Characteristics of Effective Reinforcer Delivery with Children with an ASD


Reinforcer delivery should occur as soon after the target behaviour occurs as possible (ideally within 1-3 seconds). The longer the delay is the weaker the relation between the target behaviour and the reinforcer. As well, the longer the delay, the more likely that another behaviour will occur (not necessarily a desirable one) between the target behaviour and the delivery of the reinforcer thus reinforcing the second behaviour rather than the target.

A reinforcer designated to increase target behaviour should be delivered dependent on the occurrence of that target behaviour. lithe designated reinforcer is not freely available and available only following target behaviour(s), then a situation is created where a child is less likely to satiate on the reinforcer and more likely to continue performing the target behaviour as it is the only way to get the reinforcer.

For many children with autism, there is a weak establishing operation for social reinforcers. Enthusiastic reinforcer delivery helps pair the person delivering the reinforcement more strongly with the reinforcer. In addition, it helps signal that reinforcement is available for consumption and models how a person might respond to a positive event occurring.

Paired with Praise:
For many children with autism, there is a weak establishing operation for social reinforcers. Pairing praise with reinforcer delivery helps build or strength praise as a conditioned reinforcer. Often times, descriptive praise is used with children with autism (e.g., “Great job, clapping your handsl”) with the intent of making clear for the child what behaviour is being reinforced. There are differing opinions on how beneficial this is based on the fact that some children will not understand that the speaker’s words are describing their behaviour and others would know already what behaviour is being praised based on the context. However, in cases where a child would understand what behaviour is being described and where it might be unclear to them what behaviour is being praise, descriptive praise should be used.

The more frequently a target behaviour is followed by a reinforcer, the stronger the relation between the occurrence of that behaviour and the receiving of that reinforcer. This is especially important when teaching a new skill or increasing a behaviour that has a low frequency. Once behaviour is learned or occurring at a desired frequency, the frequency with which target behaviour is followed by a reinforcer can gradually decrease.

Something is only a reinforcer if following a behaviour, it increases the frequency of that behaviour. When attempting to increase a behaviour by delivering some stimulus following that behaviour, one must remember to take into account motivational operations. A stimulus that functioned as a reinforcer at one moment might not always and for some children preferences change frequently and quickly. As well, a situation could develop where other potentially stronger reinforcers are competing with the stimulus you are trying to use to increase behaviour.

If using a reinforcer in an instructional situation where you want to create as many learning opportunities as possible, it is important that the reinforcer be small in portion and able to be consumed quickly. This will help delay satiation and allow a quick return to instruction delivery. This is of primary value in discrete trial training where building momentum through very short intervals between learning trials (usually 3-5 seconds) is a key component of the teaching strategy.

As much as possible, reinforcer magnitude should vary based on quality and type of response. Higher qualities or quantities of reinforcers should be provided for behaviours that have great response effort, are of higher quality, or, performed independently for the first time. Lesser qualities or quantities of reinforcers (potentially none at all) should be provided for behaviours that have a low response effort, are of lower quality, or require additional prompting to be performed.

It is not unusual for children with autism to have a smaller collection of stimuli that function as reinforcers compared to children considered typically developing. It is also not unusual for individuals who work with children with autism to use only a couple items or a single item as a reinforcer when teaching new behaviours. Even if that item(s) would function effectively for most or all of the day, it is important to limit it to an appropriate degree (dependent on the child and circumstances) and to try to provide alternative stimuli as reinforcers even if they are less powerful. This is important because the reinforcer(s) might not always be available in every situation the child might be called upon to perform the target behaviour and because developing a wider range of potential reinforcers, is a key component of increasing anyone’s quality of life.

More naturalistic over time:
Within a tightly controlled instructional setting with a high instructor to child ratio, it is not unreasonable to deliver reinforcers of a variety of kinds at a high ratio for a child’s behaviours. Outside that environment, it is not typical for someone to get a tangible reinforcer (even in small amounts) or praise (especially descriptive praise) after every single or most of their appropriate behaviours. Recognizing that children with autism will spend a lot of time in classroom situations or other environments where an unnaturally high ratio of reinforcers to behaviours is not possible, it is important to move children to more naturalistic types and schedules of reinforcement as part of the process of shaping their behaviours to allow them to continue learning in those more natural environments.

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