Tuesday, January 11, 2011

A Rewarding Meal at a Mexican Restaurant

When our son was first diagnosed with autism, we were very fortunate to find Mary, a wonderful therapist who worked with Kai and directed our home therapy program. For awhile, Kai was doing 30 hours of intensive ABA therapy every week. Much of what I learned about dealing with a child with autism came from observing the work that Mary and her fellow therapists did with Kai.

Prior to becoming a parent myself, I was not a fan of the “bribery” method of getting your child to do something. It just felt wrong to have such a direct link between behavior and reward. Shouldn’t a child learn to do something just because it is the right thing to do?

And yet, one of the components of ABA therapy is to reward the child for positive behavior. When Kai first started ABA, the reward could be something as simple as getting to play with an attractive, new, sparkling object if he responded to Mary’s command to “come here.” When we saw that Kai actually responded, something we hadn’t seen before, we understood the power of positive reinforcement.

As time went on, the reward system was adapted as Kai’s abilities changed. When he mastered a behavior, the reward was faded. When he showed he was capable of doing more, he had to work harder before he was rewarded.

I grew to see that this type of positive reinforcement was not the same as the “bribery” concept that I thought would be so distasteful. If done properly, the focus still will be on teaching the child right and wrong, and not doing something just for the sake of a reward. Oftentimes, Kai’s reward consisted of enthusiastic praise for a job well done, rather than something more tangible. For a kid who soaked in praise, this was actually the best reward of all.

While my son no longer does ABA therapy, he still receives a lot of positive reinforcement for maintaining good behavior. As I mentioned before, his school uses a point sheet, among other things, and gives privileges to kids who perform up to expectations.

At home, in addition to continuing to regularly praise him when he does well, we sometimes will provide a special incentive for Kai. Last fall, when he was having major incidents at school nearly every week, we set up a reward system for him where he could earn a prize for a good, incident-free week of school. After we set up the program, he put together several good weeks in a row and finally made it to Level 2 at school.

With the onset of the new year, we had not intended on continuing that incentive. We thought we would see how he did at school for a few weeks before we decided whether or not to start it up again. But, we forgot to tell Kai that.

When he came home from school last Friday, he was filled with glee as he said he had another good day at school and that completed a good week. Therefore, we would go to a Mexican restaurant, which was to have been the next reward on the list. I tried to explain to him that we weren’t doing that right now. But, when my wife went to pick him up at school yesterday, the aide who brought him out said, “Kai was so happy at school today because you are going to a Mexican restaurant tonight. That is so nice!” When my wife relayed that story to me, we decided to go to the restaurant after all. I was a bit reluctant, but he did do a good job at school last week.

So, we went and…

Kai had a fabulous time. Before we went, we reminded him that he had to use his quiet voice. He got excited a few times, but he was mostly very well behaved. When the waiter came to take our drink orders, Kai was already telling him that he wanted a taco, and corn chips and salsa. And, though he got up from the table and walked around a few times, he ate the entire taco nicely, and an extra one, too, as well as most of our big basket of chips. He even waited somewhat patiently for Mom and Dad to finish eating. It was the best experience we ever had with him at a restaurant.

As we were leaving, he kept saying, “This is the best restaurant I’ve ever been to!”

It turned out to be a great reward for him.

But, you know something? Seeing him so well behaved and happy was a huge reward for me, too.

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