Do Reward Systems For Kids On The Autism Spectrum really work? This mom’s opinion? It depends so be open to new ideas to see what works best for your child.
Everywhere you shop there seems to be some sort of reward system to keep you coming back. Whether points, stars or virtual punch cards, there is no shortage of gimmicks to get you to spend in order to save. As moms and dads, our parenting style can be similar. Who hasn’t promised a treat at any point during a grocery store visit in an effort to avoid a meltdown? Or a stop at a favorite place if we all behave at Grandpa’s house? But when it comes to autism parenting, does this reward model truly work?
This mom’s opinion? It depends.
Experts will wax poetic on both the value and ineffectiveness of such a system for these amazing kids. The truth, it appears, lies somewhere in between. Just like everyone else on this planet, no two kids on the Autism Spectrum are exactly alike, which means the use (or lack of use) of a reward system will vary.
So, let’s look at both sides of the punch card, so to speak. When do rewards tend to work? When don’t they?
In our experience, and from talking with other parents, reward systems work best when the customer (in this case, kid) understands the age-old concept, “What’s in it for me?” If you have a lengthy visit with friends or family, and your child craves some quiet time, promising that quiet time as a reward can be beneficial and work. If your child believes your word is your bond, then they will utilize “trust” and will likely cooperate, knowing they will receive their reward (down time) at a set point. Of course, we can switch out “quiet time” for any number of rewards, just as we can switch out “visit” with anything from behaving appropriately during shopping to the doctor’s office, etc.
One of the ways rewards work best is when they are used using the language your child speaks. For some, this means the reward is a treat, for others, it is more screen time, while for others it is together time with mom and dad. Understanding what types of things are enjoyable for your child will help create a successful system for both of you.
However, such systems don’t always work. Some of the reasons can be in the system itself. For example, if you have a rewards card for a store, but you must make 200 separate purchases to reach Level 1, you have little incentive to keep shopping. Or you burn out before you are close to hitting that mark. The same goes with kids. If you are asking a lot from your child and it will be quite a while until they realize that reward, then that system is likely to fail. For example, if you are traveling to visit family for a week and offer a reward for good behavior once that week is over, it probably won’t work. (However, small rewards along the way might.)
Another way these systems can fail will also sound familiar. Oft times, our kids are smarter than we give them credit for, and some will learn to game the system. They will learn that if I act up in public, mom (or dad) will give me something to keep me quiet. And, yes, that’s manipulation and it can start at any age.
One other way rewards don’t work is that for some kids, it’s not something they have any interest in. (Think about it; you don’t give a steak house gift card to a vegan.) Think about something you absolutely avoid and detest doing. For example, for some, it’s a ginormous roller coaster ride. For that individual, there is no reward in the universe that will encourage him to get on that ride.
When you consider your family and each circumstance where using a reward system is tempting, as yourself these questions:
1.) Is this a reward or a bribe? (Yes, there is a gray line here, but you get the picture.)
2.) Am I offering a reward when the reality is my child is manipulating me?
3.) Am I clear with my child on what is necessary to achieve the reward? (Autism Spectrum kids need crystal clear expectations.)
4.) Are my expectations realistic? (Autism Spectrum kids often have a hard time processing more than one directive at a time.)
For our family, we have used reward systems and they have worked but a few have failed. Like most things in parenting, much of it comes down to trial and error. Many studies do show that reward systems tend to work very well for Autism Spectrum kids, so be open to experimenting to find what works best for your situation.
Have you used a reward system with your family? How has it worked out for you? I’d love to hear from you!
Want to read more articles about children with Autism and SPD?
- Helping With School Anxiety In Children
- Telling Your Child They Have Autism
- Sensory Difficulties At Sporting Events
- Indulging Special Interests for Children