In autism therapy, reinforcers are really important and could come in many forms. Encouragement and praises as well, and they serve as an intangible form of reinforcer as well. Reinforcers are one of the faster, more effective ways of conditioning in behavioural therapy. This is intuitive because any child would naturally want to do a certain activity if he knows that it can get him rewards, depending, of course, on his personal gauge of whether the action is worth the reward. Children who enjoy social attention may even be motivated by praise and encouragement. However, something that people often neglect besides just reinforcers and praise is the rapport between you and the child.
Rapport refers to a connection or positive relationship with someone else. It can be considered a state of harmonious understanding with someone. In the case of a child, rapport refers to the child acknowledging your presence and also following your directions. Even in power struggles and tantrums, rapport does not necessarily have to be broken. Building rapport is therefore a continuous process of developing that connection, even if you deny the child something and they get upset, and the process is not always as direct as it seems. For younger ones, rapport can be built easily by showing an interest in what they like. For older children, rapport can also be built by consciously finding common ground and showing that you empathise with their feelings, but not necessarily giving in all the time.
You may be the parent or the therapist; either way, rapport is important. Otherwise, the child may only be establishing desired behaviours only because they want access to the reinforcer. Although that is often highly effective, it is only temporary and the control lies with the child and not you. This means that it is up to the child to decide on his behaviour, and at any point of time when he feels that he is not interested in the reinforcer anymore, without rapport, you would have already lost control of the situation even if you possess a reinforcer that was previously very effective.
Likewise, the minute you do not have a good reinforcer on hand, you will not be able to achieve desired behaviour from the child! With good rapport, you will be able to fade reinforcers with greater ease while still having the child follow your directions.
This leads us to the point that just constantly rewarding or praising may not be enough. The child should still be aware that there is a line drawn, and if he or she is acting unreasonably, they are not going to be rewarded as they usually are. Even if this may cost you a round of fussing and tantrums, it is important to go through this whole process together. A bond will still be formed, and may be even stronger. From there, the child will better understand that he is getting rewarded not just by task completion but also due to good behaviour ie. completing a task while grumbling and whining all the way through is still undesired and will not get him a reward! By establishing a firm and consistent criteria, the child will be more aware that you have your expectations and they have to be met, and will also respect you because of that.
The positive effect of building rapport is to create an environment that is conducive for learning. Learning new things becomes a lot easier when negative behaviours are diminished. Hence, the struggle cannot be avoided if it is going to come hand in hand with you setting clear ground rules. All in all, good rapport is a lot more important than reinforcers in the long run as a child will do a lot better when they have a close connection with you and follow you well, not wanting to go against you or upset you. As much as reinforcers and praises are crucial factors in therapy, we also need to fully understand that each individual functions in very unique ways and the only way to understand that fully is by first establishing a strong connection.
Written by Claudie