Fact sheet on communication issues and using Social Exchange Theory  for Autism,  the most common pervasive developmental disorder


by Gary J. Heffner


Social exchange theory (as it applies to autism) states that:


"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 exchange (usually).


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 in both.


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" again.


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 disorder.


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, 1973)


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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Visit http://groups.msn.com/TheAutismHomePage/environmental.msnw which is the autism home page of Gary Heffner, the author of this article. This fact sheet remains under his copyright and is used with his permission. You are encouraged to visit his site as it is one of the few autism websites offering free comprehensive information.

Social exchange theory 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 or allow them to escape or avoid something they do not like.