Introduction to Reinforcement
What is Reinforcement?
How to identify reinforcements for children with autism?
When it comes to working with children with autism, motivation is key to unlocking their potential. If we examine ourselves, we will see that when we are motivated, we are driven to work hard to achieve our desired goals. Understanding what it truly means to be motivated comes down to understanding the role of reinforcement and how it affects behaviour.
What is Reinforcement?
It can be defined as anything that follows a behaviour that increases the likelihood of that same behaviour occurring again in the future. A consequence is something that follows a behaviour. If the consequence has no effect on the behaviour – we would consider it a neutral consequence. If the consequence decreases the behaviour, it would be considered a punishing consequence. If the consequence increases the behaviour, then it is considered a reinforcing consequence.
Why is reinforcement helpful for children with autism?
Basically, all behaviour is governed by the consequences of one’s actions. Utilising this behaviour principle, we can and should use reinforcement to change behaviour in children with autism. When used in the right way with the right teaching methods, some children with autism can make remarkable progress.
Since behaviour is regulated by the consequences of our actions, why is it that children with autism behave so differently from their typically developing peers? The reason for that is that children with autism are not motivated in the same way as their neuro-typical peers.
A typically developing child is generally intrinsically motivated. They tend to have a curious interest in a wide variety of things – ones that are deemed acceptable by society. On top of that, they are highly socially driven. They are motivated by attention from parents and peers. They learn from observing and often try to imitate people in their immediate environment.
This is not always the case when it comes to children with autism. In fact, many autistic children have quite limited and/or restricted interests. As a result, it can be really difficult to get an autistic child to learn because they can be challenging to motivate. However, it is still extremely important to equip autistic children, with skills that will help them lead a better quality of life.
This is why we need to use external reinforcement with children with autism in order to help them to learn. We do need to recognize that what is reinforcing for one child may not be reinforcing for another child. As well, we should individualise the type of reinforcement to the specific needs of each child.
t can be difficult to find reinforcement for children on the spectrum, but with strategic thinking and creative ideas, we can find suitable reinforcements. I say this because all behaviour continues to occur due to the reinforcing consequences of one’s actions, including children with autism.
How do you identify what is reinforcing for your child with autism?
1. By observing your child and listing out possible reinforcements
It starts off by simply observing what your child typically engages with. Do they like books or songs or videos or iPad apps or toys? They might be keen on social types of play such as tickling or hugging. There may even be special places that your child likes to go to. You can also easily identify your child’s favourite snacks. Maybe they like to look at specific cartoon characters and any memorabilia around those characters may serve as a reinforcer. When trying to identify what could serve as reinforcement for your child, a good place to start is simply observing what your child likes to do and listing out their potential preferences.
2. By exposing your child to a wide variety of reinforcements
Another way to identify potential reinforcement for your child is to simply expose them to a wide variety of novel things and/or activities. It is not uncommon at all for children on the spectrum to explore something that they have not seen before. When doing so, some things will be a hit and others will be a miss. We would not know unless we give the children a chance to discover more options than they currently have at home. You can make use of a toy library or perhaps do a toy swap with friends to help you in this process.
3. By identifying what your child likes and categorise the identified reinforcements by type/theme
Once you have identified what are the things that your child likes, ask yourself if there is a theme to their preferences. Some children like the cause-and-effect aspects of toys. Others may like the sensory aspect of play. Some parents may say that their child has certain obsessions such as with alphabets or animals or transport types of toys. If that is the case, we can use these “obsessions” as potential reinforcement.
In conclusion, it is important for us to have a very wide range of reinforcers that we can use in order for them to learn new skills and/or appropriate behaviours. The learning journey of an autistic child is not an easy one so we have to do our best to keep their motivation high. It is not uncommon for many parents or professionals to say that they find it difficult to find a variety of reinforcers for their child.
Stay tuned for the next article where we talk about the ways we can develop new reinforcers for a child with limited options!