Positive reinforcement is a process of recognizing, rewarding, and encouraging desired behaviors.
As one of the most important principles of ABA therapy, this technique is crucial for achieving meaningful behavioral changes in children with autism. Here’s a closer look at positive reinforcement and the way ABA therapists use it to help autistic children learn and maintain new skills.
What Is Positive Reinforcement?
Applied behavior analysis (ABA), is a therapy that focuses on increasing desired behaviors and reducing undesired ones, is a standard treatment for children with autism spectrum disorder.
Positive reinforcement is the main behavioral management technique used by ABA therapists, where a child who complies with a request for behavior change is given an incentive. The aim is to have the child respond to reinforcement with positive behavior.
A reinforcer can be any object or activity that is effective in strengthening and maintaining the desired behavior. Primary reinforcers are natural and include sleep and food, for example. Secondary reinforcers, ranging from praise to stickers and tokens, vary from child to child and are developed over time.
The least intrusive type of reinforcers is praise and the most intrusive one is food, with many different reinforcer types in between, such as preferred activities, tangible items like toys, privileges, and tokens.
Reinforcers that work for one child may not work for another—some children are happy to get stickers for a reward chart while others respond better to words of encouragement. Whatever the preferences, the goal of the positive reinforcement technique is that praise eventually becomes the only necessary reward.
What Is the Importance of Positive Reinforcement in Autism?
For children with autism spectrum disorder and their families, positive reinforcement—and ABA therapy in general—can be life changing. This method helps autistic children acquire new skills that can be extremely challenging to teach and maintain. Some of these skills include:
- Verbal communication
- Non-verbal communication
- Social interactions
- Academic performance
- Functional life skills
- Adaptive learning skills.
When a desirable behavior is followed by a reinforcer, such as a special toy or activity, children are more likely to repeat the action. Over time, positive reinforcement can encourage behavioral changes. In addition, the technique can help children with autism learn alternatives to repetitive behaviors and prevent undesirable behaviors such as aggression.
One of the major advantages of positive reinforcement for children with autism spectrum disorder is the fact that this is a continuous and predictable learning method they can depend on. What’s more, autistic children often have a fixation on a single activity and find it difficult to transition to a new one.
Positive reinforcement allows them to know what to expect if they perform a task properly. It helps them realize that switching activities can be a positive experience, rather than a frustrating one.
How ABA Therapists Use Positive Reinforcement
ABA therapists use positive reinforcement to turn their observations of what triggers a child’s behaviors into patterns of improvement. The technique is based on the ABC model of behavior modification, which is one of the central concepts in applied behavior analysis. The model consists of the following steps:
- Antecedent—a situation or an item that triggers the behavior in question.
- Behavior—the action performed as a result of the antecedent. It can be both positive and negative.
- Consequence—the outcome of those actions. It can be used to encourage or stop the behavior, depending on whether the behavior is positive or negative.
The ABA therapist will start by determining your child’s existing skill levels and identifying the main areas of improvement to work on. Subsequently, the therapist will develop an individualized program to teach new skills and behaviors, tailored to your child’s needs, abilities, and interests. Because every autistic child, family, and situation is different, the ABA therapy plan is always devised to suit individual needs.
The therapist will help your child acquire and build new skills by systematically applying positive reinforcement techniques. This method is a key tool in increasing the likelihood that new, positive behaviors will be repeated and retained long-term.
After having determined what is most meaningful or motivating to your child and what your child has responded well to previously, the ABA therapist will choose the appropriate reinforcers. This may be a specific toy, a favorite game, or an activity. Therapists usually have a variety of reinforcers available and customize reinforcement methods for each child.
ABA therapists often start with reinforcers that are the least intrusive before moving to the most intrusive ones. Also, they will often pair a primary reinforcer with another item to create a secondary reinforcer, like saying “good job” while at the same time giving your child a small edible reinforcer such as a candy or a raisin.
The motivator, especially when it is a food item, is always paired with encouragement, praise, and attention. The reinforcement is done by repeating positive responses to the reinforcer until your child starts associating the action with the reward.
The therapist will gradually increase requirements for gaining access to the reinforcement. As your child starts acquiring the new behavior with less guidance, the use of the reinforcer is reduced.
Verbal encouragement will eventually become enough as the only motivator for positive behaviors. When your child starts displaying the desired behavior without the need for modeling, prompting, or positive reinforcement, he or she has mastered the skill.
In addition to fostering the developmental needs of a child with autism, ABA therapy programs also engage parents and caretakers in the process.
The best therapy results are achieved through a collaborative effort where everyone agrees on what behaviors to target. In general, any new behavior that you are introducing or any positive behavior that you would like to see increased should be reinforced.
In addition to increasing positive behaviors and encouraging learning, your ABA therapist will work with you to ensure your child’s inappropriate behaviors such as tantrums, whining, and aggressions are not being reinforced.
The Ethicality of Positive Reinforcement
Even though the theory of behavioral psychology outlines several different types of reinforcements, current ABA therapy programs for children with autism focus mainly on positive reinforcement. Not only is this the most effective behavior management strategy in children with autism spectrum disorder, but it is often seen as the epitome of ethical practice in ABA therapy.
Negative reinforcement and punishment
Negative reinforcement is another method ABA therapists use to strengthen behaviors. Contrary to positive reinforcement, something is taken away as a consequence of a behavior, resulting in a favorable outcome.
When an autistic child demonstrates an aversion to a particular item, activity, or sensory experience, negative reinforcement (removing the stimulus) can be used to teach an adaptive way to react. For example, a child who says “I don’t want to do that” and is allowed to avoid the task, has achieved negative reinforcement for using functional communication instead of having an angry outburst.
Negative reinforcement should not be confused with punishments like time-outs or loss of privileges. With both positive and negative reinforcement, the goal is to increase the desired behavior.
Punishment, on the other hand, is meant to decrease or weaken undesirable behavior. Contrary to reinforcements, it does not teach a new behavior, but only focuses on decreasing the unwanted one.
Punishment as a method is not acceptable in ABA therapy. The BACB’s Professional and Ethical Compliance Code for Behavior Analysts requires that, whenever possible, reinforcement strategies are implemented before considering punishment procedures.
The early criticisms against therapists practicing ABA were due to the fact that ABA therapy was not necessarily based only on the principles of positive reinforcement.
In some circumstances, the early ABA therapists used aversive reinforcement or punishment involving physical or psychological discomfort to obtain positive outcomes. At that time, autism was still thought of as a behavioral disorder and not a complex genetic, environmental, and developmental condition as it is today.
Therapists believed that using punishment would prevent children from displaying disassociation, aggression, and other challenging behaviors associated with autism.
Today, ABA therapy is a flexible approach based on breaking down a skill and reinforcing desired behaviors through rewards. The use of aversive reinforcement is considered an unethical method when working with autistic children.
The Best ABA Therapy Program in the Atlanta Area
The Hidden Talents ABA team of highly experienced ABA therapists and Board Certified Behavior Analysts (BCBA) provides loving and ethical care for your child. Our professionals deliver a wide range of personalized and comprehensive treatment options to create lasting positive behavioral changes. They work closely with families to encourage optimal learning opportunities for each child.
Contact Hidden Talents ABA to learn more about the benefits of positive reinforcement and other applied behavior analysis techniques used by our therapists. You can call us at 404-487-6005 or send us an email at email@example.com to schedule a consultation. If you reside outside the Atlanta area, we encourage you to browse through our helpful resources on autism.