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Harnessing the Power of Positive Reinforcement

Why positive reinforcement is the key strategy for supporting autistic children.

Key points

  • Positive reinforcement is an evidence-based intervention for children on the autism spectrum.
  • Positive reinforcement relies on the pairing of a positive consequence with desired behavior.
  • Consistency and immediacy are key for connecting a positive consequence with desired behavior.
  • When implementing positive reinforcement, a person-centered intention is central.
Source: iStock/Daisy-Daisy

Positive reinforcement is a technique we intuitively make use of on daily basis. We usually don’t give it much thought, nor label it as a behavioral strategy. Encouragement from our loved ones (and ourselves), at times we are progressing towards our goals or choosing behaviors that we value, makes us feel uplifted and adds to our motivation. Positive reinforcement celebrates our small and big wins and affirms our efforts, nurturing our self-esteem and an experience of social acceptance. Positive reinforcement strengthens our beliefs relating to our competence.

Positive reinforcement is the team lunch that celebrates completion of a work project, a smile of appreciation for a loved one’s kind gesture, or an expression of praise. According to behaviorists, positive reinforcement influences the contingencies within our environment that shape our behavior, adding weight to the experience of positive consequences.

Positive reinforcement is considered as a strategy on its own merit, but it is also at the heart of evidence-based interventions for children on the autism spectrum (Wong et al., 2015). Well-known strategies related to reinforcement include Differential Reinforcement (“the learner is reinforced for desired behaviors, while inappropriate behaviors are ignored”), Discrete Trial Training (“a one-to-one instructional approach used to teach skills in a planned, controlled, and systematic manner”), or Pivotal Response Training (“a naturalistic intervention based on the principles of applied behavior analysis (ABA)… PRT builds on learner initiative and interests”) (Wong et al., 2015). Positive reinforcement has been found to be an effective strategy in teaching social skills, joint attention, and academic skills; it has even been shown to be effective in improving working memory (Baltruschat et al., 2011).

Positive reinforcement relies on the pairing of a positive consequence with a desired behavior. The rewarding can be done in numerous ways, such as through making use of checklists, charts, tokens, or rewarding objects or activities that follow the desired behavior. Consistency and immediacy are key for creating the connection between a positive consequence and desired behavior.

When implementing positive reinforcement, a person-centered intention is central. Advocates warn us about instances of behavioral interventions being inappropriately used within the autistic community; for example, to coerce individuals to conform to neurotypical behavior standards (whether eliminating stimming behaviors or enforcing eye contact); or behavioral interventions not showing enough consideration for individuals’ emotional experience or internal mental states. Fortunately, self-determination is increasingly at the heart of legislation protecting the rights of individuals with special needs, with person-centered planning of goals being a central component of support designs, regardless of context (Australian Government, 2005).

Positive Reinforcement in Action

To help me clarify where to focus positive reinforcement, I personally like to keep a simple data log of challenging behaviors that come up for my little ones, then consider reframing them into goals. Research tells us that S.M.A.R.T. goals (specific, measurable, achievable, realistic, and timely) are particularly helpful in increasing the likelihood of achieving outcomes (Locke & Latham, 2002). Once my children and I establish the goals we would like to work on, a visual checklist is my favorite way of collecting data on our progress toward them. A visual checklist allows my little ones to feel included in the process of monitoring their behavior and tweaking their goals.

Whether you are applying positive reinforcement to your own journey toward your goals, or as part of your parenting repertoire for supporting your children's goals, intentional positive reinforcement is your most effective foundational strategy, worth keeping at the fore of your awareness.


Baltruschat, L., Hasselhorn, M., Tarbox, J., Dixon, D. R., Najdowski, A. C., Mullins, R. D., & Gould, E. R. (2011). Further analysis of the effects of positive reinforcement on working memory in children with autism. Research in Autism Spectrum Disorders, 5(2), 855–863.

Disability Standards for Education 2005. Australian Government, 2005.

Locke EA, Latham GP. Building a practically useful theory of goal setting and task motivation: a 35-year odyssey. Am Psychol. 2002;57(9):705-717.

Wong, C., Odom, S. L., Hume, K. A., Cox, A. W., Fettig, A., Kucharczyk, S., Brock, M. E., Plavnick, J. B., Fleury, V. P., & Schultz, T. R. (2015). Evidence-Based Practices for Children, Youth, and Young Adults with Autism Spectrum Disorder: A Comprehensive Review. Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders, 45(7), 1951–1966.

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