Behaviour Change

PROPAGANDA FOR CHANGE is a project created by the students of Behaviour Change (ps359) and Professor Thomas Hills @thomhills at the Psychology Department of the University of Warwick. This work was supported by funding from Warwick's Institute for Advanced Teaching and Learning.

Friday, March 7, 2014

Working with autistic children

According to behaviour analyst’s, people who are depressed are just extremely sad, people who have OCD are just very obsessive and children who have conduct disorder are just naughty and need to be disciplined more. Behavioural analyst’s believe that disorders don’t exist, instead it is about the frequency of the target behaviour and environmental influences that make them problematic. For this reason, applied behavioural analysis (ABA) is about observing behaviour and intervening using the right behavioural principles.

An early behaviorist, Thorndike (1927) came up with “the law of effect” which states that the probability of behaviour depends on the consequences of it. This theory produced the basis for reinforcement, which is used to adjust the frequency of the target behaviour. Positive reinforcement is when the probability of behaviour increases as it is rewarded and negative reinforcement is when the probability of behaviour decreases as it is punished.

Since I want to pursue working with autistic children in the future, these reinforcements are necessary for disciplining them. Autistic children have two main deficits, impaired language & social development and repetitive behaviours (Granpeesheh, Tarbox, & Dixon, 2009). To improve these deficits, extensive research suggests that early intervention of ABA yields improvements. To demonstrate this a study was conducted by Lovaas (1987) whereby young children were autism were split into 3 groups, intensive treatment group, minimal treatment group and control group. The Intensive treatment group children received one-on-one therapy sessions based on reinforcement for 40 hours a week whilst the minimal treatment session received treatment for 10 or fewer hours. Results showed that those children who received the intensive treatment showed intellectual gains than the children in the two other groups. Another study found that when autistic children made a corrected response in a working memory task, positive reinforcement of their highly preferred food or toy item improved their performance. This is because the child had a motivation to perform better  (Baltruschat et al, 2011).

Therefore, from this research it is clear that when applied behaviour analysis principles are applied to children with autism, their performance improves. The encouragement of positive reinforcement disciplines them to do the correct tasks and negative reinforcement encourages them to avoid wrong behaviours.


Baltruschat, L., Hasselhorn, M., Tarbox, J., Dixon, D. R., Najdowski, A. C., Mullins, R. D., & Gould, E. R. (2011). Addressing working memory in children with autism through behavioral intervention. Research in Autism Spectrum Disorders5(1), 267-276.

Granpeesheh, D., Dixon, D. R., Tarbox, J., Kaplan, A. M., & Wilke, A. E. (2009). The effects of age and treatment intensity on behavioral intervention outcomes for children with autism spectrum disorders. Research in Autism Spectrum Disorders3(4), 1014-1022.

Lovaas, O. I. (1987). Behavioral treatment and normal educational and intellectual functioning in young autistic children. Journal of consulting and clinical psychology55(1), 3.

Thorndike, E. L. (1927). The law of effect. The American Journal of Psychology.

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