Applied behavior analysis (ABA) is the most well researched and scientifically validated methods for teaching children with Autism new skills.  It is based upon the behavior principle that what happens before a behavior and what happens after a behavior will determine if it happens again. If a person engages in a behavior and they do not get what they want, they are far less likely to engage in the same behavior again. Conversely, if a behavior results in a desirable consequence, a person is far more likely to repeat the behavior.

A consequence that makes a behavior occur again is called a reinforcer. Most people think that reinforcement is a good thing. However, reinforcement is neither good or bad. It simply makes a behavior occur more often. Sometimes this is good and sometimes it is not.

For example, if Joe hits his mom and gets a cookie immediately after doing so, the next time Joe wants a cookie he will likely hit his mom again.  Obviously, in this case, Joe’s mom would not intend to reinforce hitting by giving him a cookie. However, the cookie served as a reinforcer for hitting and made hitting more likely to occur again.

Let’s say Joe is learning to talk and asked mom for a cookie by getting her attention and saying, “cookie.” Let’s assume mom gave Joe a cookie. In this example, mom would want Joe to ask for things using his words in the future. I this example it is likely a good thing the behavior is reinforced.

In the example above, the behaviors were reinforced by Joe getting something, a cookie.

In this example the cookie served as a reinforcer because it was a desirable consequence for Joe.  This is called positive reinforcement. However, sometimes a behavior can be reinforced when something unpleasant is removed. This is called negative reinforcement.  For example, if a person lowers music because it is too loud, the softer music will serve as a reinforcer. The most common example of negative reinforcement in an ABA therapy session is when a child is provided with a break for completing work. During the break the demands from the child are removed. 

ABA therapists typically use positive reinforcement in two different ways. A reinforcer may be used with a young learner to teach them what a correct response is.  For example, a two-year-old with Autism might be learning to follow the instruction, “Find your nose.” The therapist might say, “touch your nose” and prompt the child to touch his nose. After doing so, the teacher may give the child a small favorite snack.

Initially, the child might now know what the therapist is asking him to do. However, he will learn that when he touches his nose after the therapist says, “touch your nose” something good happens– he gets his favorite snack.  Motivated to get a snack, the child will eventually learn that he is rewarded when he touches his nose after the therapist says touch your nose. Eventually the prompts and reinforcement (snack) can be faded and the child will have learned to follow the instruction touch your nose. 

The second way a therapist may use a reinforcer is to encourage a child to comply with a non preferred instruction by providing them with a reward.  Generally, when a therapist is using a reinforcer in this way, the child is rewarded for either engaging in a behavior or not engaging in a behavior. For example, a child may be rewarded for completing his homework all week. Or, a child may be rewarded for not having any bathroom accidents during the day.

Many people look at this type of reinforcement and think it is bribery. Let’s be honest, there is some truth to that. But, whether we realize it or not, reinforcement is part of everyone’s everyday life, even yours.  Just think of how many people run marathons just for the marathon medal! Most people go to the gym because they want great abs, not because they genuinely enjoy sweating and aching muscles! Finally, would you really go to work if you didn’t get paid? That’s right, the marathon medal, your abs and your paycheck are all reinforcers! Reinforcement is a normal part of social interaction and reinforcers can be very effective for helping children with Autism learn.

In order for an object to be a reinforcer, they must want it.  As you already know, what a child wants is always changing. So, it’s important to check every day to see what will qualify as a reinforcer for your child.

Typically to find out what is a reinforcer for a child, you would conduct a preference assessment.  A preference assessment is just a fancy and over complicated way of saying, find out what a child wants.  For a child that can talk, this may be a simple as asking, “What would you like as reward today if you have nice hands in school? Or “We are going to do your homework and when you are finished you can either watch TV or play outside for fifteen minutes. Which do you prefer?” For a child that is non-verbal, you can hold two objects in your hands and assume the one they reach for is the one they want.

