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Understanding Rewards and Reinforcements



We all like to be rewarded for things we accomplish in our daily life but it works even better if we have the right motivators to help us maintain those patterns of behaviors. When it comes to individuals on the Autism Spectrum, routine and encouraging positive behavior becomes an essential part of their daily life for everyone involved. Creating an environment where positive behavior is consistently rewarded makes it quintessential for the personal development of the individual.


Types of Rewards


There are two types of rewards i.e. intrinsic and extrinsic. Intrinsic or internal rewards are the ones that provide personal satisfaction and sense of accomplishment. Extrinsic or external rewards consist of physical/tangible rewards gained out of a behavior. An example of each would be:


Intrinsic Reward- An individual being praised after completing a desired task. Reward- Praises and compliments. Desired effect: Enhanced self-esteem and confidence.


Extrinsic Reward - An individual being given a cookie everytime they do the dishes after finishing their meal. Reward- A cookie (physical item) as a gift/reward; Desired effect: Doing the dishes after meals.


Why do we need it?


Rewards are necessary when it comes to creating new and or maintaining old positive behaviors. An individual and their support network work together in bringing about a change when necessary and continue to encourage behaviors that impact the individual’s participation in different settings. To be able to be fully integrated in the surrounding environment and be an active member of the community, some behaviors and patterns can be improved with the help of rewards as positive reinforcers.


A reward plays a major role when there is a requirement to alter a pattern of behavior. Knowing an individual’s strengths and interests can help in determining the reinforcer that would startor continue the desired actions or behaviors..


Example- Lisa likes to help her mother with setting the table for meals and doing the dishes, However, she is not very fond of eating her green vegetables and would toss them in the garbage. Her mother thought of rewarding her with letting her set the tables for the next 2 meals all by herself if she finishes one portion of her green vegetables per day.

Reward: Setting the table for 2 meals independently; Desired effect- Lisa eating her green vegetables; Intrinsic- Self-esteem, confidence in her skills of setting the table.


When do we need it?


When certain behaviors start affecting the daily life of an individual and their participation in everyday activities, it becomes essential to isolate the behavior and modify it with positive reinforcers. This can be done by family and/or with professional staff when available. It is crucial to think about the following:

  • What does the behavior look like?

  • When did it first start or when did you first notice the behavior?

  • How long does it last each time?

  • Is it the same or similar environment every time?

  • Which people are around when the behavior occurs?

  • How does the behavior end each time?


Unwanted behaviors are more often a way of expressing feelings that are not easily said out in words. It is up to us to acknowledge those behaviors and provide individuals with a positive way of expressing these feelings. Reinforcers like rewards are open to change, just like behaviors, depending on what works and what doesn’t, we can gradually withdraw or increase the level of rewards to support the outcome that is anticipated.


It is also important to understand the difference between a reward and a bribe. Both bribes and rewards offer something in exchange for a desired behavior, but the way they are offered is very different.

Rewards are determined ahead of time, so that your child knows what to expect. It puts the parents in the driver’s seat because they aren’t desperately negotiating in the heat of the moment. Rewards provide a concrete and positive incentive for doing a good job.


Unlike a reward, bribes aren’t planned ahead of time and generally happen when you are in the middle of a crisis. Bribes teach children that they can get something they want by acting out. Instead of teaching them how to comply, it is teaching them that they can get more by not complying.


For reference and something to think about


Examples of positive reinforcers:

  • Saying “Good Job/ Well done” to John every time he cleans his room.

  • Dinesh getting to play 10 extra minutes outside with friends when he completes his homework.

  • Sarah gets to sleep in an extra hour on the weekends when she helps with the laundry on • Saturdays

  • Sheena gets a scoop of ice cream when they attend at least 4 out of 5 days of program per week.

  • Mahesh uses his sister’s laptop for an hour when he attends his swimming lesson on Thursdays.


Which ones do you think are intrinsic and which are extrinsic?

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