Identifying Preferred Reinforcers for Persons with Autism Spectrum Disorders

By Marlena N. Smith

In a recent review, Weeden and Poling explored the procedures used to identify preferred reinforcers in studies delivering reinforcement to teach skills to persons with autism spectrum disorders (ASD). Reinforcement is an important element of behavioral intervention for ASD. Moreover, the identification of preferred reinforcers is crucial to the effectiveness of treatment.

Ninety-seven research studies, published between 2005 and 2009, were reviewed. All studies involved the use of reinforcement to teach skills to individuals with ASD.

While all the studies reported the use of reinforcement, only 32 described the procedures used to identify preferred reinforcers. Procedures commonly reported in the studies, descending from most frequently used, include:

1. Interviewing an individual close to the participant, such as a parent, caregiver, or teacher
2. Asking the participant
3. Observing the participant
4. Administering preference assessments to the participant

All the studies found positive reinforcement to be effective in teaching skills to persons with ASD; however, the majority of the studies did not report the procedures used to identify reinforcers. Therefore, clinicians and researchers can not accurately replicate these studies. Weeden and Poling stress the importance of reporting procedures used to identify reinforcers in research studies involving persons with ASD.

Weeden, M., & Poling, A. (in press). Identifying reinforcers in skill acquisition studies involving participants with autism: Procedures reported from 2005 to 2009. Research in Autism Spectrum Disorders. doi:10.1016/j.rasd.2010.05.004

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