Reinforcement Systems

Description: Reinforcement systems are methods to provide consequences following particular behaviors. The purpose of these consequences is to make it more likely that these behaviors will occur again in the future. There are several examples of reinforcement systems: token economies, behavior contracts, and group-oriented contingencies. In a token economy, a person is taught that an item such as a sticker (token) can be exchanged for other preferred items such as snacks or for access to preferred activities such as TV watching or playing computer games. These are called “backup reinforcers.” Then the behavior that one wishes to reinforce (make more likely in the future) is identified. If the person does this behavior, a token (or tokens) is provided. When enough tokens are earned, the person can then trade these in for the backup reinforcers. Behavior contracts are documents that specify a contingent relationship between the completion of a specified behavior and access to, or delivery of, a specified reward. That is, the contract specifies that if a certain behavior or behaviors is completed, then and only then will the person earn the specified reward. Under group-oriented contingencies, the presentation or loss of a reinforcer (specified reward) is contingent upon the behavior of an individual within the group, a segment of the group, or the group as a whole.

Research Summary: Reinforcement systems, including token economies, behavior contracts and group-oriented contingencies are well-established learning principles and have been shown to be effective for children with autism in increasing a variety of skills that maintain over time and show generalization effects across a variety of conditions

Recommendations: The use of reinforcement systems are effective teaching procedures for individuals with autism in increasing a variety of skills.

Selected References:

Systematic reviews of scientific studies:

Delprato, D.J. (2001). Comparisons of discrete-trial and normalized behavioral intervention for young children with autism. Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders, 31, 315-325.

Heflin, L. J. & Alberto, P. A. (2001). Establishing a behavioral context for learning for students with autism. Focus on Autism and Other Developmental Disabilities, 16, 93-101.

Strain, P.S. & Schwartz, I. (2001). Applied behavior analysis and the development of meaningful social relations for young children with autism. Focus on Autism and Other Developmental Disabilities, 16(2), 120-128.

For additional information:

Delmolino, L., & Harris, S.L. (2004). Topics in autism: Incentives for change: Motivating people with autism spectrum disorders to learn and gain independence. Bethesda, MD: Woodbine House.