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Using Consequences and Rewards to Improve Behavior

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by Temple Grandin, PhD
Autism Asperger’s Digest
| November/December 2011

When I was in elementary school, the rules and discipline were the same at home and school. If I had a temper tantrum at school, the consequence was no TV for one night. (Today the consequence might be no video games.)

Kids on the spectrum are masters at testing the boundaries and finding where they can break the rules. I knew that a tantrum at school would result in not being able to watch my favorite TV show. When I was good, my family respected my time to watch Howdy Doody because they knew it was important to me. I can remember losing the privilege only a few times.

In my life consequences were only used for really bad behavior such as a temper tantrum or fighting. After a fistfight in my high school cafeteria, horseback riding was taken away for two weeks. I never got in another fight again.

Keep in mind that you should never punish a child with autism for acting out, or a tantrum, when it is caused by sensory overload. My mother was a good detective about what environments caused me stress. She recognized that large crowds or too much noise was more than my nervous system could handle. When I tantrumed, she understood why.

As a consequence for bad behavior, Mother never took away art; she took away TV. It is important to nurture areas of strength such as art, math, music, or writing. Never, never take away activities that could turn into careers. These activities need to be nurtured. Instead, take away a video game or YouTube watching.

Consequences done wrong can really backfire. Consequences like taking away my favorite TV show or horseback riding were only given for really serious problems such as anger. Nitpicking kinds of consequences will only frustrate a child. One teenage girl resented her mother because she had an elaborate system of small consequences and rewards for every kind of behavior. For example setting the table was equal to 15 minutes of computer time and not cleaning her room was 15 minutes less.

Everyday behaviors, such as good table manners and being on time, were simply expected. When I made a social mistake,
such as twirling my fork in the air, mother quietly gave the instruction to put my fork down. She did not scream “no”; she quietly gave the instruction for the correct behavior instead.

Rewards were given to me for really big accomplishments. When I did something exceptional, I was praised. When I made a beautiful clay horse, mother praised it. When I sang a solo in an adult concert, mother praised it. I was only congratulated for exceptional work; I was not praised for wearing a fancy church hat that I hated—
that was expected. My mother’s approach to behavior and consequences can be summarized in the chart at the bottom of this page.
Mother made sure there was consistency of discipline at home, and between home and school. She, my nanny, and the teacher worked together. It is essential that both parents and teachers are consistent and follow through with consequences for serious problems. They also need to reward real accomplishments.

Love Temple’s columns and her unique perspectives on ASD? Read her latest autism book, The Way I See It. Available in major bookstores or at FHAutism.com.

Copyright © Autism Asperger’s Digest. 2012. All Rights Reserved. Distribution via print is prohibited without written permission of publisher.

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  1. Jay Iyer says:

    Dear Temple,

    You have been such a source of inspiration to Harini, now 21 (with Aspergers syndrome) and me. When Harini was growing up, I had to remember, her tantrums were due to a sensory overload. Now, she is a junior at the University pursuing a career in Mathematics. She is still not very comfortable with crowds, but tolerates them. My husband and I would simply praise her for jobs well done, such as cleaning her room, folding her clothes, setting the table, doing dishes. Special awards, such as going all the way to the Symphonic Band and playing until 12th grade, staying on the High Honor roll of course, got special recognition and treats. I can’t wait to read your latest book.


    Jay Iyer