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Understanding Differential Reinforcement in Autism

November 7, 2023

You want your child to make their bed in the morning and brush their teeth before bedtime. How do you go about it? You could remind them every day or take away their privileges. But all that is too much effort, and it could accomplish the exact opposite of what you want. Why not try differential reinforcement?

But what exactly is differential reinforcement? In this article, we’ll explore how this technique can transform the life of your child and the immense potential it has for individuals with autism and their families, all that by simply rewarding good behavior.

Understanding Differential Reinforcement in Autism

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What is Differential Reinforcement in Autism?

Differential Reinforcement is the act of rewarding just the suitable action while leaving out every opposite action or behavior. A fundamental principle of differential reinforcement is the idea of omission. The omission is created by deciding when reinforcement is deserved or not deserved. This is how you reward the child for making their bed and withhold the reward when they don’t.

According to a research study published in the Journal of Applied Behavior Analysis, differential reinforcement helps children with autism improve their social skills, communication with others, functional play, school readiness, and adaptive skills. Negative behaviors are not reinforced, therefore, the idea is that the child might seek alternative target behavior over time.

The right timing and targeting of reinforcement might help diminish some stereotypical behaviors in the autism spectrum and improve learning and development.

Types of Differential Reinforcement

There are several types of differential reinforcement (DR), each with a specific goal and approach. The most common types of differential reinforcement include DR of Other Behaviors, DR of Alternative Behaviors, DR of Incompatible Behaviors, DR of Lesser Raters of Behavior, and DR of High Rates of Behavior.

Differential Reinforcement of Other Behaviors (DRO)

Differential Reinforcement of Other Behaviors uses omission training approaches to shape behavior. For better behavior, DRO provides encouraging feedback occasionally delivered if the child does something different from the target behavior.

Example: At home, you want to reinforce polite language and etiquette differentially. You offer the reward when a child says “please” and “thank you” and hold it back when they curse.

Differential Reinforcement of the Alternative Behaviors (DRA)

DRA Differential Reinforcement rewards behavior or action that is an alternative to the desired response. You first identify the desired behavior and actions and responses closely related that you can reward should the primary response be missed.

Example: In class, a teacher rewards students for finishing their homework on time just as they would reward those who actively participate in class. The teacher withholds the reward for laziness and lack of class participation.

Differential Reinforcement of the Incompatible Behaviors (DRI)

Differential Reinforcement of Incompatible Behaviors (DRI) rewards practices that are contradictory with an issue or improper practices that the person shouldn’t be doing simultaneously.

Example: If a student who actively participates in class likes to shout out answers, they can be rewarded for raising their hand and waiting their turn to speak. Extinction ABA is critical here to diminish the unintentional rewarding of unwanted behavior.

Differential Reinforcement of Lesser Rates of Behavior (DRL)

DRL rewards timeframes in which the youngster displays the conduct after a timeframe of no occurrences. A DRL time, for example, is when a child is rewarded for making noise less frequently than he/she normally does in a classroom session.

Differential Reinforcement of High Rates of Behavior (DRH)

Regarding Differential Reinforcement of High Rates Behavior, child behaviors get reinforced only if they are above a set limit.

Example: Rewarding a child tokens culminating in a trip to the mall if he/she makes their bed all seven days of the week. The behavior is reinforced at gradual intervals.

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Core Principles of Differential Reinforcement in Autism

There are two main characteristics of differential reinforcement: reinforcing the desirable behavior and withholding reinforcement of the undesirable behavior. Let’s explore both of them.

Reinforcement of Target Behaviors

Differential Reinforcement is based on the premise that individuals with autism will be more likely to engage in desired behaviors when they are consistently rewarded for them. These reinforcements can take various forms, such as praise, tangible rewards, or access to preferred activities. The key is to identify the specific behaviors that are targeted for reinforcement.

Extinction of Undesired Behaviors

Equally important is the aspect of extinguishing undesired behaviors. This involves systematically withholding reinforcement for behaviors that are not in line with the desired goals of the therapy. Through a carefully designed intervention plan, children with autism can learn that engaging in these undesirable behaviors will no longer bring the expected results.

Using Differential Reinforcement With Your Autistic Child

The differential reinforcement examples and techniques outlined above can be used at home or school. Start by setting objectives, keeping a close eye on the child, and maintaining behavioral tallies and charts. Other tips include: 

Specify a Time Period

When targeting to reduce negative behavior rates with differential reinforcement, set a time frame for the teaching and offer the reward only if there are no occurrences of the undesirable behavior within the time.

For example, Peter is told, “If you don’t mouth objects during the entire English lesson (40 minutes), you get extra dessert at lunchtime.” If Peter meets this test, reinforcement is given.

Break Down Lengthy Intervals

Better results may be attainable when you use reinforcement procedures at intervals. For instance, instead of waiting for the entire English lesson to reward Peter, it would help reward and withhold reinforcement at 10-minute intervals.

Benefits of Differential Reinforcement in Autism

Using differential reinforcement in autism therapy offers many benefits, including:

  • Customization: This approach can be tailored to suit the individual needs and preferences of every child on the spectrum.
  • Effective behavior modification: DR effectively encourages positive behavioral changes while reducing unwanted behaviors.
  • Empowerment: DR empowers children with autism by giving them control over their actions and consequences.

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Differential Reinforcement is a powerful tool in the arsenal of autism therapy strategies. By understanding its core principles and implementing them consistently, we can help individuals with autism achieve their fullest potential.

Although the journey of autism therapy may be challenging, with the right strategies and unwavering commitment, we can create a brighter future for children on the spectrum.


Q: Is Differential Reinforcement suitable for children with autism?

A: Yes, Differential Reinforcement is commonly used in autism therapy to encourage positive behaviors and reduce challenging ones.

Q: Can Differential Reinforcement be applied in the classroom?

A: Absolutely, teachers often use Differential Reinforcement to manage classroom behavior effectively.

Q: Are there any potential side effects of Differential Reinforcement?

A: While generally safe, Differential Reinforcement should be implemented carefully to avoid unwanted consequences.

Q: How long does it take to see results with Differential Reinforcement?

A: The timeframe for results varies depending on the individual and the target behavior.

Q: Is Differential Reinforcement a one-size-fits-all approach?

A: No, Differential Reinforcement is tailored to the specific needs and goals of each individual.

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