New Research on Autism Teaching Strategies for Pairing Procedures that may Change How We Do It.

A lack of effective and easily deliverable reinforcers for the behaviors of people with autism can make teaching difficult. Conditioning new reinforcers, or “pairing” neutral items, such as toys, teaching materials, and praise is an autism teaching strategy that many teachers and clinicians have used in order to increase play, pivotal learning behaviors, and many other skills. In the recent article, “A Comparison of Two Pairing Procedures to Establish Praise as a Reinforcer” by Dozier, Iwata, Thomason-Sassi, Worsdell, & Wilson (2012), there was extremely interesting findings that may impact how we attempt to “pair up” new reinforcers.

This comparison involved two studies. The first study used the traditional pairing hypothesis, where a neutral item (the praise statement) is provided simultaneously, or immediately before, a primary reinforcer- commonly a food. This procedure is described in many of the most popular textbooks on Applied Behavior Analysis, and the authors assert that it is typically presented as an inevitable process. This study had four participants with moderate to severe mental retardation. Praise statements were chosen as the neutral stimuli, and were selected based on their reduced likelihood of prior exposure. Examples of the praise statements included, “get on with your bad self,” “you go girl,” and “keep rockin’ in the free world.” Individual teaching targets were selected, mostly simple motor responses. Results of the first study showed that even following thousands of pairings, the praise statements could not be used to teach an unknown response.

The second study used a response-stimulus pairing procedure, described by Kelleher and Gollub in 1962. In this procedure, praise and food were initially paired following correct responding, and subsequently the food reinforcer was removed. This study had eight different participants, with similar profiles as the first study, and similar teaching targets were selected. The results of the second study showed that for half of the participants, praise did not increase or even maintain the responses that had been reinforced with the food and praise combo- demonstrating that the response-stimulus pairing was ineffective. However, for the other half of participants, responses continued to increase with praise only, and were even successful at increasing other responses without a return to pairing.


Autism Teaching Strategies: What's Next?

This valuable article may shed light on why stimulus-stimulus pairing procedures may be ineffective at conditioning new reinforcers for some people, and delves into much detail on the specific mechanisms that may be at work in the complex process. If you are working with an individual for whom standard pairing procedures have not been successful, I highly recommend you read this article.

Dozier, Claudia L., Iwata, Brian A., Thomason-Sassi, Jessica, Worsdell, April S., and Wilson, David M. (2012). A comparison of two pairing procedures to establish praise as a reinforcer. The Journal of Applied Behavior Analysis, 45(4) 721-735.