When starting a new behaviour protocol for their child, autism parents have always been told to withhold any reinforcer until their child does what they want them to do. While the long-term effects of this protocol will be worth it, having to follow it can lead to a tantrum or worse. 40% of children with ASD also have an anxiety disorder, so many parents would rather give their child what they want than see them escalate. But wouldn’t it make more sense to prevent inappropriate behaviours in the first place? For many scenarios, it may be easier than you think.
Non-contingent reinforcement is providing a reinforcer often enough that your child is no longer engaging in inappropriate behaviours to get it. You know your child inside out. If you know that they can do 5 math questions before they start screaming for a break, let them have one after 3. If an attention-seeking child in your classroom disrupts the class every 10 minutes, let them answer a question or help them one-on-one every 5 minutes. Prevention via non-contingent reinforcement works, we just need to know how and when to use it.
Many parents don’t realize that when they tell their child that they are smart, or beautiful, or that they love them, they are using non-contingent reinforcement. Every time you tell your child that you love them, you are preventing an inappropriate attention-seeking behaviour. Every time you cuddle them, you are preventing an inappropriate self-stimulatory or self-injurious behaviour. Of course, reinforcers can be a lot more obvious too like a break, a toy, or a yummy treat.
Now as for the “when”, the best time to use this strategy is before any behaviours occur. Again, you know your child best and you know what they are capable of and how much is too much. However if there is a missed opportunity for reinforcement or your child is just having a bad day, do not provide reinforcement as you normally would and follow the behaviour protocol that you have in place.
Therefore when thinking about how to reduce your child’s problem behaviour, remember that prevention strategies like non-contingent reinforcement can be safer and more effective than a protocol to follow after the behaviour has occurred. So be sure to spoil your child with hugs, kisses, and I love you’s, because you may just be saving yourself from a tantrum and a headache.
Written by: Nicolette Carducci