Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Reinforcement in ABA Programs for Chlidren with Autism

Why do you continue to play with your kids, read your favorite magazines, make your family's best-loved meals, and talk about cherished memories with old friends? It's really a straightforward answer - because it makes you feel good. As much as we like to tout our "smartest primate" status, human beings are really quite simple creatures. We are much more likely to continue doing something that we find enjoyable than something that doesn't bring any emotional or monetary payback. Think about this. If someone gave you the choice of working 40 hours per week versus 20 hours per week for the same pay, what would you choose? Unless you are a workaholic with no hobbies or family (or you have a job that satisfies you more than all of these things combined), you are far more likely to choose the 20 hour option. Kids are no different. When they engage in an activity that brings them inherent joy or pride, they are likely to continue engaging in that activity.

However, life does not always provide us with fun, preferred choices. We all have responsibilities, whether it's completing a project at work, dealing with four loads of laundry, or practicing our times tables. As Denzel Washington says, "You do what you have to do so you can do what you want to do." Who knew he was a behavior analyst at heart? As our clients have heard us say multiple times, ABA (Applied Behavior Analysis) is not a method that is employed exclusively in an instructional setting. Rather, it is a waking hours approach. While this philosophy applies to many different behaviors and circumstances, this post will focus on the use of reinforcement.

Reinforcement is the most important skill for parents and instructors to learn. It is the “gas” that makes the program go. Consistently implementing effective reinforcement will maximize your child’s rate of acquisition of new skills and help to reduce behaviors that interfere with learning (e.g., poor eye contact, inattention and gazing, attempts to escape, verbal protests, tantrums). Unfortunately, it is the hardest component for parents and instructors to consistently implement over time. Maintaining effective reinforcement requires effort. Each individual team member must constantly assess the effectiveness of rewards that are used, change up the rewards offered, vary the presentation when using the same reward multiple times, and continue to come up with new ideas daily.

What are the goals of reinforcement?

➢ To make learning fun.
➢ To increase/maintain the child’s motivation to learn.
➢ To increase/maintain the child’s effort (i.e., a high rate of quality responses)
➢ To decrease undesirable behaviors that interfere with learning and functioning appropriately.

While these goals seem logical, you may wonder how to actually implement effective reinforcement. Here are a few guidelines:

➢ Provide rewards immediately following the correct response or desired behavior. This makes it clear to the child what behavior is being reinforced.

➢ Select rewards based on the individual preferences of the child. While some children may enjoy blowing bubbles, other children may find the texture of the bubble liquid aversive.

➢ Vary the type of reward offered from trial-to-trial to prevent satiation: Tickles, chair rides, bubbles, songs, reading a favorite book- don’t repeat the same reinforcer continuously. If someone tickled you each time you did something correctly, you'd probably feel an urge to punish them in some way.

➢ Make the presentation of the reward part of the reinforcement. A frequent mistake is just handing the child a toy and expecting the child to figure out how to make it fun. It is the instructor’s job to exert mental and physical energy trying to come up with different ways to make these items enjoyable to the child.

➢ When teaching new skills, use the procedure of Differential Reinforcement – High quality responses receive high quality reinforcement, and low quality responses receive low quality reinforcement. Typically, we rate rewards on a scale of 1-10 (ten being the highest value and 1 being the lowest value to the child). The child’s best consistent response should consistently earn a level 10 reward. When the child’s response is lower than their best consistent ability (e.g., Child requires a partial prompt and their best consistent response is an independent one), the instructor should decrease the value of the reinforcement proportionately (e.g., drop from a level 10 to a level 7).

➢ Instructors and parents should proactively come up with new reinforcers. If the child is unmotivated, he/she is less likely to complete the task. The child is not “bored” with the programs, but with the reinforcement.

➢ Evaluate the effectiveness of all reinforcers implemented, and make adjustments accordingly. Remember this rule: You will not know if something is reinforcing until after you see the child's reaction. Were they engaged by the reinforcer? Are they looking for it to continue?

