Positive reinforcement is generally the most effective
behavior management strategy in dealing with challenging
behaviors of children with autism
syndrome. It can also be used to help autistic children to learn
new behaviors, from life skills through to alternatives to repetitive
Positive reinforcement underlies the majority
of all human behavior. We act in certain ways to obtain desirable
consequences, whether it is going to work to get our paychecks,
or treating others nicely in the hope they will do the same to us.
Positive reinforcement is an incentive given to
a child who complies with some request for behavior change. The
aim is to increase the chances the child will respond with the changed
behavior. Positive reinforcement is given immediately after the
desired behavior has occurred so that it will shape the child's
The difference between reinforcement and bribery
The difference between reinforcement and bribery
is that reinforcement comes after a task is completed whereas bribery
is offered before. That is not to say that you can’t show your child
the reinforcer he or she is working for during trials. In this case,
it would be a visual cue. If you offered a treat before even making
a request, you would be using bribery.
choosing positive reinforcers
When choosing reinforcers for people, remember
that each individual will respond to different things.
• Looking at what has motivated the child in the
• asking the child what they like and dislike
• Look at their deprivation state – what do they want, that they
cannot easily get?
• Try to make sure the reinforcer is practical, ethical and valid
for the behavior being targeted.
Some examples of positive reinforcement include:
• Preferred activities (e.g., specific job; coffee
with a friend; concert; sporting event)
• Free time
• Verbal praise
• Food-related activities (special treats - not food they have the
right to access anyway)
• Desired objects (if affordable)
• Privileges (e.g., team leader for a day or week; certificate;
badge; choice of outing)
• Tokens (e.g.: a special trip when the child earns five gold stars
on the fridge).
You can also give your child positive attention
• Leaning toward and/or looking at your child
• Making a comment; asking a question
• Conversation with your child
• Joining in an activity.
points to consider
Timing is critical to the effectiveness of positive
reinforcement. It is important for an individual to feel that the
goal is achievable and that reinforcement is attainable.
It is also important that the reinforcer is not
something the child already has free access to. When setting amounts
of positive reinforcement, do not give as much as the child would
want given free access, as this would leave them nothing to work
towards. Ensure the reinforcer can be continual and enhanced. A
visual system can work well with autistic children, where they can
see their progress as well e.g. ticks on a behavior chart.
RULES FOR USING POSITIVE REINFORCEMENT
• When starting out, you will reward the child
every time the target behavior occurs
• Quickly fade reinforcers by offering less and
less as the desired behavior emerges
• Always pair edible, social or toy reinforcers with verbal praise
• Eventually you will be giving only verbal praise
and your child will learn your pleasure is a reinforcer
• Make sure you model the desired behavior (e.g.
Don't lose your temper if dealing with tantrums)
• Keep your requests for the desired behavior
concise and clear.
Free Access Rule
The maximum amount of reinforcement made available
during intervention must be less than what the person would seek,
given “free access”. No more than 80% of desired access should be
given or else the reinforcer will reach satiation levels and no
longer be effective.
The 50% Rule
This is used when calculating how long to wait
between giving reinforcers. It is recommended that you work out
the average length of time between incidences of the behavior, and
halve it. For example:
If the behavior is currently occurring once per
week, divide 7 days by 2, equaling 3½ days. The individual would
receive positive reinforcement every 3½ days if the behavior were
Be aware of the child's possible reactions to
reinforcement. Some children are not used to positive attention
and may find it so uncomfortable that they resort back to their
undesired behaviors in order to receive a known response. There
may be a need to be discrete, perhaps allowing the child to overhear
you praising them to another person.
A written contract may be used if the child has
the ability to understand it. If used, ensure that the contract
specifies all of the criteria and is signed by all parties.
For example, “If I ---------, by ---------, then
This kind of visual backup can be very useful
for autistic children who may have trouble with verbal information
Set your child up for success
When your child is having a difficult day, be
sure to end on a positive note. You can do this by requesting a
skill the child has already mastered, then deliver some nice verbal
praise. These mastered skills have a high probability your child
will get them right – thereby giving you a chance to reinforce the
Click here for the full
range of Asperger's and autism fact sheets at www.autism-help.org
This article adapted with permission from www.biaq.com.au
and remains under their copyright