When to Use Rewards to Improve Behaviors in Autistic Children

Behavioral therapists (and most parents, teachers, and bosses) use rewards to encourage particular behaviors. If you want a child to take a shower every night, you might offer him a later bedtime as an encouragement. If you want a student to study harder, you might offer her a special trip to the beach as an incentive. If you want an employee to turn up on time, you might offer a bonus for punctuality.

Applied Behavioral Therapy, sometimes called ABA, uses rewards (sometimes called "reinforcements") as a tool for building skills in children (and some adults) with autism. This approach can be very effective if the therapist chooses highly motivating rewards; the choice of reward, of course, varies from person to person. While some children with autism value toys or snacks, others value time with a favorite activity or TV show. Still others work hard for praise, hugs, and high fives.

While there are many plusses to reward-based teaching and therapy, however, there can be downsides. Children can quickly become accustomed to receiving a prize for a job well done, and children with autism find it particularly difficult to separate the task from the prize. In addition, while children with autism may find it hard to generalize what they've learned. For example, they may be able to find a picture of a cat in a particular book, but may not be able to identify a different cat in a different book (or a real cat in the neighborhood).

Trophies in a line
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Rewards and Token Economies

The simplest approach to reward-based teaching is to hand over a prize each time a child does what he's asked to do. As a child develops more advanced skills, however, she may wind up earning tokens such as gold stars for good work. Earn enough gold stars (or stickers or stamps), and you win a prize (a special privilege or an actual object). Earning and spending tokens rather than money is sometimes referred to as a "token economy."

Token economies are very commonly used to encourage desired behaviors among children with autism. Each time a child completes a desired behavior (making eye contact, sitting still, asking or answering a question, etc.), he or she earns a token. Younger children (or children with developmental delays) may need to earn just a few tokens to earn a quick reward, while older children or teens may have enough patience and long-term awareness to work for many tokens over the course of days or weeks.

How Effective Are Rewards and Token Economies?

As anyone knows who has earned a prize for a job well done, rewards can be effective motivators. Similarly, anyone who has shopped at the same store to earn loyalty points knows that token economies can be motivational. But for children with autism, there are pros and cons to using a reward system.

When Rewards and Token Economies Work

Rewards and token economies are often used when teaching a new skill or behavior. Children with autism generally prefer consistency and are often resistant to doing something new. A desired reward can help children over their anxiety by helping them to focus on the outcome rather than the process.

Token economies are especially helpful when helping a child to develop a new routine or reach a long-term goal. For example, many children with high functioning autism have a hard time controlling the desire to "blurt out" in class. To help him manage the behavior, a therapist or teacher might institute a token reward system. Each time the child makes it through a day without blurting, he receives a token. By going through this process daily, he (at least theoretically) establishes a pattern or habit of good behavior. After a period of time, he earns enough tokens for a desired object or outcome (a toy, treat, or experience). Of course, it's important that the goal is both achievable and challenging, and that the time between starting and finishing is not unreasonably long.

When Rewards and Token Economies Create Problems

When a child is accustomed to working for a reward, it can be very difficult to "fade" the reward and expect the behavior to continue. Children with autism like consistency, and when they've received the same prize for the same behavior over a period of time, it can be very upsetting to have that prize taken away.

It can also be difficult to "generalize" a new skill taught through the use of a token economy. For example, imagine a child who has earned tokens for raising his hand in school. Now he's in Sunday school, where no tokens are offered. While a typically developing child might see that "school is school," and continue to raise his hand, or look around to see what other children are doing, children with autism are unlikely to do either. In order to encourage hand raising in this new setting, it would be necessary to continue the token economy in Sunday School as well.

Finally, for some children, rewards become far more important than the desired behavior. A child who spends the day waiting to win his toy may behave appropriately, but find it very difficult to focus on lessons or conversations because he is so concerned with winning his prize at the end of the day. This means that, while the behavior may be in place, learning is not possible.

Clearly, token economies have a place in teaching and encouraging some new behaviors. The key is to plan ahead for the process of generalizing and fading rewards over time.

1 Source
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  1. Slocum TA, Detrich R, Wilczynski SM, Spencer TD, Lewis T, Wolfe K. The evidence-based practice of applied behavior analysisBehav Anal. 2014;37(1):41-56. Published 2014 Apr 29. doi:10.1007/s40614-014-0005-2

Additional Reading

By Lisa Jo Rudy
Lisa Jo Rudy, MDiv, is a writer, advocate, author, and consultant specializing in the field of autism.