Children with autism benefit from applied behavior analysis (ABA) therapy, the current leading evidence-based treatment to support positive behavioral change. In ABA therapy, response cost is a term associated with removal of a reward.

For example, an ABA therapist may want the child to make more eye contact, so they ask the child to make eye contact for a certain amount of time in order to receive a reward. If the child does not complete this task, they are not punished, but they do not receive the reward. This is response cost.

The concept of response cost is typically integrated into token economies, which are used in several settings, including therapy sessions.

Autism & ABA Therapy

Applied behavior analysis (ABA) therapy is the leading method for managing symptoms of autism, especially in children.

Autism is a developmental disorder that manifests in differences in socializing, communication, cognition, and, sometimes, motor coordination. While some people do not receive an autism diagnosis until they are teenagers or adults, most signs of autism begin early enough that a pediatrician can diagnose them.

Around 2 years old, children may develop symptoms like:

  • Avoiding eye contact, including with caregivers.
  • Limited use of language, including using fewer words, regressing in language learning and use, or plateauing at learning words or sentence structure.
  • Becoming upset at changes, even minor changes in routine.
  • Having little or decreasing interest in socializing with peers or caregivers.

ABA therapy approaches are valuable for people with autism, no matter when they receive the diagnosis. However, this approach to treatment is most valuable in young children, so they can learn strong communication skills, improve socializing skills, and develop their ability to focus on tasks. Research continually shows that the earlier intervention is given, the better the long-term results.

Response Cost in the Context of Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA)

Behavioral therapy uses several techniques to support children with autism as they improve these skills. Behavioral change is a learning process, and one method that ABA therapists may use involves operant conditioning techniques, which were originally pioneered in the 1950s by B.F. Skinner.

One concept associated with operant conditioning, as it is currently used in ABA therapy, is response cost. This is usually defined as the negative consequence or outcome of a response from the client, such as a child with autism. For example, the child may be given time to play with a favorite toy if they are able to ask for it instead of simply taking it. However, if they fall back on the original maladaptive behavior, the toy may be taken from them as response cost.

At its most basic, response cost involves removing a stimulus. For an ABA therapist, this is a method of reinforcing behavioral change by failing to reward maladaptive behaviors in any way, including with attention.

It is part of positive reinforcement, an approach to supporting personal improvements by offering rewards for improvement and disincentives, which are not punishments, for regressing into previous behaviors. Removing positive reinforcement typically results in lower frequency of the maladaptive behaviors.

This approach to encouraging behavioral change works better than negative reinforcement, in which maladaptive behaviors are directly punished. ABA therapy no longer uses the punishment approach to treatment because it has been criticized as both ineffective and harmful.

The Token Economy: Rewards & Response Costs

One approach to applying response cost during ABA therapy sessions is through a token economy. This is a common behavioral therapy method that has several applications. For example, teachers often use token economies in their classrooms as a method of encouraging all their students to focus on tasks, complete assigned work, and participate in classroom discussions.

ABA therapists use token economies to support behavioral changes like:

  • Visualizing progress toward a goal.
  • Understanding delayed reinforcement.
  • Learning to self-regulate behavior.
  • Learning to self-monitor behavior.

A therapist, teacher, or parent should determine what tokens will motivate the child. This starts with identifying the target behavior that should be changed. For example, a goal may be to encourage a child with autism to participate in a socializing activity with their therapist rather than playing alone. Then, the therapist will find ways to encourage that change in behavior.

It is helpful to have a list of reinforcers and backup reinforcers. These are items or activities that the child enjoys, which can easily be introduced as a reward or removed as response cost. Some of these items should be readily available in the child’s environment, whether it is a classroom, therapy office, or home.

ABA specialists recommend introducing a reinforcer for five minutes or less, which helps to keep the reinforcers novel. It also prevents the child from becoming bored or hyper-focused on one type of reward. Specialists note that it is helpful to use two to three reinforcers at a time during therapy sessions or in class, and to vary these between sessions.

In the early stages of learning with a token economy, you can reinforce what the token is there for by pairing it with praise. This helps the child learn that the token is given for a specific behavioral change.

For example, if a young child with autism struggles to sit still, a token can be given for their success when they do sit still for a certain amount of time. If they stop sitting still before the time is up, the therapist may remove the token, which is the response cost for not completing the request.

Fading Out the Token Economy Is Different From Response Cost

The ultimate goal of using a token economy is to encourage positive behavioral change, which means that this tool must gradually be phased out. Behaviors are then generalized rather than associated with specific tasks that have specific rewards.

Creating a plan to phase the token economy out, without this process seeming like punishment through response cost, is an important last part of behavioral change. This stage encourages the child not only to generalize behaviors, but to find internal motivation to continue this change.

There are a few ways to begin fading the token economy.

  • The therapist may require more frequent or longer demonstrations of adaptive behaviors before the client receives the reward.
  • The therapist may give direct rewards less often but increase the reinforcers that are available in the natural environment.
  • The therapist may dispense rewards more intermittently or randomly.

For older children, it may be possible to transfer the token economy to the client, which can help them reflect on their behavioral change and improve internal motivation to continue this process. The client can work with their therapist to discuss their maladaptive behaviors, reflect on ways to encourage these changes through earning tokens, and help with the list of reinforcers and backup reinforcers. This also allows the client to understand response costs and how these reflect the potential negative impact of maladaptive behaviors in the outside world.

Using Rewards & Response Costs Works Well for Children With Autism

Response cost often works better than introducing an averse or negative stimulus, especially in ABA therapy for children with autism. If a punishment is used, the child will tend to feel bad about a behavior, which may cause stress that can inadvertently increase the frequency of maladaptive behaviors.

Instead, using rewards to encourage adaptive or positive behaviors, and then introducing response cost as a lack of reward rather than a direct punishment, can help children with autism link their changes to positive outcomes. Using this approach in the context of a token economy can help therapists, teachers, parents, and caregivers of children with autism develop a direct plan around rewards and response costs.

Like ABA therapy in general, response cost use doesn’t result in immediate results. Therapists repeatedly use this approach in regular sessions, and over time, the desired result becomes more likely. Talk to your child’s ABA therapist about how response cost can factor into their sessions.


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