Be Careful What You Reinforce: You Just Might Get It

A few weeks ago, my husband and our 6 1/2-year-old autistic son visited our oldest daughter and her husband for an annual family get-together. They don’t have children, which means they also don’t have a verbal filter. Can you predict where this is going?

When we walked in, the three grandpups, excited at the arrival of guests, barked and jumped. My daughter ordered “Shut Up, Lady” to her Huskie mix. My autistic son joined in on barking orders to the barking dog and mimicked his sister. “Shut Up, Lady” he shouted which was promptly reinforced by an eruption of laughter.

I suggested she change the phrase into something like “Be Quiet, Lady” or “Inside Voice, Lady.” But both my daughter and Lady weren’t accustomed to those phrases, so “Shut Up, Lady” kept sneaking out anytime the pup barked. My son would echo his sister and everyone (except for Party Pooper Mom) laughed.

So then I asked the other adults, at bare minimum, to ignore him if he said it. The laughter had become positive reinforcement. He was learning that “Shut Up” is highly preferred by others. I said, “He’s going to go to school and repeat that to his peers.” The other adults were like, “Nah, he’ll know not to do that.”

Well, fast forward to the following Monday, and guess what report I received from both school and therapy? Yep, my son ordering his peers to “Shut Up.” Now even though no one laughed, he did receive a hefty amount of attention from his peers, teachers, and therapists. And, to most children attention, whether positive or negative, is still attention.

It’s been a week. He is now taking a Kind Folder to school and therapy each day and he grades himself on his level of Kindness. We’ve discussed in great detail what Kind looks like versus Unkind, both in the words you say to others and the actions you take. And I’m pleased to report, the use of Unkind phrases, such as “Shut Up,” has declined.

The point is, learning an inappropriate behavior is WAY easier for a child than unlearning it. My daughter thinks the whole ordeal has been comical. And from her side of the fence, I’m sure it is. But on our side, we have to consistently remain diligent in what our son hears and sees. Because, if enough reinforcement comes his way, he’ll pack what he’s learned from it into his little arsenal of attention-seeking tools.

Children seldom misquote you. In fact, they usually repeat word for word what you shouldn’t have said.

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Amy Nielsen

Amy Nielsen is a former children's librarian of nearly twenty years. She now spends most of her time obsessively pounding on a keyboard. She is the author of It Takes a Village: How to Build a Support System for Your Exceptional Needs Family, Goldilocks and the Three Bears: Understanding Autism Spectrum Disorder. Her upcoming YA Worth it debuts in May of 2024. She is also a freelance writer for The Autism Helper. When she's not writing, she and her family are most likely crusing the waters of Tampa Bay.