Background to my interest in teaching children with autism

Teaching Children with Autism, continued

The second of these teaching methods is known as operant conditioning, and it is the one which forms the core of most ABA-based programs. Essentially, it works like this:

If some particular behaviour is followed immediately and consistently by a particular consequence, the child will learn to associate that particular consequence with that particular behaviour.

If a behavioural response to some particular antecedent event is followed immediately and consistently by a particular consequence, the child will learn to associate that particular consequence with that behavioural response to that antecedent.

Certain consequences – most often, consequences that the child experiences as rewarding – result in the child learning to give a particular response to some particular antecedent stimulus. We call those kinds of consequences “reinforcers,” because they “reinforce” or strengthen the probability that the child will give that particular response to that particular antecedent.

As a general rule, consequences that the child finds rewarding are going to be good reinforcers; but this is not always the case, and the only sure way to determine what will be reinforcing for any particular behaviour is to present the consequence after that behaviour and see whether the behaviour is strengthened – remember, that is how reinforcement is defined. Nevertheless, for all practical purposes, you should reward any behaviour that you want the child to learn to do.

Experience with this kind of learning has shown that you really don’t have to worry about always having to reward your child for everything that he/she does although, once a behaviour has been learned, you can and should gradually cut back on how often you specifically reward the child for that behaviour. This is known as “thinning the reinforcement schedule,” and it is a crucial part of ensuring that behaviours which are learned stay learned rather than being forgotten. In addition, most of the behaviours that you will be teaching will eventually generate their own rewards – in fact, just being able to do something new can be rewarding in itself, as the child will eventually discover for him- or herself, so that you wouldn’t have to keep providing him with arbitrary reinforcers. The natural environment will provide the rewards for you.

The third type of learning that I want to mention is Social Learning Theory. The work of Bandura and Walters and their students on Social Learning Theory ( which I confess I haven’t tried to keep track of within the past forty-five years since I studied with Dick Walters) included study of the role of modelling in learning, including video modelling, as a way of teaching social behaviours. The learning principle involved is learning through observation. Learning through observation also has a very important part to play in your child’s development.

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