SOCIAL EXCHANGE THEORY
by Gary J. Heffner
Social exchange theory (as it applies to autism)
"The behavior of each party in an exchange,
e.g., the autistic child's behavior in an exchange with his parents,
is determined by the consequences for him in terms of reinforcement
and punishment of the behavioral response he emits." (Kozloff,
1973, p. 21).
In other words, a person will repeat those behaviors
that are reinforced (rewarded) and will tend not to repeat those
behaviors that are punished or not reinforced. Social exchange theory,
then, is based upon the principles of operant conditioning, which
underlies the basis of Applied
Behavior Analysis. People tend to repeat those behavioral responses
which result in their getting what they want or need (positive
reinforcement) or allow them to escape or avoid something they
do not like (negative reinforcement). People tend not to repeat
behavioral responses which result in their being punished, losing
something they like, or which have absolutely no consequence (extinction).
Three key elements - initiation, response and reciprocation
An exchange is any interaction between two or
more persons in which each party gives and receives something. The
exchange begins with an initiation (a behavior,
a word or statement, a question, a request, a demand, a noise, etc.),
then there is a response (ignored, looked at, commented
on, punished, rewarded, etc.), and then there is reciprocation
by the actions, words, or inaction of the person who initiated the
For example: A child bangs his head (initiation).
The parent picks up and holds at the child (response and perhaps
inadvertently rewarding the child with attention and physical contact).
The child responds by ceasing the head banging (reciprocation and
rewarding the parent with cessation of the head banging). As you
can see, the rewards and consequences of the exchange apply to both
the child and the parent. Think of the initiation as the "behavior"
of the person with autism and your response as the "consequence."
With this in mind, it is apparent that the reciprocation is actually
how the person reacted to the consequence. Watching for this reaction
to the "consequence" can tell you a lot about what may
be motivating to the person.
When you are trying to identify the three parts
of a social exchange, look to see how one action is related to what
comes immediately before and after the action. This "relatedness"
will help you to determine if what you are looking at is an initiation,
a response, or a reciprocation.
To help you identify social exchanges, keep in
mind that the initiation and reciprocation are usually made by the
same person [e.g., child bangs head (initiation); parent gives attention
(response); and child stops head-banging (reciprocation)]. Also,
the initiation and response are never made by the same person (unless
you enjoy talking to yourself!). For the same reason, the response
and reciprocation are never made by the same person. Lastly, any
part of one exchange may also be the same or a different part of
another exchange (e.g., the child's head banging, the parent’s attention,
or the child's quieting down could become an initiation, response,
or reciprocation to a parallel social exchange involving other people).
social exchange theory helps parents to interact with their child
In the above example, the child did not intend
to bang his head for attention, but got it anyway. The parent did
not intend to reward the child's head banging with attention, but
inadvertently did so. The long-range effect of this exchange may
well be that the child will repeat the head banging to gain attention
and the parent will repeat giving attention because it results in
temporary cessation of head banging.
Because both parties in the social exchange are
rewarded by the responses of the other, the exchange itself will
be repeated over and over again. You can see that the behaviors
we see in autism are often these well-maintained social exchanges
that have developed over time. If someone initiates a social exchange
(e.g., a child bangs his head) and this maladaptive initiation results
in a desirable outcome (e.g., hugs, snacks, attention), then the
person learns to initiate other interactions in maladaptive ways.
Multiply this one social exchange (banging his
head) by the hundreds of social exchanges that occur daily and you
have some idea of the complexity and seriousness of it all. The
structure or pattern of the exchange becomes an unspoken rule in
the family. Kozloff (1973) says, "it is as if the child were
saying, ‘ "I will stop banging my head if you give me attention,"
’ and the parent were saying, ‘ "I will give you attention
if you will stop banging your head." ’ " (p. 22).
Using social exchange theory to avoid vicious cycles
Before judging the parent too harshly, understand
that the same structured social exchanges that trap families in
"vicious cycles" also trap teachers, administrators, counselors,
and whole social systems. For example: We all know that sending
a disruptive child home is probably rewarding for the child and
may reinforce the negative behavior we are trying to extinguish,
and yet our school systems and agencies may require us to send the
child home. This "structured social exchange" becomes
policy in many of our systems. Of course, structured social exchanges
can also encourage appropriate, healthy, and satisfying behaviors
in the members – these "virtuous cycles" can also be present
in our social systems.
