We must be consistent when teaching children on the autism spectrum

A Teaching Aside

This post is intended to let me muse a bit on my life as a scientist and how I apply scientific skills and scientific theory to my everyday work, that of teaching children on the autism spectrum. I hope it will also serve as an educational resource for families and educators that have worked to redirect problematic behaviors.

I am going to talk about the importance of being consistent over all other things when it comes to working with children (on the spectrum or not this still applies). We often use reward to help guide their behavior to be what we want, but in my experience, most of us do it incorrectly and give ourselves, and worse the poor children, more headaches than are necessary.

Consistency is key

I am going to talk explicitly about the use of rewards in the Special Education classroom, how they are given, what is expected, and how we mess it up on a daily basis. I am using a mixture of examples from my past living with my late twin autistic brother, from observing classrooms over the years as well as my current work in the Special Education classroom.

In every Special Education classroom I have ever seen there is a laminated/magnetic board at the front of the room with either dots, stars, or magnet that lets the kids know how close they are to receiving some kind of prize or reward (I will call these gold stars for simplicity from here on out). I also see clipboards, laminated cards, or a jar with tokens that can be placed in it that all signify a child’s individual progress toward a goal or reward. In my experience, these tools can be problematic and interfere with forward educational/behavioral progress.

Now, to be clear, I have no issue with these methods in and of themselves, I think it is wise to let the children know precisely where they stand. But I have found over the years that there is rarely any kind of consistency to what actually earns one of these gold stars. Sometimes if the class is loud and obnoxious those children sitting quietly get surprise stars for sitting so well. But the same behavior in a quiet classroom remains unrewarded. If a child is reasonably compliant they have to go above and beyond perfect behavior to be rewarded, but that same child, when having a bad day, has that behavioral requirement lowered.

So what exactly are we teaching these kids here?

In my opinion, we are teaching them that we cannot be trusted because we change the rules on them without telling them so. This is probably the worst lesson you can teach a child because they will learn to find shortcuts to circumvent you to receive what they want. I will explain what I mean by this below using an example from my days playing with rats and mice in a science lab.

Example from my life in a rat lab

We had a number of experiments that required the rats and mice to learn a series of movements or remember a spatial location to receive a 1/4 piece of Froot Loops cereal as a reward. This being the case, we kept these animals rather svelte and slightly hungry so they would be motivated to do what we wanted. Unfortunately, one of my student research volunteers did not listen to me when I said we had to wait 60 minutes after running the experiment to feed the animals. Instead, they ran the animals on their task, and immediately gave the animal their dinner. See the problem yet?
The grant total of 2-3 Froot Loops the animal would get through the experiment was nothing next to the dinner that they got immediately after finishing the task. Any guesses as to what the animals did?

If you guessed they just ran as fast as they could without regard for learning the task so they could get dinner faster, you are right. These rats could not have cared any less about what I wanted them to do. They knew they got rewarded by dinner when they finished. So they finished fast to get dinner sooner.

I fixed this by letting the student not feed the rats, and I fed them 90 minutes after they finished the experiment. This way, regardless how fast they performed the task, it as an hour and a half before they got food. Since now the premium was on getting the Froot Loops and not dinner, the rats learned the task rather quickly. Honestly, I think these rats knew the task but were running to the wrong place so the trial woud end faster and get them dinner faster. In other words, they manipulated the situation to maximize the amount of food they would get right now. They realized that they would get their daily food ration faster if they misbehaved, because they got it when they finished. This is both easier and faster than doing what I expect of them to receive a reward.

But my kid is definitely not a mouse?

So why did I go on a tangent into my mouse and rat research? Because it illustrates a scientific point that was elusive to my student and that I almost missed. It is the difference between a fixed ratio (specifically a continuous reinforcement) and a fixed time schedule for reinforcement. The difference between these two is that a fixed ratio means that every x-times the desired behavior occurs there is a reward. A fixed time means that after y-minutes, a reward is given regardless the behavior.

