Reinforcement and Special Interests

boy using ipad
  • Reinforcement is another crucial strategy in developing and maintaining motivation in a student with ASD. A reinforcer is an object or activity that the student likes, which can be presented after a behavior to increase the frequency of that behavior in the future. Teachers may reinforce a non-preferred activity with a preferred activity, contingent upon task completion. For example, if a student has difficulty maintaining focus on a math assignment (non-preferred activity), she can spend five minutes using the computer (preferred activity) after completing her math work. Language used for this includes, "First_____, then _____".

    The quicker the reinforcement is given after a student with ASD has completed a teacher-requested activity, the more powerful the reinforcer will be. If a teacher waits for two hours before delivering reinforcement for a completed activity, the student with ASD might not make the connection. 

    If you are not sure what motivates your student you can use a reinforcer survey.

    Students with ASD often have an intense and passionate level of focus on things of interest. It is important to note that the special interests are highly important and meaningful to the student, similar to an intense hobby. 

    Parents and educators are encouraged to support their students' intense interests. While special interests may seem strange or random to outsiders, they are incredibly meaningful to the child. They provide a source of recreation, allow the child to develop competence in a certain area, provide a safe haven during times of stress which assists in avoiding meltdowns and sensory overloads, and improve self-esteem. Special interests can also be used as reinforcers. 

    Here are suggestions that can encourage and support the student in their special interests:

    • Finding books and toys related to the interest
    • Talking with the student about the interest (let the student earn time to talk about or study their interest)
    • Doing learning activities related to the interest and providing leadership opportunities
    • Modify their work to allow their special interest (a writing prompt that includes their special interest)
    • Helping the student join a club related to the special interest (also provides the opportunity to socialize in a less intimidating setting)

    Special interests may someday turn into a successful career or hobby. 

Additional Example Reinforcement Tools

  • autism reinforcement board

    Individual Reinforcement Video