When to Use Rewards to Improve Behaviors in Autistic Children

Autistic child wins trophy
Autistic child wins trophy. Lisa Jo Rudy

Why Behaviorists Recommend Using Rewards for Good Behavior

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.

Rewards are often earned through the acquisition of 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).  The idea of earning and spending tokens rather than money is described 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 reward, while older children or teens may need to earn many tokens over the course of days or weeks.

Are Rewards and Token Economies Effective for Teaching Children with Autism?

When Rewards and Token Economies Work. Token economies are often useful when teaching a new skill or behavior. Children with autism are generally routine-oriented, and prefer to do the same things they've always done.  As a result, they are more resistant than most children to doing something new.  A desired reward can often make all the difference -- and a token economy is a fine way to work toward a reward.

Token economies are also helpful when a long-term goal is in sight -- getting dressed on his own each morning, for example, or controlling the desire to "blurt out" in class.  A child with autism is eager to own a new toy, and by earning ten tokens he can "buy" the toy. Each time he gets dressed on his own or 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. 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. Remember: kids with autism like consistency -- and when you've offered a prize for good behavior, it can be very upsetting to have that prize taken away.

Kids with autism are not alone in this. Imagine you've worked overtime to earn bonus payments -- and earned hundreds of extra dollars for several months -- only to hear "now we expect you to work just as hard, but we're "fading" those bonuses. After all, you're now in the habit of working 50 hours a week!"

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, you'd need 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.