Discovering when and why the disruptive behavior
first came about is not the goal of treatment. Social exchange theory
looks at the current structured social exchanges and then works
on restructuring the social exchanges so that appropriate behavior
in both parent and child is reinforced and inappropriate behavior
in both parent and child is ignored or extinguished. To accomplish
this it will be necessary to examine the old structure of the exchanges
in the home or school, make sure the inappropriate methods of meeting
the child's or parent’s needs are no longer reinforced, and then
new and equally powerful exchanges are introduced which meet the
needs of both parent and child and reinforce appropriate behavior
For example, in order for the child to obtain
food, he is required to sit quietly at the table. The child will
test the new system of exchanges and see if the old exchanges still
work (e.g., banging his head for food). Once the child learns that
the old system of exchanges no longer work (the parents have been
instructed to never give him food when he bangs his head) and learns
the new system of exchanges, the child will use them to obtain what
he wants (food). Ideally, the new system of structured social exchanges
will be more efficient and less costly to the child in getting what
he wants. Unless other variables are involved (e.g., head banging
may also be meeting a sensory need), asking for food is physically
easier than banging your head on the table until you get food.
The dangers of inconsistent reinforcement
Parents of children with autism seem to be more
conditioned by the social exchanges than the children. Over time,
the parent’s behavior is mostly shaped by the negative reinforcement
of escaping the child's disruptive behavior. The parent knows that
"giving in" to the child's demands is not the best thing
to do, but on a 24/7 schedule this knowledge becomes secondary to
the fact that "giving in" provides relief from the child's
tantrums, screaming, or head banging.
As good parents (And without exception the parents
of children with autism that I have met have been some of the best
parents in the world!), they will decide at some point that they
will no longer "give in". The result is a louder and longer
tantrum (or other negative behavior). If the parents cannot tolerate
the new level of tantrum behavior, they may "give in"
The sad result of such good intentions is that
the child's tantrum behavior has been put on an intermittent schedule
of reinforcement and will be even stronger and more difficult to
extinguish. The parent may then decide to avoid the situation altogether
and anticipate the child's demands and tantrums. The child's needs
and wants will be met before they are even expressed. This unfortunate
decision results in lessened (or no) demands for appropriate behavior
and the waste of valuable reinforcers, which could have been used
to reinforce appropriate behavior.
"Keeping the peace" (sometimes known
as appeasement) becomes the goal of life for all in the family.
When I meet with a family like this the parent or parents are constantly
jumping up to intervene or meet the needs of the child with autism,
who seems to communicate these potential problems or needs through
a form of ESP, discernable only to the parent(s). The result is
a mostly quiet but constantly vigilant and constantly anxious household.
This all-encompassing focus on the inappropriate
behavior of the child may also have additional, negative side-effects:
the parents may not have time or the energy to notice the few incidents
of appropriate behavior when they do occur, the positive behaviors
may be merely close approximations to constructive behavior and
may go unnoticed and not reinforced, or the child's severely disruptive
and non-responsive behavior may have effectively extinguished the
parent’s will to teach the child any constructive behavior.
the Disability label
The child may be viewed as too "damaged,"
disabled, or disturbed to be challenged, pressured, or expected
to learn. The "disabled" role prevents the child from
ever being expected to do things for herself and she becomes more
and more dependent on the family members to not only meet but anticipate
her needs. When the family can no longer do this (due to age, health,
or burn-out), outside help is sought out and sometimes results in
placement outside of the home.
Keep in mind, however, that even though the parent’s
behavior helps to maintain the autistic behavior of the child (according
to social exchange theory), the parents cannot be blamed for their
child's behavior. No one can cause autism through his or her actions.
Parents (especially mothers) were once blamed for causing autism
by parental neglect or rejection. That is absolutely false. Research
has shown that autism is more than likely a biochemical and/or neurological
While we are not the cause of someone's autism,
we may unknowingly interact with the person with autism in ways
that maintain the patterns of interaction we dislike. The parent’s
"giving in" and other inadvertently reinforcing behavior
is a function of the child's behavior and is, in fact, an escape
reaction to it. The autism is the source of the original behaviors;
both parent and child maintain each other’s inappropriate behaviors
thereafter. Social exchange theory provides an answer to this dilemma.
The Social Exchange Laboratory at Washington University
recommended that parents be taught: to discriminate between appropriate
and inappropriate behaviors in their child, how to initiate exchanges
with their child so that positive structured exchanges can be developed,
how to teach the child new behaviors, how to reinforce appropriate
behavior, how to handle inappropriate behavior, and how to maintain
positive exchanges that are rewarding to both parent and child (Kozloff,
Giving parents the knowledge and skills to treat
their children with autism is the goal of the Judevine Center for
Autism (which grew from the roots of the Social Exchange Laboratory
at Washington University) and the Applied Behavior Analysis movement.
Note: This article is based upon the work of Martin
A. Kozloff and his book: Reaching the Autistic Child: A Parent
Training Program, Champaign, Illinois: Research Press, 1973,1998.
by Gary J. Heffner, creator of The Autism Home Page at MSN Groups.
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