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Discriminative Stimulus in ABA Therapy and at Home

December 1, 2023

If you’re parenting a child with autism, you may have come across the term “discriminative stimulus.” It’s often used with behavior therapy or techniques 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 at home. This method is widely used in ABA therapy, and our free guide may help you learn more about it:

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What is Discriminative Stimulus, and When Is It Used?

Discriminative stimulus is a term that is used in behavioral therapy that provides a specific, consistent response. It is used to increase the desired behavior of a child.

Discriminative stimulus is also used in classical conditioning, operant conditioning, Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA) therapy, and any other type of psychotherapy where a behavior is being modified.

The purpose of identifying the discriminative stimulus is to encourage positive behaviors. That way, the specific behavior or response is repeated every time the discriminative stimulus is presented.

Discriminative stimulus is used a lot in ABA therapy for children with autism. However, it can be used by a parent or teacher as well. It is used to help children or students in school respond to their social environment more positively.

How is Discriminative Stimulus Used in ABA Therapy?

Discriminative stimulus is used in autism therapy to modify behavior. It can be used to help children with autism understand when a response is required during conversation.

That way, children learn how and when to respond in different social situations. Children may learn more appropriate ways to respond to a particular social setting with consistent training sessions.

An Example of Using Discriminative Stimulus in ABA Therapy

There are many examples of discriminative stimulus used in ABA therapy. One of them is teaching a child with autism to follow directions.

Imagine a therapist saying, “Touch your chin.” Here, “touch your chin” is the discriminative stimulus. It’s the special clue that tells the child what to do.

If the therapist doesn’t say anything, there’s no special clue, and the child might not think to touch their chin.

The process may follow these steps:

  • Using clues: The therapist may show the child what to do.
  • Getting a reward: When a child does the right thing, they get a reward, such as praise or a sticker.
  • Using less help: The therapist gives fewer clues as the child gets better.
  • Trying different settings: The child practices in different situations and with different people.

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How to Use Discriminative Stimulus at Home – an Example

An example of using discriminative stimulus to aid in teaching communication and social skills could be a parent bringing a package of cookies to the table.

The discriminative stimulus is the package of cookies. The child associates the package of cookies with happy feelings and desires.

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 consequence 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 to obtain the desired stimuli.  When the child can calm down and ask: “May I please have a cookie?” the parent gives the child a cookie.

Discriminative Stimulus in ABA Therapy and at Home

The child then learns through the positive reinforcer of the discriminative stimulus that they will receive what they want 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 behavior modification can help a child with social skills and interactions with a teacher or classmates in school and at home in different settings.

Benefits of Discriminative Stimulus

There are many benefits of using discriminative stimulus. Most importantly, this method:

  • allows children to learn more appropriate behaviors
  • helps them identify triggers and manage their responses
  • improves communication

With that, discriminative stimulus improves the quality of life for children with autism. It can even improve the lives of their typically developing peers in different social settings.

According to the Psych Web, a behavior is under “stimulus control” if it happens because of certain signals or stops because of them. These skills have shown parents how therapy sessions can help manage reactions by using reinforcement or other highly desired items for support.

Discriminative Stimulus Can Improve Quality of Life

The science and means of ABA therapy use defined sets of data and guidelines to correct a behavior and response. With that, they’re giving parents resources to help even with behavioral challenges in children with autism.

Children are always responding to the environment around them. For many families, ABA may seem new, but that shouldn’t stop them from experiencing many benefits of this approach.

Learning the terms and skills used in ABA therapy sessions can help a student or children learn new and different behaviors. That way, we provide them with the means and skills to succeed.

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Q: What is the role of a discriminative stimulus?

A: The purpose of giving a discriminative stimulus is to signal to someone what behavior is expected. It’s a special clue that helps them know what to do in a certain situation.

Q: What is a positive discriminative stimulus?

A: A positive discriminative stimulus is a signal in the environment that indicates the availability of reinforcement for a specific behavior. In other words, it is a stimulus that, when present, signals to an individual that a particular response will be rewarded or reinforced.

Q: What is an example of a discriminative stimulus in therapy?

A: One of the examples could be if a child asks for a particular item, such as their favorite toy. In this case, the discriminative stimulus could be having the toy in the room.

Q: What is an example of a discriminative stimulus at home?

A: A discriminative stimulus example is when a child cleans their room only when a parent is around, not doing it when the parent is not there. The parent acts as the discriminative stimulus, guiding the behavior of cleaning the room.


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

Science Direct – Discriminative Stimulus

APA Dictionary of Psychology – Discriminative Stimulus

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