All parents want to find the best way to help their children behave, learn, and grow. This can be a bit more of a challenge for parents of children with autism. When it comes to teaching new behaviors, many behavior analysts encourage the use of something called “natural reinforcement” for kids on and off the spectrum.
What is natural reinforcement?
You may have heard of “positive reinforcement,” which is when a certain behavior is rewarded so the child will be more motivated to carry out the behavior later. For example, let’s say a boy named Sam has trouble getting ready for school on time. On a day when Sam does get ready in time, his mom may give him a favorite snack to positively reinforce the behavior. Rewards like snacks, tokens, toys, etc. are known as “back-up reinforcers” in this framework.
Natural reinforcement is related to positive reinforcement, but the difference is that the reward for the child’s behavior should be, well, natural. In other words, the reward should occur as a result of the behavior, instead of coming from an outside source.
In Natural reinforcement: A way to improve education, published by Comunidad los Horcones, the authors define such results as “intrinsic consequences.” When the “intrinsic consequences [a behavior] produces function as reinforcers,” making the child happy, the behavior will be naturally reinforced. In Sam’s case, the intrinsic consequences of getting ready in time are that he won’t miss out on any learning, he may get to spend more time with friends at the start of the day, and he and his mom will be less stressed.
Benefits of natural reinforcement for children with autism
There’s nothing inherently wrong with using back-up reinforcers at first, but natural reinforcement can be much more effective at building lasting behaviors. When children understand the direct results of their actions, they better understand the importance of those actions and of their own agency.
If Sam only leaves for school on time because he expects his favorite snack, he won’t put together how each of his morning tasks—getting dressed, brushing his teeth, etc—directly impacts the rest of his day. He may also feel betrayed if he doesn’t get the snack, but it’s not plausible to give him the snack forever.
It’s tempting to rely on artificial rewards because they can be quick, easy fixes to an immediate problem. And during the chaotic times that come with parenting an autistic kid, sometimes an easy fix is all you want! But the target behavior will be more reinforced in the long run if the child understands what he/she gets out of it naturally.
Plus, natural reinforcement helps him/her to transfer the same skills into similar situations. As another example, let’s say a girl named May is learning to respect others’ personal space by asking if it’s okay to hug her therapist before doing so. The intrinsic consequence of asking is getting a hug, or if not, at least having a friendly, respectful interaction. Having observed and understood the link between her action and the result, May will have an easier time applying this lesson to other contexts, such as school or family gatherings. If May only learned this behavior because of an artificial reward unrelated to the behavior, it will be harder to repeat it in a different environment without the expectation of the reward.
However, artificial rewards can have their uses when used in tandem with natural reinforcers—more on that in the next section.
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Tips for implementing natural reinforcement at home
Now that we know what natural reinforcement is and how it can help, let’s talk about how to implement it. At first, you may be unsure how to use natural reinforcers to your advantage—if they’re an automatic result of an action, what else can you do to control them? But there are a few steps to take in order to make the intrinsic consequences work as reinforcers.
Comunidad los Horcones recommends identifying a specific target behavior you want your son or daughter with autism to achieve, and then identifying all the intrinsic consequences that come from it. These intrinsic consequences can be small details you may not think of right away. For example, the article identifies some consequences of writing as: “noise made by the pencil when writing on the paper or the form and size of the marks on the paper.”
If your target behavior is improving the child’s handwriting, only the second consequence is truly relevant. Make sure that the intrinsic consequence is not only relevant, but also observable and able to be pointed out and explained.
Next, you should choose appropriate back-up reinforcers. Although these may be artificial, try to relate them to the activity as much as possible. If a child with ASD is resistant to wearing shoes, the target behavior is, of course, putting on the shoes and keeping them on. When he/she wears the shoes, a back-up reinforcer might be free time to play outside.
The authors emphasize that the back-up reinforcer “shouldn’t interfere…with the observation of [the behavior’s] intrinsic consequences”. In this case, the intrinsic consequence of wearing shoes is that the child can play outside safely.
Finally, you can establish the intrinsic consequences as natural reinforcers. Gradually remove the back-up reinforcer while explaining the benefits of the natural consequence. If the child successfully wears his/her shoes and gets to play, point out how he/she is protected from hot asphalt, sharp sticks, stubbed toes, etc. As time goes by, you can lessen these explanations, too. Eventually, the child will understand the importance of the behavior and be able to complete it even without the promise of free time.
Comunidad los Horcones also emphasizes being patient as you teach. Don’t interrupt your son or daughter when he/she performs the target behavior. Allow time for the natural reinforcer to happen and be observed before any explanation. And don’t ask him/her to perform the behavior too often—you don’t want him/her to get tired of the activity and its natural consequences.
As much as you can, try to maintain the conditions in which the natural reinforcer can occur and teach your child with autism how to create or maintain these conditions. Teach him/her how to explain the intrinsic consequences of the target behavior, as well. This can help the child understand the connection between action and consequence even more, as well as think positively about the behavior.
Natural reinforcement is a common technique for teaching children with autism, neurotypical children, and even intelligent animals like dogs. At the end of the day, we all have to interact with the world, and we learn and grow based on observing what our choices bring us.
Helping your child with ASD adapt to new expectations might be difficult, but the process of easing into natural reinforcement from positive reinforcement can be very effective. Hopefully, your child will become more independent and aware of the effect his/her actions have on him/herself, others, and the world around him/her.
Comunidad Los Horcones. Natural reinforcement: A way to improve education