Reinforcement Assessment is essential when writing any behavioral intervention plan. Reinforcement, when used correctly, has the power to shape desirable behaviors more effectively than many other approaches, especially for children with developmental disabilities that include autism spectrum disorders. Too often this part of the planning is underestimated and not given the attention required to identify the most meaningful and personally motivating reinforcers.
Over the years I have observed an increasing use of food (edibles) like candy and crackers in classroom behavior programs. I have heard people say that when asked about the use of candy as reinforcers in the classroom that “I would rather a child eat candy than not learn.” If candy were the only meaningful and personally motivating reinforcer for a child I would agree with this statement; however, the use of candy as a reinforcer should be used only when another suitable non-edible reinforcers can not be found and then for only until a suitable non-edible reinforcer can be identified.
My views about the use of candy and other simple carbohydrates (sugar) is based on the following reasons.
- The use of candy and other simple carbohydrates is most likely not needed for almost all of the children requiring a behavior plan because other more suitable reinforcers can be identified with a thorough reinforcement assessment.
- Edibles can loose the power to be effective because children can satiate on even a “good thing.” They can actually get too much sugar even in small servings to keep the power of the reinforcer constant.
- Most children with ASD have some degree of difficult accepting a variety of foods into their diets, preferring sameness. Using sugar as a reinforcement can develop unhealthy pallets for sweet foods making other foods less desirable. Given these challenge it is better not to reinforce unhealthy food choices.
- Many children with ASD have an aversion to toothbrushing and dental care. Candy and other simple carbohydrates in any quantity can add to the need for an increase dental care.
- Even small amounts of candy and other simple carbohydrates, especially when paired with inactivity, can cause children and teens to gain weight leading to other health problems.