Reinforcement in Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA) focuses on the outcome of the behavior and increasing the likelihood of certain behaviors occurring in the future. There are two types of reinforcement: positive reinforcement and negative reinforcement. Positive reinforcement is when a response is followed immediately by the presentation of a stimulus and, as a result, similar responses occur more frequently in the future. In other words, positive reinforcement means when a behavior has an increased likelihood of occurring again if something is given after it occurs.
An example of positive reinforcement:
You tell a child if he or she cleans up their room, they can play for 30 minutes on the Wii, an activity they enjoy. The likelihood of the individual cleaning up the room is more likely to occur in the future because they received 30 minutes of playing with something they enjoy. In order for reinforcement to work, you need to make sure that what you are giving them is something that they value.
However, let’s change the reinforcement premise–
You instead tell the child if they clean the room you will go the movies. Your child is sensitive to sounds and does not like being around large crowds, so he will be less likely to clean his room even though you think it would be fun. The purpose is to focus on the child’s likes and dislikes to achieve the desired result.
Negative reinforcement is when a response is followed immediately by the removal of a stimulus and, as a result, similar responses occur more frequently in the future. In other words, negative reinforcement means when a behavior has an increased likelihood of occurring again if something is taken away after it occurs.
An example of negative reinforcement:
You are working on having the child be more independent when doing their chores. You provide a checklist of the chores that needs to be done for the day. He or she independently completes two of the chores on the list. You tell them because they independently completed two chores without any reminders, they do not have to do the rest of the chores. In the future, the individual is more likely to independently complete the chores because the rest of the chores were taken away—assuming he does not like any of the chores that were on the list.
If, however, they really like doing laundry and that was a chore on the checklist that you removed, the negative reinforcement will not have the desired effect on behavior.
You need to always keep in mind what the child likes and does not like. You give him or her things or activities that they enjoy and take away things that they do not like to increase the likelihood of the behavior occurring again in the future. If what you are presenting and taking away is not increasing the likelihood of the behavior in the future, then you are not using reinforcement.
by Adriana Sanchez, MA, BCBA
How do you use reinforcement with your child? What types of reinforcements are most effective, in your experience?
As with the senses of sight and hearing, sometimes one or more of the senses are either over- or under-reactive to stimulation. This is also true for the sense of touch. For some persons with an Autism Spectrum Disorder, certain textures feel uncomfortable or even painful. For these individuals, the idea of a hug or even accidentally brushing up against something may be highly stressful. In order to prevent this negative tactile experience, much energy and focus is spent avoiding situations that increase the likelihood of such events.
Imagine lining up where there are others in front of you and behind you. The chances of being accidentally touched by either person may cause the simple act of lining up to be highly stressful and anxiety provoking. For individuals that do not like the feel of certain textures or things, parents and teachers may consider the following types of supports:
One of the hallmarks of Asperger’s Syndrome (AS) is that individuals often have strong points of view, and they have trouble seeing other points of view as equally valid. Most see themselves as extremely logical and therefore right in their conclusions; for them, the points of view of others can seem illogical. This is often perceived by neurotypicals as being oppositional, stubborn or lacking empathy.
What’s interesting is that often when people think they’re being logical, research shows that their emotions can be driving their cognition. Emotions are frequently substantial influences in people’s thinking without their knowing it. In his eloquent writing for LinkedIn, Kristopher Jones makes clear what is my experience as well:
People with AS can have very strong feelings.
Peter Salovey and Marc Beckett of the Center for Emotional Intelligence at Yale University www.ei.yale.edu have done compelling research on the topic of feelings influencing thinking. In one study by Brackett and his colleagues on the influence of teacher emotion on grading practices, they took a large sample of middle school teachers. Using techniques demonstrated to be effective to induce a positive or negative frame of mind, they had half the teachers influenced to be positive and half to be negative. All were given the identical essay to grade. The scores given by the two groups differed by 1 to 2 grades, yet all of them were certain that mood had nothing to do with their scoring.
Why is this significant for people with AS?
The Dialectical Behavior Therapy model of cognition suggests that we all have a logical mind and an emotional mind.
It’s where these two overlap (are integrated) that genuinely “wise” thinking can get done. Otherwise, we’re unaware (like the teachers) of the extent to which emotion that hasn’t been acknowledged is dictating what seems to be logical thinking. Most AS/NLD individuals I know operate out of one kind of mind or the other, but fail to meaningfully integrate the two.