➢ To avoid confusing the child, rewards for correct responses should be easily distinguishable from corrective feedback for incorrect responses. For example, do not give an informational "no" in a playful voice when the child responds incorrectly. By the same token, you should not give verbal praise with a lackluster tone of voice.

Assessing the effectiveness:
Make sure what you offered for reinforcement matches the quality earned. If you have a hard time finding rewards that the child is motivated to work for, assess what occurs between learning sittings at the table. Often, the problem is that the child is receiving higher rewards for "free" during structured play time. When faced with this situation, instructors should direct the child to less preferred activities/toys/food and save the more preferred activities/toys/food for rewards at the table.

For a comprehensive list of reinforcers and our "Reinforcer of the Week", please head to our website.

We would love to hear your ideas on reinforcers that have worked for your child or children you worked with. Please feel free to leave a comment under this post.
Read more!

Wednesday, April 7, 2010

Exercise & Autism

Exercise. We all know we should do it, but manage to find dozens of reasons to avoid it. I don't have the time, I'm too tired, it's too cold outside...Do any of these sound familiar? However many excuses we come up with, the facts remain the same. Exercise is proven to improve mood and prevent depression, combat chronic diseases, help you manage your weight, boost energy levels, and promote better sleep. These benefits are not just allocated to adults. Children can also reap the rewards of an enthusiastic playtime outside, whether it comes in the form of riding bikes, jumping on a trampoline, or playing tag.

When the NFL launched NFL Play 60 in 2007, they encouraged kids to get at least 60 minutes per day in order to promote good health and to tackle the rising problem of childhood obesity. With the rising popularity of video games and the draw of the television, kids are spending increasingly more time involved in sedentary activities. Knowing what we know about exercise and energy levels, this trend is counterintuitive to common sense.

For children with autism, the effects of exercise can be more meaningful than avoiding illnesses, increasing energy levels, and improving sleep (though these are all important, too). Several studies have documented decreases in intensity and frequency of self-stimulatory behaviors following bouts of rigorous exercise. These effects were relatively short - 45 to 90 minutes - but profound. Children that engaged in exercise were better able to focus on tasks immediately following the exercise intervals. While these studies are not numerous, they point towards a field of research that should be explored further.

That being said, we understand that sometimes it is just easier to switch on the video games or television. It is not always possible to drop everything you are doing to step outside for some playtime. Luckily, research shows that exercise does not need to be done all at once in order for the participant to reap the benefits. Instead of finding a 60-minute period of time to exercise and play outside each day, break that time up into manageable 15 minute intervals. Riding your bikes around the block a few times or playing a game of shadow tag in the backyard is likely to boost your child's mood (and your own) far more than watching another episode of Penguins of Madagascar.

Here are some ideas for working exercise into your child's life:
- riding bikes
- jumping on a trampoline
- playing tag
- rollerblading
- playing soccer (or just kicking the ball around the yard)
- playing catch
- swimming
- running on a treadmill (older children)
- riding a stationery bicycle (older children)

This list is just the tip of the iceberg. We would like to hear your ideas. Please leave a comment to tell us how you incorporate physical activity into your child's life.

In Utah, there are a couple of organizations that provide opportunities for children with disabilities to be involved in outdoor activities. If you do not live in Utah, contact your local autism or disability support group for resources.

In Utah:

Splore: "Splore is a Utah based non-profit organization that specializes in promoting empowering experiences in an active friendly world through affordable, customized, inclusive recreation and education programs for people of all abilities."

National Ability Center: The National Ability Center (NAC) is committed to the development of lifetime skills for people of all ages and abilities by providing affordable outdoor sports and recreational experiences in a nurturing environment.
NAC's summer camp registration is open. If you live in Utah, be sure to check out their schedule.


Freeman, S.K. The Complete Guide to Autism Treatments: A Parent's Handbook: How to make sure your child gets what works! 2007. SKF Books, Langley, B.C., Canada.
Read more!
Blog and ping