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Saturday 18 Nov 2017

Embedding Social Interactions Within Reinforcement

A study was published in the Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders this month (September 2009). The authors (Robert Koegel, Ty Vernon and Lynn Koegel) investigated the effect of an intervention on the social engagement and nonverbal orientation (i.e. eye contact) in three young children with autism. They found that by embedding social interactions within the reinforcement delivered during Pivotal Response Treatment (PRT) the social engagement and nonverbal orientation increased significantly for all three participants.

Now you’re wondering what “embedding social interactions within reinforcement” actually means and looks like, right? Traditional PRT requires these five key elements:

“(1) providing the child the opportunity to select preferred stimulus items;
(2) presenting a clear opportunity for the child to make a verbal attempt;
(3) reinforcing the verbal attempt contingently;
(4) interspersing maintenance and acquisition trials; and
(5) using natural reinforcers” (from article)

The preferred stimulus item is what the child wants (what is motivating to them) and to gain access to the preferred stimulus they need to verbally communicate (i.e. if the child wants to play with a jump rope they say “jump rope” and then they are given the jump rope to play with). In the current study, this method was modified slightly by the adult taking part in the reinforcing activity rather than just giving the child access to the activity. Using the jump rope example, this would look like the child wanting to play with the jump rope, them saying “jump rope” and then the adult playing jump rope with them (as opposed to just giving the child the jump rope). In this way the social interaction (i.e. playing jump rope together) was embedded within the reinforcing activity.

The results of this study are very interesting because the authors showed social engagement and nonverbal orienting measures both increased significantly by making this slight modification to the PRT intervention. Rather than just increasing communication in relation to motivating items/activities, access to the motivating/reinforcing items are paired with social interaction. Pairing highly motivating/reinforcing things with social interactions may help make social interactions more reinforcing in and of themselves.

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