Do Rewards Help or Harm Children with Autism?

by Guy Shahar

Published:  6th Dec, 2018

I have noticed recently that my son’s school seems to be using rewards and punishments routinely with their children.  They get stickers if they say “good morning” to the teacher who welcomes them, they get vouchers for high street shops for good attendance, and they are required to sit out of fun periods where children can choose what they want to do if their homework is not complete.

When I enquired about this, I was sent a very short email with a statement that the school uses rewards and punishments “to ensure consistency and fairness for all pupils”.

But my concerns persist.  It is easy to make a case against punishments, but what about rewards?  Everyone likes rewards, right?  What sort of a stoic, joyless parent would want to deprive their child of the pleasure of receiving rewards to acknowledge good behaviour?  What could possibly be wrong with rewards?

Quite a lot, as it turns out:

Motivation

It is easy when caring for an autistic child to want to help them to behave in a more “normal” way, so that they can eventually become more functional in society.  Rewards may therefore seem like a logical way to promote such behaviour.

But if we are not carrying the child with us and are imposing expectations on them that make no sense to them, this can be hugely counter-productive.  If we try to trick them into a desired behaviour by appealing to something we think they want (like a sticker), it might work because they really do want the sticker, but there is much more to it than that.

One risk we run is that they begin to be motivated by the reward rather than by any genuine desire to change their behaviour.  For them, the behaviour itself is still abstract and merely functional – it gets them the sticker.  What we are actually doing is programming their understanding of the social world to be transactional – something we engage in in order to get something we want that has nothing to do with the encounter itself.  Imagine how additionally daunting this could make real interactions, especially when there are no rewards available, and what confusion that could instill.

Any later natural development of social interest could easily be inhibited in this way, and lasting scars from being cajoled into such activities can be formed.  It is not unusual for autistic adults to remain resentful of such attempts in their early life to bring about such desired behaviours.

It is actually very possible that the interest is already there, but that we haven’t noticed it yet because we are only looking for certain conventional signs.  It is unlikely to be an interest in mechanically performing social rituals like saying “good morning”, but may perhaps be an interest in everybody around them being as happy as possible, and to behave in a way that other people would feel benefit from.  If this motivation can be acknowledged and cultivated, this could be a great way to slowly facilitate an interest in social interaction as a meaningful part of the child’s own agenda as well as ours.

Trust

An even bigger risk is that we undermine their trust in us.

Children are excellent at detecting when there is some conflict between the reasons we give them to do something (like to get a sticker) and what we really want but are not saying (for them to conform to an abstract behaviour), even if they are unable to articulate this discrepancy.  Many autistic children have a heightened version of this perceptual ability.

If they sense often that we are keeping something from them – even if we feel our intentions are positive – then the instinctive trust that a child has in their parent is compromised.  They work out that they can no longer look to us to reliably fulfil that trust, and this is generalised to all situations and to the very basis of our relationship with them,  Autistic children in particular benefit tremendously from knowing that they are able to truly trust their parents, but they do need them to be straight with them.  It takes a huge amount to cultivate that trust, and it would be a tragedy to lose it through pursuing a strategy of rewards in an attempt to help them.

Meaningfulness

Another issue is how meaningful the behaviour is to the child.  If the intention of the reward is to support “correct” social interaction, the child will have the obvious question, why?  What makes it correct to say good morning to people we have no intention of saying anything else to?  By saying good morning mechanically to a person just because this is generally expected and without evoking any strong inner-wish for their morning to be especially pleasant, how am I displaying any real respect (which is important to me)?

Until we demonstrate to the child that we have recognised and understood these unspoken and unarticulated questions, and can offer them a response that is genuinely satisfying to them, these expectations are going to make no sense to them, and will do nothing to help them construct a meaningful framework through which to understand the world.

No parent wants to add to their child’s general confusion or disorientation, or to slap another layer of meaningless obligation onto a life with enough challenges already, so it is important to recognise that this could be another unintended consequence of using rewards.

Authenticity

We know that authenticity is generally especially important for children with autism.  It is deeply uncomfortable for them when our behaviour does not match our reality.

I recently met a very gregarious man who seemed to be engaging in effortless social banter.  He later told me that he was autistic and that this ability was not innate in him.  He had used behavioural methods to learn to be able to fit in better.  I congratulated him on his achievement, but he shared that it wasn’t a matter for congratulations for him and didn’t improve his quality of life at all.  He actually hated behaving in this way, as it was not who he was and he wasn’t being authentic.  But having learnt it and started to rely on it, he didn’t feel that he had any other options.  Without an innate social instinct, he didn’t have anything to fall back on.  It was a source of great turmoil for him.

The use of rewards may have fast and apparently effective outcomes (which could explain their popularity), but may leave behind long-term turmoil in the child that the person administering the rewards will never know of.

By teaching children behaviour through rewards rather than through exploring and evoking their natural motivations and confidence, we risk putting them in this sort of position on a smaller or larger scale.

Respect

If I had asked the school to implement a particular idea in their interactions with my son, I expect they would very reasonably have wanted to sit down with me to get a clear understanding of what the purpose of my request was, how it would work, and they would want to be sure as well that they were comfortable with it before putting it into practice.

I imagine that if, without offering more than a cursory explanation, I had offered them £10 for every time they could show they had done what I requested, they would, understandably, have felt insulted, patronised and disrespected.

Why do we think it is less important to consult our children on what we want to do for them and ensure they are comfortable with that?  Are they any less deserving of such respect?  Of course, the type of interaction would not be the same, as in some cases there may not even be the possibility to properly comprehend what was being proposed, but at least to check in with them in some way – to gauge and respond to their level of interest when we begin to promote something, etc – would be a sign of respecting our children.  If we fail to do it, they are in turn likely, influenced by how we have represented ourselves, to grow into adults who have less respect for the people around them.

Our Motivation

To put this all into context, it is a natural role of parents and carers to teach their children what behaviour is expected of them.  It is natural and normal to occasionally acknowledge and show happiness when they do something we approve of, and to withhold this when we want to discourage something.  This is how humans are programmed to teach and learn, and it would be impossible for a loving parent not to instinctively do this from time to time.

The difference here is our motivation.  As parents of autistic children, we cannot avoid feeling worry at times about how we best equip them for a fulfilling life in this world.  But if we let that worry predominate too strongly, we risk generating a panic within ourselves and rashly pushing them into things they don’t understand, while overlooking any genuine interests in them that we could be cultivating and developing.

We are told in physics that every action has an equal and opposite reaction.  In human relations, the reaction can by amplified many times.  Even an approach as apparently subtle as rewards can at best create confusion and challenge trust, and at worst result in a suppression of any natural interest in what is being encouraged.

We have written in the past about the importance of creating an environment of trust and containment based on a strong connection with the child, the importance of administering discipline with love rather than through behavioural mechanisms and about the dangers of a heavy-handed approach.  If we could use these as the foundations for supporting the development of our children, then truly optimal outcomes for them could be possible.

Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.