How To Motivate Children With Autism Using Reinforcers

Reinforcer SetA common difference between children with autism and typically-developing children is their motivation for social feedback and other natural consequences that occur for learning to take place. Typically, developing children have an easier time learning because they are motivated by social feedback from their parents and teachers. But with a child with autism, it is not always as simple as saying “great job!” to encourage learning. Without motivation, it can be very difficult to gain the attention of an autistic child, and even more difficult for learning to take place.

So, how do you motivate a child diagnosed with autism?

Reinforcers Can Help Motivate Children!

Reinforcers motivate children to learn new skills. Often times, children with autism are not readily motivated by social feedback or other natural consequences received from parents, teachers or peers. Insensitivity to social consequences and signals is a core aspect of the disorder.

How To Find A Powerful Reinforcer:

That being said, it is very important to find potent reinforcers that can motivate a child to learn. For example, provide several edible or touchable items, and record the order in which the child went for each item or the amount of time spent with each. More often than not, the first item chosen is a potent reinforce, though this should be done several times in order for the result to be considered accurate.

How To Use The Reinforcer:

Once discovered, a reinforcer should be delivered immediately following a child’s desired response, and should always be paired with verbal praise (i.e. “great job!”). It is very important to pair the reinforcer with verbal praise, because this teaches the child to look and listen for social feedback as reinforcement. The reinforcer teaches the child that the response they just gave you was what you wanted. This can be used for complex skills, such as making the bed, or simple skills, such as saying hello.

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For example, if you are teaching your child to initiate greetings with others, you would try to create teaching opportunities so that every time they go up to someone and say “hello,” you could immediately praise them by saying “great job” while delivering an M&M.

One thing to keep in mind when using potent reinforcers is that too much of one thing can make a child less motivated by the item. To prevent this, potent reinforcers should only be given during time of teaching and should be alternated frequently. This provides the child with continuous interest and desire for the item(s). If your child engages with an item often and you would like to begin using it as a reinforcer, you can deprive your child of the item for a few hours, days or weeks and then it will regain its reinforcing agents.

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Fitzer, A., & Sturmey, P. (2007). Autism spectrum disorders: Applied behavior analysis, evidence, and practice. In W.H. Ahearn, W.V. Dube, R. MacDonald, & R.B. Graff. (Eds.), Behavior analytic teaching procedures: Basic principles, empirically derived practices (pp. 31-72). Austin, TX: PRO-ED.