I worked with a young man who was very reactive to what he perceived as criticism. A person who criticized him at a temporary job became someone he never wanted to see again; in fact, the entire setting became somewhere to be avoided.
He felt this was logical – you don’t go where you are treated badly.
Technology and exercise? I know what you are thinking, how can I use a fitness product like a smart watch or fitness bracelet to get my child to exercise? Do I need to or am I financially able to purchase a fitness product like that? What if they don’t like it or use it and I’ve already spent the money buying it. Is there setup of the product or is it ready for use?
Technology can be overwhelming but can also be very useful. The amount of fitness products out there is tremendous, but they each serve a purpose and a specific fit for someone. Today’s discussion will be on technology use during exercise but it will take a different perspective than you think.
Video Game Systems
Video game systems can be a contributing factor to our kids becoming less active. It is difficult for kids to move away from technology altogether so why not make it work for us? Video game systems have games available for purchase that are fitness/exercise oriented in which the person becomes the game controller.
For example, the Wii game system has: Just Dance 2016, EA Sports Active 2, and EA Sports Active NFL Training Camp. Similar game systems like the Xbox have the following games: Xbox Fitness, Nike Kinect Training, or Playfit. Lastly, the PlayStation has games like: Move Fitness, Zumba Fitness, and Sports Champions. These games use the person’s movement as a way to control the game. So, by dancing and moving you can get your kiddos to burn some calories while having fun.
The main use of ABA for individuals on the autism spectrum is to decrease challenging behaviors and increase appropriate skills.
Here are the three steps for utilizing ABA to decrease challenging behaviors and increase appropriate skills:
Step 1: Assessment
The first step in decreasing problem behavior is to conduct a functional behavior assessment, which determines the function of challenging behavior.
Appropriate skills including academic, language, and daily living skills are assessed in a similar way. The founding father of ABA, B.F. Skinner, wrote the book Verbal Behavior in 1957. In the book, language is analyzed based on the function. Assessments like the Verbal Behavior-Milestones and Assessment Program (VB-MAPP; Sundberg, 2008) are utilized to assess the persons’ language skills, as well as other appropriate skills like academic and daily living skills.
Other assessments utilized in ABA are the Assessment of Basic Language and Learning Skills-Revised (ABBLS-R; Partington, 2006) and the Assessment of Functional Living Skills (AFLS; Partington & Mueller, 2013).
Step 2: Developing a Plan and Treatment Goals
Mindfulness, meditation and self-talk are important ways of helping yourself when you’re depressed, stressed out, anxious or emotional. They’ve been shown to help handle feelings and are actually often used as components of the most helpful forms of therapy, cognitive therapy.
Why is it important to talk about these three techniques, especially for those with Asperger’s?
Two typical traits for those with Asperger’s are black and white thinking and a tendency to ruminate, to stew thinking about something. With black and white thinking, we see things in extremes, all bad or all good. When we’re depressed, that tends to be all bad.
All bad isn’t realistic; life is always a mix. Things don’t always go wrong. People aren’t always hostile or rejecting. Ruminating means dwelling on something, usually negative when we’re depressed. As we dwell on our thoughts, they tend to become more dramatic, more overwhelming, more conclusive of our negativity. It’s like a downward spiral.
Both black and white thinking and rumination focus on the past, revisiting what has happened, or in the future, anticipating what might happen. We’re rarely in the present. Most often, at this exact moment, nothing too stressful is happening.
The point of mindfulness as an outlook, a way of being, is that it focuses on the present moment – our awareness of what’s happening right now.
Mindfulness exercises include activities that force us to focus on the here and now. Focus can be on attending to our breath, what we hear, bodily sensations, or what we’re doing, like the feelings of washing dishes, the soap on our hands, the feeling of the water, the texture of the plate and glass. This pulls us out of the past and future into the present, which tends to be calmer.
Meditation is a practice for both the body and mind.
When we’re emotionally aroused or stressed, our entire autonomic nervous system is activated. Blood pressure goes up, breathing changes, stress hormones race through our bodies, and every system is affected.
We can be stressed in this way both by what goes on in the moment and by what goes on in our minds – thinking about something can trigger the same physical stress response as being in that moment. Emotionally we’re at a high level of arousal, regardless of what’s happening in the moment. Meditation turns off the stress response, and teaches our bodies what Herbert Benson of Harvard calls the “relaxation response.” Meditation has actually been scientifically proven to structurally change the brain to be more stress-resilient.
