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How Do Reinforcement, Negative Punishment, and Autism Work Together?

October 11, 2023

There are many different views and opinions about reinforcement strategies, negative punishment, and autism spectrum disorders (ASD) and how they work together in applied behavior analysis (ABA) therapy to improve behavior. Many parents, caregivers, and educators are unsure of what reinforcement strategies and negative punishment are and how they might benefit the person with autism.

How Do Reinforcement, Negative Punishment, and Autism Work Together

Along with negative punishment, there is negative reinforcement. How are these two techniques similar and what are their differences when it comes to decreasing unwanted behavior? And are either or both of these strategies harmful to children on the spectrum? Let’s discuss.

Will these techniques help my autistic child?

Parents often wonder how these techniques will affect behaviors in their children with autism and whether unwanted behaviors will decrease. The use of the term punishment can have different effects on different people and what they think when they hear it being used in regards to their child with autism.

This article will help debunk misunderstandings associated with negative reinforcement and negative punishment procedures. After reading this content, there will hopefully be a better understanding of how these approaches help with changing a challenging behavior into a desired behavior.

What is a negative punishment procedure?

The concept of punishment is used in ABA therapy to encourage a decrease in negative behaviors. An example is when a child throws themselves on the ground at the grocery store and doesn’t move until the parent purchases their favorite toy: punishment would be used to decrease when this behavior occurs.

With negative punishment procedures, a positive stimulus, like a beloved show, would be removed when an unwanted behavior, like hitting someone, occurs. With consistency, the child will associate the negative punishment with the particular behavior and that behavior decreases over time.

Is there a difference between positive and negative punishment?

There is a difference between positive and negative punishment procedures and both have proven effective with consistency. The goal of both is a decrease in inappropriate behavior.

Where negative punishment takes away a positive stimulus, like a favorite toy. Positive punishment introduces an aversive stimulus, like a child being grounded for a bad grade.

Which is more effective?

Both positive and negative procedures have proven results in ABA to decrease challenging behavior. It is important to note that although positive punishment may have a higher likelihood of success, it isn’t the best long term choice holistically for a child.

Consequences are a part of life and have a way of teaching people what they should do. For example, as an adult we could get a speeding ticket for going over the speed limit. The consequence of our action is the ticket.

Natural consequences are something that happens at the same time as the behavior like when a child decides to act with aggression towards a team mate and is not allowed to play the next game or earns extra running laps from the coach.

How does negative punishment affect a child’s development?

Constant punishment can have a negative effect. It is important to note that physical punishment has been proven to be an ineffective way of teaching positive behavior.

Positive punishment has proven effectiveness because there is an aversive stimulus being added when there is a negative behavior. There could also be negative effects of this punishment that should be weighed against the possible outcome before implementing them on a consistent basis.

An ABA technician will typically note where a child is developmentally, where they should be, and where the goal is for them to be before using positive or negative punishment. Also, the technicians have been taught the pros and cons and how to match the punishment to the offense.

There are many ABA technicians, parenting experts, and doctors that would recommend not even using positive or negative punishment. Instead, they would recommend positive reinforcement. This would involve catching the good behavior happening and celebrating it.

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What does positive reinforcement have to do with it?

An example of positive reinforcement is noticing the positive behavior happening while your child is displaying the behavior. For example, if you have been working on sign language to help your child with meal times and they usually get frustrated, celebrate when they use a sign showing they want to eat.

When there is an award added, verbally, tangibly, or in another desirable way, that is positive reinforcement. This is kind of like when someone earns a star because they finished reading a book or helped the teacher or parents.

Are rewards beneficial in the long term?

Sometimes, when children with autism have a hard time learning something new, they enjoy collecting stickers. A great combination used in ABA that can help with transition is to have the stickers on hand, that way the sticker can be a reward when the lesson is finished.

Even as adults, we enjoy rewards for our tasks. Adults work and earn a paycheck, or some might read books during library challenges to earn rewards, and the list can go on. There is a balance that needs to be maintained, like instead of always having tangible rewards, give a high five instead.

That way the child is making a positive association with the skill they are working on and they get the reward they worked towards. This can help build good habits for the future, like working and earning a paycheck when the autistic child becomes an adult.

Can children become addicted to positive reinforcement?

It can be true that a child can get used to performing a behavior for a reward. If that child has gotten used to receiving a reward when they do a certain behavior and the rewards stop, they may not perform the task like they did with the reward.

An idea could be that the child starts out with a reward and then the reward starts to slowly decrease. With this the child is given a chance to perform the behavior without always being rewarded for it.

There isn’t a positive reinforcement addiction, per se, it’s more the positive feelings and praise that the child may crave that is being satisfied with the reward. Engaging in fun activities and making sure the child is getting the chance to learn new skills while having fun can be a reward in itself.

Are negative punishment and negative reinforcement the same thing?

Negative reinforcement and punishment are complete opposites. When negative punishment is used, the consequence of a child exhibiting a specific behavior is that something the child enjoys is removed. Whereas, with negative reinforcement, the consequence of a desired behavior is that something the child doesn’t enjoy is removed.

Negative punishment should really be a last resort when other avenues have been tried and tested. That is especially true if the consequence or punishment doesn’t match the offense.

Is one way better than the other?

Negative reinforcement could have better outcomes. A proven example is how car manufacturers have increased the use of seat belts. When someone gets in a car, the car will either “ding” or there could be a flashing light until everyone puts on their seat belts.

The annoying ring or ding goes away as soon as all the seats that have people in them have had the seat belt clicked. The removal of the offensive sound or blinking light has increased the use of seat belts proving how well negative reinforcement can work.

What’s the verdict?

Overall, there are different negative consequences that are natural consequences of a particular behavior that help either reinforce (increase) or punish (decrease) the behavior. If the consequence is positive for the child, that can help the future frequency of that positive behavior.

If during an ABA session, there is off-task behavior being used by the child, a negative punishment is typically a last resort and only used when other methods have been tried. Typically, if a behavior is positively reinforced, there will most likely be a decrease in that behavior.

There are a lot of parenting experts and experts in the field of autism that would agree that the best method to use is positive reinforcement. It is the least intrusive way to teach new behaviors and skills that doesn’t really have a future negative outcome.

When trying to engage with the child, it can be a great time to research and develop a plan that could reinforce behaviors that the child is working towards. There are goals that the autistic children with their families and the ABA team create that help shape the child’s plan and the layout of how that plan is going to be implemented.



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