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Understanding Noncontingent Reinforcement for Autism

November 21, 2023

For years, Sarah’s parents struggled to understand the sources of her joy and frustration. Certain behaviors brought the 8-year-old autistic girl immense happiness, while others left her overwhelmed and distressed. Then, they discovered the remarkable concept of noncontingent reinforcement, a simple but profound approach that helped them make sense of Sarah’s world.

But what exactly is noncontingent reinforcement, and how do we use it effectively? In this article, we delve into the transformative power of noncontingent reinforcement in the lives of children with autism, shedding light on its profound impact on their well-being.

Understanding Noncontingent Reinforcement for Autism

What is Noncontingent Reinforcement (NCR)?

Noncontingent reinforcement is a behavior modification method used in applied behavior analysis (ABA) to reduce challenging behavior in children with autism spectrum disorders (ASD) or other developmental disabilities or differences. 

Noncontingent reinforcement (NCR) gives continuous access to a reinforcer independent of a specific behavior. It’s not dependent on behavior and is supported by research as an effective intervention method for challenging behavior.

NCR can be used in education by a teacher or in the home by a parent to help reduce challenging behaviors by providing continuous access to reinforcement. For example, suppose a student at school engages in problematic behavior to get the teacher’s attention during story time. In that case, the teacher can place the student next to them during story time.

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The student getting to sit next to the teacher eliminates the need and the function of having to engage in problem behaviors for attention because they are receiving the reinforcement of the teacher’s attention already through noncontingent reinforcement. The student is no longer motivated to have negative interactions because they have received what they wanted without having to earn it through positive behavior.

Noncontingent reinforcement can effectively manage adverse autism behaviors because the child loses motivation to engage in problem behavior. With applied behavior analysis and noncontingent reinforcement, specific behavior can be altered, reduced, or eliminated.

Functional analyses can be done to determine the function of the behavior and why the child may be engaging this way or what they want to occur or gain access to. Taking data on behaviors is one of the strategies that a behavior analysis will use and consider when attention-maintained destructive behavior is occurring. Taking data and analyzing it can help implement a schedule and strategy that is personally tailored to your child’s specific needs.

Understanding Noncontingent Reinforcement for Autism

Using Noncontingent Reinforcement for Autism

Noncontingent reinforcement is used on a schedule to analyze and manage the effects of noncontingent behavioral patterns. This method is most effective when the function of the negative behaviors is to gain attention.

This can happen when children compete for attention from their teacher or instructor. It can also occur at home with many siblings when a child has to engage in challenging or destructive behaviors to get individualized attention from a caregiver or parent. Using a schedule to provide individualized attention can help problematic behaviors to go into extinction.

For example, if the child wants attention from the teacher, the teacher can assign a specific time each day for the student to have extra attention. The last five minutes of lunch or recess might be when the student can inform the teacher of any concerns. Or it could be five minutes after classroom instructions are given for the teacher to provide one-on-one assistance to the child to ensure that instructions and expectations are understood.

At home, it could be a 10-minute period after returning from school that the child can share everything exciting that happened at school that day. If the parent sits next to the child and is an active listener, the need for problem behavior will not be an option because they are already receiving the attention they crave.

The last 10 minutes before bedtime that the child spends with their parent one-on-one for reading and building healthy family bonds is another way to use noncontingent reinforcement to prevent challenging bedtime behaviors. A child may get out of bed or have elopement issues for the purpose and function of getting attention. Creating that extra meaningful time can remove the function and desire to engage in atypical behaviors.

What is a Noncontingent Reinforcement Schedule?

A noncontingent reinforcement schedule is a schedule that a teacher or parent will use to provide continuous reinforcement to a child to manage adverse autism behaviors. Children who may be engaging in challenging behaviors for attention are perfect candidates for using noncontingent reinforcement schedules. 

Using the examples above, it may be a seating assignment next to the teacher at each story time, taking 10 minutes after returning home from school for a child to tell you about their day, or sharing one-on-one time just before bed for storytime. Whichever type of schedule works best for you, ensure it is consistent, and you can follow through for maximum impact.

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The Difference Between Contingent and Noncontingent Reinforcement

Contingent and noncontingent reinforcements are very different. According to APA, contingent reinforcement is “the process or circumstances in which the delivery of positive stimulus events (e.g., material goods, verbal praise) and, more rarely, the elimination of negative stimulus events (e.g., penalties) depend on the performance of desired behavior. “ 

An example at home would be to have a child finish eating their vegetables to get a dessert. The reinforcement is dependent on the behavior. The child only receives a dessert if the vegetables are eaten.  If the child does eat their vegetables, they receive their dessert or reinforcement. An example at school would be to turn in their work before recess. Going to recess is contingent on finishing and turning in their work. The child only goes to recess if the work is turned in.

Noncontingent reinforcement is not dependent on a behavior and happens on a set schedule. For example, having a child sit next to you for story time, regardless of how good or bad the child’s behavior was earlier that day, is noncontingent reinforcement. The child does not have to earn the reward. This method eliminates the child’s need to engage in negative behaviors and can reduce or even eliminate any problem behaviors that a child has used previously for attention.

Benefits of Noncontingent Reinforcement for Autism

There are many benefits of implementing NCR in the lives of children with autism. One of the most common ways this technique can unlock your child’s potential is by reducing stress, promoting positive behavior, enhancing communication, and improving self-esteem.

Reduced Stress

Noncontingent reinforcement (NCR) is a behavioral intervention to reduce stress and problem behaviors in children, especially those with developmental disorders or challenging behaviors. NCR involves providing access to desired stimuli or rewards without requiring any specific behavior from the child.

Promotes Positive Behavior

By providing regular positive reinforcement, NCR encourages the development of desirable behaviors. This strategy involves providing rewards or positive consequences to an individual without requiring a specific behavior or response. It creates a safe environment, builds trust, and reduces frustration.

Enhanced Communication

Children with autism often struggle with communication. Noncontingent reinforcement can create a safe and supportive environment, which, as a result, promotes improved communication skills.

Improves Self-Esteem

Success in achieving rewards through noncontingent reinforcement can boost a child’s self-esteem and confidence. It reduces pressure, enhances self-worth, increases confidence, and increases motivation.

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Noncontingent reinforcement can be used with a set schedule completely independent of behaviors to help manage adverse autism behaviors. This strategy eliminates the function and need to seek out problematic behaviors for attention. 

When implemented correctly, you should notice other positive traits, such as focusing better, staying on task, completing assignments, and strengthening family bonds. Contact an ABA therapist or a behavioral interventionist to learn more about how noncontingent reinforcement might help you and your family to decrease unwanted or atypical behaviors.


Q: How do I determine the most effective reinforcers for my child in NCR?

A: Observation and experimentation are the best ways to determine effective reinforcers. Pay attention to what motivates your child and be open to trying different reinforcers until you find what works best.

Q: Can NCR be used for adults with autism?

A: Absolutely. NCR can be effective for individuals of all ages. The key is to tailor the reinforcement strategy to the individual’s needs and preferences.

Q: Are there any potential drawbacks to using NCR?

A: While NCR is a valuable technique, it’s not a one-size-fits-all solution. Some individuals may respond poorly to NCR, and it may take time to find the right approach. Always consult with professionals who can help address these challenges.

Q: How can I start implementing NCR at home?

A: Begin by creating a transparent reward system and maintaining consistency. Observe your child’s responses and adjust as needed. Don’t hesitate to seek guidance from autism professionals for advice and guidance.

Q: Can NCR be used in school settings for children with autism?

A: Yes, NCR can be implemented in school settings to promote positive behaviors and enhance the learning experience for children with autism.

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