Spectrum Warriors: Life Through The Autism Spectrum

The Difference Between Positive Reinforcement vs. Bribery

I often joke that I use bribery to get MJ to complete tasks or go to the store with me but after a recent conversation with our clinical supervisor, I realized I need to stop joking that I am using bribery. Why is that? Well let’s look at the definitions of each word:

Bribery: Something that is given in order to get someone to do something – another words before.

Positive Reinforcement: Anything that is added after a behaviour in an effort to increase the likelihood that the behaviour will occur again in the future.

Recently I needed to go to Walmart, and needed to take MJ with me. This is not something she enjoys. She’s been earning allowance for some routine household chores (making her bed, feeding the cats etc..) and had been saving up her money to purchase a toy (a new doll). So I told her she could come to Walmart with me and after we got all of the things mommy wanted we could go to the toy department and pick out a toy with her allowance money. BUT she had to keep a calm body and listen to mommy. If it got too loud, or she got bothered by something, she could wear her earmuffs and play on her iPad.

This is exactly what happened – each time she got a little overwhelmed she used all of her coping strategies we taught her and after I had all my items in my cart, we took a trip to the toy aisle. I will admit, it wasn’t as smooth a trip as it sounds, she really started getting anxious and overwhelmed, especially when the toy she wanted wasn’t there.  However, since that trip, we’ve managed to go to Walmart a second time and even managed a trip to the market recently.

This is one example, but we do this all the time at home. Want time on the iPad? Complete x demand. Want to watch something on tv? Stay calm, do x, y or z (or not do).

Reinforcements can be anything from tangible rewards (the iPad) and treats (edibles), to tokens that can be cashed in for rewards (i.e. her allowance) and even praise, e.g. the more mom tells me she likes something I do – and gives me attention, the more I’m going to do it…

Sabrina also talks about the use of positive and negative reinforcement in her potty training post

We use positive reinforcement with MJ. We don’t bribe her, and in fact I think I can count on one finger the number of times in her nearly five years that we’ve done that. Bribing doesn’t work – regardless of whether you’re the parent of a child with autism or not. The demands increase in nature and as the asks get larger, the behaviour you want to avoid also ramps up. This again, is something any parent faces, but if you think about escalation of behaviours we often see with children on the spectrum, this would become my greatest fear. Imagine meltdowns getting worse, this is not something I want to imagine when we’ve worked so hard to (and succeeded) in decreasing the frequency and intensity. So I will stop joking that I bribe my child and proudly pat myself on the back for using positive reinforcement.

Here’s a couple of great videos (albeit a little older) that describes this in more detail and gives some examples of both positive and negative reinforcement.  The second video is 12 minutes long.



A special shout out to our clinical supervisor for reminding me of this.

Happy reinforcing!





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