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Operant Conditioning & ABA: An Introduction to Autism Awareness Month

In light of the COVID-19 outbreak, Tanager Place Autism Services is developing a parent training curriculum. It is our hope that our presentations can be used by providers to learn and test their own growing knowledge about Applied-Behavior Analysis (ABA) and autism. Starting with a brief overview of operant conditioning, we are hoping to expand this curriculum throughout the agency and families we serve.

To commemorate Autism Awareness Month, we will be posting our presentations and sharing our thoughts to take more people on a journey to education surrounding autism and ABA therapy. Thanks for joining us!

You may wish to download a PDF of the presentation now:

Autism ABA Operant Conditioning Tanager Place
What is Operant Conditioning?

Operant conditioning was coined by B.F. Skinner in the 1930s, following the work of Edward L. Thorndike. Also known as “instrumental learning,” operant conditioning is the modification of behavior via reinforcement and punishment. In Skinner’s model, behaviors are maintained through consequences and are malleable, meaning if reinforcement or punishment is stopped, the behavior may revert back to its original state through a process called extinction. Although the start of operant conditioning was primarily based on animal models, its use has graduated to more sophisticated applications and is accredited as one of the founding practices in ABA.

Autism Awareness Month ABA Operant Conditioning Tanager Place
Operant Conditioning in ABA

As the most widely supported therapy for autism, ABA is founded by evidence-based practices such as operant conditioning.

In ABA, we use large amounts of reinforcement to increase target behaviors, and punishment and extinction to reduce behaviors that are not functional or helpful for children.

Although words like “punishment” and “extinction” sound harsh and contribute to a misconception that ABA is harmful, the terms merely exist to indicate that a behavior is being reduced. In a session, reinforcement may be seen as giving a child a high-five for identifying the correct color of a school bus, where extinction may be removing attention that was originally given to drastic behaviors.

Autism Reinforcement and Punishment Presentation Operant Conditioning ABA

Common Errors in Reinforcement and Punishment

While the terminology of operant conditioning is simple, the application can become tricky and, sometimes, we condition the wrong thing. It’s usually incidental — the reinforcement of a tantrum that can go on for hours if unattended. A child starts escalating, and reflexively, the caregiver picks up the child or hands them a preferred item. It’s instinctual. These seem to be the conditions in which they both achieve something; where the child may be seeking something tangible or some form of attention, the caregiver may be trying to limit the duration of a drastic behavior. Unbeknownst to the caregiver, each time they respond to the drastic behavior, they are reinforcing its continuation.

Conversely, intended “punishments” may reveal to be ineffective if they don’t succeed in reducing behavior. Through the use of ABA, we try to limit these incidences and support caregivers through challenging behavior while still meeting the needs of our clients.

Operant Conditioning For Everyone

Both reinforcements and punishments contribute to how we understand and set expectations for the world around us. Although operant conditioning does wonders for shaping behavior in ABA, it is not specific to autism or even children with autism. Children without an autism diagnosis and typically functioning people are all perceptible to adapting behavior based on their experiences. Think about your paycheck or a promotion and how it reinforces returning to work every day. Reflect on the time you got a speeding ticket and how it stopped you from speeding in certain parts of town. The concepts of operant conditioning are essential for functioning within our environment successfully.

Using the Online Presentation

We acknowledge that not every aspect of operant conditioning is covered in this presentation. Our main prerogative in developing these presentations is to make the information as succinct as possible while giving parents tools to work with outside of ABA sessions. As we move through our parent training curriculum, we hope to add more details to each of the topics covered here. Stay tuned for more information on ABA and autism through the remainder of Autism Awareness Month.

For more reading on Autism Awareness Month, you can click here.

This post was authored by Lexys Sillin, RBT


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