discriminate between controlling stimuli to respond appropriately, they are called discrimina­tive stimuli.” (The Psych Web. 2018).  

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ABA Therapy for Autism

These skills have taught parents how the use of therapy sessions might be able to control responses in terms of behavioral resources and support using the presence of a reinforcement or another highly desired article of desire.


The science and means of ABA therapy uses defined sets of data and defined guidelines to correct a behavior and response, giving parents resources to help even behavioral challenges in children with autism. Children are always responding to their environment around them. ABA may seem new to many families, but learning the terms and skills used in ABA therapy sessions and having the presence of a reinforced item, like one favorite and preferred article, can help a student or children learn new and different behaviors that provide them with the means and skill to succeed. 


The Psych Web. (2018).  Stimulus Control.  Retrieved on February 24, 2021, from Stimulus Control | in Chapter 05: Conditioning (psywww.com)

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