It sounds so simple right! It is and it is not! What a child wants is always changing! On day a child wants pretzels and the next day they have no interest in pretzels and have moved onto to gummy snacks.  One day a child can be enamored by a toy car and by the next day they have lost all interest in it. That’s why it is so important to have a variety of reinforcers available and to rotate them as much as possible. This will keep children from getting bored of them.

From my experience, there are three types of kids that make it particularly difficult to find reinforcers for. The first child is the child who is not really interested in anything. Children with Autism often lack play skills, can have food sensitivities and may not be reinforced by social situations. This can make it really hard to find a reinforcer. If this is the case, establishing items as reinforcers by teaching your child how to play with objects is really critical. Searching for reinforcers will be a full time job. There will be a lot of trial and error. However, it is important to take time to expose your child to new stimulus all the time. Eventually, every child will find something they are interested in. I will admit, there are some children who make this a lot more difficult and frustrating for parents than others. 

The second child is difficult  is the child who is interested in everything. This may come as a surprise. Some of the hardest children to reinforce are the children who are most easy going. They are interested in everything. If you show them a puzzle, they will play with it. If you take it away and show them a car, they will play with the car. If you take away the car and give them some toy animals, they will play with those.  

The reason this presents a challenge is that when you withhold an item they are interested in until they complete a difficult task, they usually just find something else to do. Since all things have an equal value to them, there is no one specific item that will motivate them to put in effort to do something that find challenging or unpleasant.  In this case, it is best to limit access to toys. All toys other than the ones you are using should be out away and out of the reach of the child.

The third child that is difficult to reinforce is the child satiated with, the technical term for getting bored of reinforcers rather quickly.  This was the case for a client recently who was the motivation for writing this blog post.

Her son has learned to use the toilet but he often has accidents especially at home. His mom tried several different reinforcers. They will work for a day or two but then they totally stopped working. After having access to the reward, even for a short period of time, he was bored by it and he no longer was motivated enough to go to the bathroom.

She mentioned he is more motivated to go to the bathroom out of the house then he is in the house. She stated that she thinks that when he is in a public place, he is excited since it is new and different. At home, he is usually engaged with his toys, which are highly preferred activities and as a result, he doesn’t want to take the time to stop playing and use the restroom.

The more she described her son, the more I started to realize that he seems to be reinforced by something new or different. That’s when I suggested she put a different spin on a reinforcer — quite literally!

My initial recommendation was to allow him to select a prize out  of a prize box with several reinforcer options. This worked for about a week. But eventually, he got bored of his choices and had a regression.

I started to wrack my head about how we could make going to the bathroom at home exciting. In the past, I had suggested she use a reinforcer box. Her son was able to pick a prize out of a box every time that he went to the bathroom. However, he would select the same thing over and over and it quickly lost its effectiveness.

That’s when I suggested she try a prize wheel. Every time her son went to the bathroom, he could spin the wheel to see what his prize would be.  This wouldn’t totally solve the problem of reinforcers becoming satiated. But, it added an element of excitement and surprise. The wheel itself could also serve as a reinforcer which will increase the probability of a child complying.

Using a prize wheel is not limited to just potty training. It can have any application. If your child has a hard time keeping his hands to himself in school, you can have him spin the prize wheel when he gets home if you get a good report from the teacher. If you have a hard time motivating your child to try new foods, you can reward them with spinning the prize wheel if he tries new food.The possibilities are endless.

She has ordered her spin wheel and I will report back soon how it goes for him. I did some research on which spin wheels I thought would be the best and I think this one will work really well for you. It is small, only 12 inches so it can easily fit in most homes.  It also is a dry erase spin wheel so you could easily change what is on the wheel based on the time of day, what your child is currently motivated by and what things you have at home. I have included a link to it below. In full disclosure, this is an affiliate link. You are under no obligation to purchase a spinning wheel. However, if you decide to, and use this link, it will cost you the same amount and help me offset the cost of providing this free training for you.

I hope the suggestions in this blog post help you have a better understanding of reinforcement is and why it is such an important part of your child’s education plan. If you decide to try a spin wheel, I would love it if you would comment how well it worked for you on this blog posts.

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