I bring this up because what I see in classrooms is twofold:

Firstly, the teachers have a very hard time watching the kids throw a conniption about not getting any rewards and they hate saying no. To avoid this discomfort, the teachers drop the bar for behavior (as I mentioned above). For example, if a kid is having a good day, they need to do 4 connect the dots pictures and color them in to get a star or a break to play with a favored toy. If the same kid is cranky or being a general butthead that day, oftentimes the bar is lowered so that to receive the same rewards the kid now has to only do 1 connect the dot and may not even have to color it in.

What did we just teach this kid? I would have learned real quick that life is easier and more rewarding if I am a general pain in the neck. Also I would learn that I am a chump if I work hard to get rewards. If I am patient, I will not have to work so hard to get the reward.
Secondly, at the end of the session when the other kids have finished and are having free time that they have earned, the teacher gives into the crying and tooth-gnashing and lets the child have a reward that they have not earned. Again, the child learned to wait the teacher out, life is easier if they are not obedient. Unearned rewards will always be provided and “No” just means not yet.

What is the solution?

Consistency, plain and simple. Hard rules and clear expectations that are written on stone.

My approach to kids that do not want to perform is simple. I look at the kid (who is usually trying to bite me, squirm away from me, smash my chest with their head, or cry so I let them out of the task), I look at them and tell them they have one simple choice, “Dude, you have a simple choice, you can either do what everyone else is doing at this table, or we can sit here and do nothing. Those are your choices. If you choose to sit here and do nothing that is fine by me, but you are going to have to do [the table’s activity] eventually, and I will wait you out. And I am more patient than you.” Invariably, at first they choose to try and wait me out in hope I will give up. They also invariably lose. Their table moves on, and they have to stay put and sit with me, unable to move on until they finish their task with me.

Subsequently (within a week actually), they all had learned that it was better to just do the task at hand because I am actually rather effusive with praise, social contact rewards (high fives or reading them a book), or simply just letting the kids go let off steam-whatever it is the kids need. Most of all, I never drop my expected standards of behavior. These kids now know precisely how to get praise/reward/time off/etc. from me. The kids know if they do what I ask them to do and the they show me their results, I will praise them, tell them they are done with the task, and ask what activity they want as a reward. These kids work hard for me because they know 100% of the time I will reward their awesomeness. And 100% of the time I will not reward anything less.

I know this sounds hard to do, and it can be at first. We all hate depriving kids of rewards and having them break down in front of us. Watching a child cry alligator tears or go into a rage because I just hijacked their well honed system and deprived them of a reward they expected (read: punished them) is not an easy thing to do. Here’s the bright side. Autistic kids by and large learn extremely fast because they catch on that I am consistent-within two days.


My point with all this is that we as educators (and parents) must above all other things be consistent with our children, particularly regarding those on the autism spectrum. These kids need and thrive on our consistency. When autistic children are being defiant in classes, chances are that they are responding to some inconsistency from us that just got in the way of their daily groove. And to be frank, that is our problem, not theirs. They are just trying to get through the day, and we have thrown a monkey wrench into their expectations and demand that they deal with it the way we want them to.

If we are clear, consistent, and true to our autistic loved ones, we make their lives easier. If we are vague, lazy, inconsistent, and false, we make their lives harder. I for one regret every time I was inconsistent with my brother. That is why I work so hard to make absolutely certain that I am predictable and a beacon of consistency for the kids I work with. They know what they get from me. And because of that I now know exactly what to expect from them.


3 thoughts on “We must be consistent when teaching children on the autism spectrum

  1. xoxosanaz90210 says:

    I see where you come from. I volunteer at an organisation that works with these kids with ASD. If there is change in their usual routine at home usually or even at school then they are cranky, reactive, just different from their usual self.


    • Michael H says:

      Exactly. Now imagine if you, the volunteer is the one actually causing this by your inconsistency. Most of us would be mortified, but as teachers sometimes we do precisely this without realizing it.


  2. Marilyn says:

    What you write is so true, it is a way of life you either learn or not. Being successful depends on it both for the teacher/parent or the child. It works with all kids not just autistic kids. Consistency makes things in life easier and worth doing and you see happier children/adults.


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