Reinforcing Relationships and Teaching Children with Autism — Part III

As we reviewed in part one and part two of this series, identifying and establishing appropriate reinforcers is key to motivating students with autism. These reinforcers play a critical role in your teaching plan, as they can help your learner attain the skills they need to be independent in the world. We’ve discussed the difference between primary and secondary reinforcers, and we have reviewed examples of items and activities that satisfy both categories. In the final installment in this three-part series, we will examine the key role of “pairing” in your teaching pursuits.

As always, Partington Behavior Analysts is here to answer any questions you might have about teaching children with autism. If you need assistance with any component the strategies we recommend, please review our FAQs and online resources for assistance, or contact us directly.

Establishing Adults as Reinforcers for Autism

What Is Pairing?

Pairing seeks to establish the presence and actions of an adult as a conditioned reinforcer. This is accomplished by engaging in activities that “pair” the adult with established reinforcing items and activities to effectively turn the adult into a reinforcer. This is key to achieving increased student compliance and gaining instructional control. A few key steps to this pairing process include:

  • Identifying appropriate reinforcers for the purpose of pairing
  • Associating yourself and your words with reinforcement
  • Not allowing free access to reinforcers
  • Avoiding placing demands during pairing activities
  • Narrating activities
  • Presenting the student with reinforcers to increase the likelihood of the desired response
  • Maintaining a high ratio of positive to negative interactions with your learner

Pairing During Play and Narrating When Pairing

It is important to note that your interaction with a student should not start with a command — to establish yourself as a positive secondary reinforcer, you must have fun first. Pairing during a student’s independent play can be an effective approach, as they begin to make the connection that play is more fun when the adult is present. This can be as simple as joining a child as they play and making positive, engaging comments about the activity. Limiting commands and instructions during pairing does not preclude talking about the reinforcing items and activities. To the contrary, commenting, labeling, making silly noises, or otherwise narrating during pairing can help your learner associate spoken words with positive reinforcers.

Avoiding Negative Pairing

Challenges often arise for instructors when they must transition from one activity to the next, as you don’t want to consistently interrupt reinforcing activities (playing with toys, for example) by asking the learner to do a non-preferred activity like getting dressed. Continuing your interaction with the learner without interrupting the reinforcing activity can help blur the line between play and work, ultimately making these transitions easier while maintaining positive pairing. Negative pairing can also result from placing demands, such as a command or instruction, on the learner during pairing. It is important to consider your learner’s skills as you narrate, as even the smallest command, such as asking for a high five, can seem like more of a demand that a reinforcing celebration.

The “4-to-1 Positive Interactions” Rule

This rule of thumb is critical to motivating students with autism. The best way to achieve a very high ratio of positive interactions to negative ones is to always be looking for instances of appropriate behavior as you teach children with autism. While many instructors can easily identify undesired behavior, it can be more difficult to identify when your learner is behaving well. When you observe an undesirable behavior or response, ask yourself what you would like to see instead, and when you do observe that response, be sure to make every effort to reinforce it.

Let Us Help You Teach Children with Autism

Partington Behavior Analysts is here to provide clinicians, educators, and parents with the tools and resources they need to motivate and teach children with autism. Our high-quality, effective interventions can help elevate your learner’s quality of life, preparing them to lead a productive, independent life of their own. You can find more information on identifying and establishing reinforcers for autism in Success on the Spectrum: How to Teach Skills to Individuals with Autism, a book written by our very own James W. Partington, Ph.D., and Scott W. Partington, M.A. To learn more about our workshops, courses, and online consultations, contact our helpful team today.


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