Sunday, 4 August 2013


Reinforcement is the process of increasing desired behavior in children with autism and other related disabilities. There are basically two types of reinforcers- extrinsic and intrinsic.

Extrinsic rewards or reinforcers are those that are unnaturally added to the situation. For example, if a child is given a piece of cake for touching his nose when asked to do so. The child is said to be extrinsically motivated because of the piece of cake. Extrinsic rewards are usually efficient at the initial stage especially when the age and cognitive level of the child are put into consideration. However, it is helpful to understand when and how to quickly transition to more intrinsic or natural reinforcers. Extrinsic rewards may hinder generalization because the child expects to be rewarded whenever he/she exhibit desired behavior while rewards (especially primary reinforcers such as food) may not readily be available in some environments.

Intrinsic or natural rewards are the natural outcomes of the child's behavior. For example, a child walks towards a table with bottles of water and juice, and when asked if he/she wants water or juice, he/she responds by saying juice and gets what he/she wants – juice. The child is said to be intrinsically motivated because he says what he wants and gets it. Intrinsic rewards usually occur naturally, usually more motivating and easily generalized.

Some of the common challenges people face when using reinforcers (intrinsic or extrinsic) are as follows:

  1. Rewards are always expected when desired behaviors are exhibited.
  2. Difficulty finding the appropriate activities or items that can be used as reinforcers.
  3. The child may get tired of items or activities used as reinforcers and one has to come up with new ideas to replace the old one.
  4. How to achieve generalization when reinforce is taken away or stopped.

(Look out for how to decide on what makes a good reinforcer and how to determine activities that motivate children living with autism in my next post). Thanks for reading, your comments are always appreciated.