If you have: lost interest in your usual activities; trouble sleeping, wake up early or sleep all the time; a change in appetite (more or less); withdrawn from people with a down mood (for Aspies it might be sad, irritable or a sense of hopelessness – whatever negative mood or thoughts you recognize), you have what we call major depression.
For this, you probably need professional help. Things are not hopeless but being depressed is like looking through dark glasses. While people with Asperger’s are prone to depression because of challenging life experiences, clinical depression is not part of Asperger’s Syndrome and usually responds to treatment. For those struggling with lower level depression, you might still consider therapy to look at ways to make life changes and feel better.
For finding professional help and other resources, Autismsource.org is a gold mine of resources including lists of local therapists in your area.
- Psychology Today: Has a list of all professions, not just psychologists https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/therapists/aspergers-syndrome
- American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatrists has a child and adolescent psychiatrist finder.
- The American Psychiatric Association has a general psychiatrist finder.
- American Psychological Association Practice Organization has a psychologist finder
- The Canadian Psychiatric Association Canadian Psychiatric Association
Psychologists, social workers, psychiatrists, advanced practice registered nurses (APRN), and other specialties all can provide therapy. Individuals should be licensed providers in their states. You can find this information by looking at their websites.
Only psychiatrists, other MDs (medical doctors), and APRNs can provide medication. Medication has been demonstrated to be effective in treating depression. Often a combination of medication and therapy are most useful. The form of therapy most recommended is CBT (cognitive behavioral therapy). MBCT (mindfulness-based cognitive therapy) has been shown to be effective for depression although there isn’t research on it with people on the spectrum. Most therapists specializing in working with those with ASD know how to modify traditional CBT to best work with those on the spectrum.
It can be very challenging, certainly in parts of the US, to find therapists who take insurance.
The prevailing cost of therapy varies widely across the country. Some therapists (usually psychologists) offer sliding scale fees or have some lower fee slots, so it’s worth calling and asking. Clinics generally take insurance but you want to be sure that the therapist is familiar with ASD. The first thing you should do is call the number for patient or customer service on your insurance card and ask for a list of providers (psychologists/psychiatrists/social workers) in your area. This way you can know all the providers near you who are in network with your insurance plan before you call around clinics. In network providers have more affordable rates than out of network providers. It is important to inform yourself about your insurance plan and coverage before you begin the search.
Also, check providers with Medicaid if you have it. Any MD or APRN will know about treating depression with medication. Some therapists who accept Medicaid might be experienced with ASD even if they’re not on a directory for ASD.
Self Care Strategies
Although sensory differences are very real and must be recognized as such, narratives can help to deal with these differences. For instance, there was a high school student that was having significant difficulty with the hallway transition from class to class. Not only was there the loud bell that signals the transition, but then it was followed by a crowded hallway and noisy teenagers talking in groups.
One way to address this might be to allow an early release from class to avoid much of this hallway chaos. Another option is to provide a narrative that helps deal with this difficult transition.
The following is an example of such a narrative:
Passing Period at High School
My name is ___________. I am a student at _________ High School.
In High School, there are different periods. A bell rings at the end of each period.
When the bell rings, the students walk in the hall to go to their next class.
Sometimes, the students make a lot of noise as they walk down the hallway. This might hurt my ears.
That is O.K. The passing period lasts only for a few minutes. Soon, the halls will be quiet again.
I remember that I can just wear my headphones & listen to music during the passing period.
Then, I will get to walk to my next class where it is nice and quiet.
I can do this!
Staff noticed that the student would repeat the story to himself while walking down the hall. A narrative can validate feelings, provide a solution and even offer comfort during a stressful time.
The following is another example of a narrative addressing sensory issues. This time, the narrative was written for a student that wanted to hug her classmates frequently and deeply to get that deep pressure feeling.
Why are there higher rates of depression in those with AS? There may be some genetic predisposition to depression for some, but this doesn’t explain most cases of depression. One reason for depression is isolation and loneliness. Despite the misconception that people with AS prefer being alone, research shows that many with AS want friends.
Children and teens with AS are often lonely and feel their friendships aren’t “quality.” They’re looking for company, safety and acceptance to give them a sense of confidence. Those who have friends may have a lower tendency towards depression. However, many with AS who experience social anxiety or lack social skills in joining, starting, and maintaining friendships don’t have the tools to have the friends they want.
Another reason for depression is the experience of being bullied.
Studies have suggested that a majority of those with AS experience bullying. This isn’t surprising given the drive towards conformity and the emphasis on social status among middle school children in particular, but also among high school students and even older individuals.