Children respond to rewards…at least typically-developing children do. What about autism and rewards? Can they work in tandem?
Rewards are a form of reinforcement, and reinforcement happens on a continuum. You have primary reinforcers on one of the spectrum and secondary reinforcers on the other end of the spectrum.
Primary reinforcers are the things that we are born with. They do not have to be learned. Think about the things that are satisfying to a newborn baby: food, touch, water, environmental comfort like warmth and dryness, and sensory pleasure. These things remain valuable to an individual throughout their life.
When caring for a newborn, we link primary reinforcers with secondary reinforcers. When feeding an infant, we sing, smile, coo, and make eye contact. This teaches the infant to enjoy social attention, a secondary reinforcer. Social attention is a huge secondary reinforcer. In fact, it is the most commonly available reinforcer in our society. Other secondary reinforcers include money, tokens, stickers, and praise. Secondary reinforcers are learned through a history of linking those things with something that is innately, biologically valuable.
The typical learning processes in regard to reinforcers is for infants to link primary reinforcers to secondary reinforcers and move along the spectrum to where secondary reinforcers have high value and primary reinforcers are not necessary to sustain behavior.
We see this most often when we go to a job in order to collect a paycheck. We find value in the paycheck because it is useful to purchase things like food and shelter and pleasure. It would be very problematic in society if everyone had to be paid in primary reinforcers. Secondary reinforcers make the world go round.
Parents of kids with autism, I know what you’re thinking…autism and rewards don’t mix!
Children with disabilities, like autism, often struggle to find value in secondary reinforcers. The core deficits of autism, which includes not liking social interaction, are a huge factor in this. Children diagnosed with autism will avoid social interaction in many instances, making it hard to link social attention with primary reinforcers. As this happens more and more, social attention becomes less and less valuable. Likewise, the restricted, repetitive nature of autism makes it likely that children will prefer the same things or just a few things, thus limiting their reinforcers.
Restricted reinforcers and reinforcers limited to only primary sources are considered to be a huge barrier to learning. For this reason, ABA practitioners will attempt to link or pair the child’s current reinforcer , like food, with more common reinforcers, like praise and attention to help move the child along the spectrum toward more typical secondary reinforcers.
At this point, you may be wondering: wouldn’t it just make sense to use the primary reinforcers since we know they are powerful?
The answer is no for a couple of reasons. First of all, secondary reinforcers, especially social praise, are much more readily available than primary reinforcers and are more likely to be used by people in general. It would be just plain weird for someone to give you a marshmallow if you hold the door open for them, but very common for them to give you a smile and a nod. Since secondary reinforcers are the thing that make the world go round, we want to make sure that all people have access to enjoy those reinforcers. Secondly, primary reinforcers have limitations. They only work when you are hungry or thirsty or cold. Secondary reinforcers have much more long lasting and readily available value.
Behavioral therapy heavily uses primary reinforcers to strengthen behavior. In fact, one of the complaints—and misunderstandings about ABA—that our methods bribe children into being good or use treats to train children in a very unnatural way. While it is true that behavioral therapy uses primary reinforcers when necessary, there are very, very good reasons for that. We want to use things that are actually valuable to the children we are working with to strengthen behavior, and we are hoping to link those reinforcers to other, more naturally occurring reinforcers, like praise, in hopes of broadening the future reinforcer options to include things children are likely to encounter in their environment.