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To Access or Not Access Reinforcers: Effective Communication is Key

Posted by on in Autism
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As a BCBA, I've found that there are some pretty common questions I'm asked—my own personal FAQ, if you will. From the general public, I mostly get confusion, to wit: "So what does a BCBG do?" or "Autism, that's the one where they have super powers, right?"

To which I pithily respond something about trendy clothiers or the X-Men. From parents, on the other hand, the most common question I hear is, "What can I do at home to help my child?" While this question is very broad, I typically hear it in relation to communication, which is one of the primary deficits in autism. Luckily communication is an area in which parents can have a huge impact, and the best part about it is that you can do it easily throughout your daily routine.

The Easy Way Out

In all my years spent both interacting with people (whether neurotypical or autistic) and being a person myself, I've picked up on some common characteristics: we can be needy and lazy. We want drinks, snacks, that ubiquitous song from Frozen, to never hear that omnipresent song from Frozen ever again, that YouTube video we've already watched 738 times, you to talk with us, you to leave us alone...the list goes on and on. Moreover, people will expend the least possible energy necessary to guarantee results. For example, a child might approach his parent in the kitchen and say, "Eh!" or maybe just engage in problem behavior. This communication appears ineffective on the surface, but oftentimes it can yield the desired result. Whether the parent starts playing a guessing game or just starts handing him or her drinks or snacks, the child has successfully used the least possible effort to gain access to what they want.

No More Guessing

One excellent way to increase your child's communication skills is to put a stop to this guessing game. When your child wants something, you can simply require him or her to ask for it using words, sign language, PECS (picture exchange system), gesture(s), or whatever communicative skill is in their wheelhouse. If your child is verbal, require them to use words whether it's full sentences, short phrases, or single words. If your child is nonverbal, you can encourage sounds, sign, Proloquo, or even simply pointing if that is their best communicative skill. This technique can work anywhere and at any time. When you pick up your kid and they want to be picked up, wait for them to say "up." When it's dinnertime and they want their ice cream dessert, wait for them to sign it.

Wait it out

What if they don't independently communicate their request? There are some options here. For one, never underestimate the power of a good wait. For many of our patients, simply waiting for them to tell us what they want can be very effective even if you sometimes have to wait a little while. Oftentimes they know what is expected of them but have grown accustomed to using the least possible effort to get what they want. Simply waiting them out can force them to reevaluate their best course of action (especially if the really want whatever it is they're asking for) and hopefully evoke the communication you want. Otherwise you can provide your child with a simple prompt. This can be verbal or gestural. Perhaps you ask what they want or model, "I want cookie," or sign "play" for them. Over time, you can fade out the prompts and wait for independent responses.

Communication as a Tool

There are many other ways you can help facilitate communicative growth, but this is one of the biggest. By making them ask for the things they want, we can teach our kids that communication is a valuable tool for accessing reinforcers and for so much more. This little tip is a relatively simple behavior modification for us that garner what are frankly disproportionately large effects in their communication skills. As I said before, people are needy and lazy. We need our kids to communicate their wants and needs to us, and this extremely beneficial trick is nice and low-effort.

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  • Guest
    Julie Monday, 06 April 2015

    Thanks Mary for your insight! You always have good suggestions to help us with our children.

  • Guest
    Don Williams Thursday, 16 April 2015

    Excellent comments!
    Don Williams, phD, BCBA-D

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