Time to talk: Communicative Reinforcement in Autism

child and adolescent mental health tips

Time 2 Talk:Understanding two principles of Communicative Reinforcement in Autism

Communication is the modality of life. No human being fully develops in its absence.


These two statements are founded upon two basic principles. We communicate to:


1) Access what we want

2) Avoid what we don’t


Its that simple.


Typically, from the moment a child is born, he cries and/or jerks his limbs around. Crying and movement are both, forms of communication. The message may be “I’m cold,” “I’m upset,” “I’m hurting,” or “HELP!” Right? Furthermore, as the child grows and develops, other behaviors creep in, such as hitting, kicking, throwing and/or screaming. These behaviors often times yield the permanent or temporary avoidance of an undesirable activity (eating vegetables, wearing socks, cutting hair, etc.). From the newborn baby to the testy toddler, even if the communicator doesn’t completely understand the message (s)he’s sending, its being sent. Thus, we are always communicating, whether we are aware of it or not.


In the example of the newborn baby, the crying and movement behaviors usually access parental attention. Over time, after a number of “trials,” the child generally discovers that his fussiness “works” – “I cry…I get something I want…I win!” “Woo-hoo, let’s try it again!” Unfortunately, this behavior gets reinforced over and over and over and over…you get the picture. This system is relatively acceptable in infancy, but for older children, this could establish a dreadful cycle—especially for children with autism.


Children on the autism spectrum, like typically developing children, are able to flow with the “rules” of communicative reinforcement—communication, whether vocal or physical, allows a person to get something or get out of something. Because children with autism tend to think more rigidly, the longer or more frequently a behavior is reinforced, the harder it will be to change it. With this in mind, it is necessary to be as proactive as possible when training the child on the autism spectrum to communicate effectively.


The key to remember when teaching a child to communicate, is not to reinforce undesirable “communication” – Ever. Of course, this is practically impossible to do, but when practiced, will be well worth the effort! Let’s explore a common scenario.


If a young child, with or without autism throws food on the floor to keep from eating it, which of the following responses would most likely teach him a more appropriate way to deal with food that he doesn’t want or like:


  • Ask, with a perplexed countenance, “Why did you do that?” (as though he would really provide a rational answer)
  • Say, “No, No. Don’t do that.” (although he already did it)
  • Put the food back on the plate (or have him do it, if appropriate) and hand-over-hand, guide him in pushing it to the side or putting it away, while saying with a flat affect and neutral (not angry) tone of voice, “All done.”


While the third option is much more taxing for the caregiver, the child is more likely to learn that throwing food on the floor to get out of eating it doesn’t work. Also, if the child likes attention and the caregiver gives lots of verbal praise when the child puts the food away properly, the child is more apt to make the choice that accesses the attention.


Here’s another scenario:


If a school-aged child hits his peers to get out of doing an aversive assignment, which of the following responses would likely yield the most effective results?


  • Ask, with a perplexed countenance, “Why did you do that?” (as though he would really provide a rational answer)
  • Say, “No, No. Don’t do that.” (although he already did it)
  • Modify the assignment (break it down into smaller segments, provide intermittent breaks, give edibles or verbal praise after a predetermined section has been completed, etc.) or modify the environment (adjust the lighting, minimize distractions, change seating, etc.) to facilitate success.


Again, the third option is the better choice. Set the child up for success. Spend more time teaching, modeling and reinforcing the things that he should do, rather than the things that he shouldn’t do.


Finding the most appropriate angle to properly reinforce “good” communication is not always easy, but watching the child make more socially acceptable decisions makes all of the teaching, worth the time.


By Donyale Clarke M.S.CCC-SLP