Fact sheet: information on creating a behavior management program fora child with Autism, a common Autism Spectrum Disorder


Positive reinforcement is generally the most effective behavior management strategy in dealing with challenging behaviors of children with autism or Asperger's syndrome. It can also be used to help autistic children to learn new behaviors, from life skills through to alternatives to repetitive behaviors.


Positive reinforcement underlies the majority of all human behavior. We act in certain ways to obtain desirable consequences, whether it is going to work to get our paychecks, or treating others nicely in the hope they will do the same to us.


Positive reinforcement is an incentive given to a child who complies with some request for behavior change. The aim is to increase the chances the child will respond with the changed behavior. Positive reinforcement is given immediately after the desired behavior has occurred so that it will shape the child's future behavior.


The difference between reinforcement and bribery

The difference between reinforcement and bribery is that reinforcement comes after a task is completed whereas bribery is offered before. That is not to say that you can’t show your child the reinforcer he or she is working for during trials. In this case, it would be a visual cue. If you offered a treat before even making a request, you would be using bribery.


choosing positive reinforcers

When choosing reinforcers for people, remember that each individual will respond to different things.

• Looking at what has motivated the child in the past
• asking the child what they like and dislike
• Look at their deprivation state – what do they want, that they cannot easily get?
• Try to make sure the reinforcer is practical, ethical and valid for the behavior being targeted.


Some examples of positive reinforcement include:

• Preferred activities (e.g., specific job; coffee with a friend; concert; sporting event)
• Free time
• Verbal praise
• Food-related activities (special treats - not food they have the right to access anyway)
• Desired objects (if affordable)
• Privileges (e.g., team leader for a day or week; certificate; badge; choice of outing)
• Tokens (e.g.: a special trip when the child earns five gold stars on the fridge).


You can also give your child positive attention by:

• Leaning toward and/or looking at your child
• Smiling
• Making a comment; asking a question
• Conversation with your child
• Joining in an activity.


points to consider

Timing is critical to the effectiveness of positive reinforcement. It is important for an individual to feel that the goal is achievable and that reinforcement is attainable.


It is also important that the reinforcer is not something the child already has free access to. When setting amounts of positive reinforcement, do not give as much as the child would want given free access, as this would leave them nothing to work towards. Ensure the reinforcer can be continual and enhanced. A visual system can work well with autistic children, where they can see their progress as well e.g. ticks on a behavior chart.



• When starting out, you will reward the child every time the target behavior occurs

• Quickly fade reinforcers by offering less and less as the desired behavior emerges
• Always pair edible, social or toy reinforcers with verbal praise

• Eventually you will be giving only verbal praise and your child will learn your pleasure is a reinforcer

• Make sure you model the desired behavior (e.g. Don't lose your temper if dealing with tantrums)

• Keep your requests for the desired behavior concise and clear.


Free Access Rule

The maximum amount of reinforcement made available during intervention must be less than what the person would seek, given “free access”. No more than 80% of desired access should be given or else the reinforcer will reach satiation levels and no longer be effective.


The 50% Rule

This is used when calculating how long to wait between giving reinforcers. It is recommended that you work out the average length of time between incidences of the behavior, and halve it. For example:


If the behavior is currently occurring once per week, divide 7 days by 2, equaling 3½ days. The individual would receive positive reinforcement every 3½ days if the behavior were not displayed.


Delivery Style

Be aware of the child's possible reactions to reinforcement. Some children are not used to positive attention and may find it so uncomfortable that they resort back to their undesired behaviors in order to receive a known response. There may be a need to be discrete, perhaps allowing the child to overhear you praising them to another person.



A written contract may be used if the child has the ability to understand it. If used, ensure that the contract specifies all of the criteria and is signed by all parties.


For example, “If I ---------, by ---------, then -----------."


This kind of visual backup can be very useful for autistic children who may have trouble with verbal information only.


Set your child up for success

When your child is having a difficult day, be sure to end on a positive note. You can do this by requesting a skill the child has already mastered, then deliver some nice verbal praise. These mastered skills have a high probability your child will get them right – thereby giving you a chance to reinforce the behavior.


Click to shut autism information fact sheet on behavior management

Click here for the full range of Asperger's and autism fact sheets at www.autism-help.org
This article adapted with permission from www.biaq.com.au and remains under their copyright

Positive reinforcement is generally the most effective behavior management strategy in dealing with challenging behaviors of childen with Autism Spectrum Disorders. It can also be used to help autistic children to learn new behaviors, from toileting through to alternatives to stereotypic behaviors.