Neurodiversity and Neuroaffirmative

In line with the neurodiversity and neuroaffirmative movements, we would like to draw your attention to alternative approaches to supporting autistic individuals. As a starting point please consider visiting the Therapist Neurodiversity Collective, and The Autistic Advocate. More on this to follow.

Disclaimer | By: Gavin Cosgrave | Reading Time: 3.3 minutes

Automatic Reinforcement

"Automatic reinforcement is reinforcement that is not mediated by the deliberate action of another person."
- Vaughan and Michael (1982, p. 219)

What is Automatic Reinforcement?

Automatic reinforcement occurs when a person's behaviour creates a favourable outcome without the involvement of another person (Cooper, Heron, & Heward, 2007).

You could say that a behaviour maintained by automatic reinforcement is “non-social” (Patel, Carr, Kim, Robles, & Eastridge, 2000) or that automatic reinforcement is ‘a reinforcement contingency that exists independent of the social environment’ (Falcomata, Roane, Hovanetz, & Kettering, 2004, p.83).

Basically, if another person is not involved with the function of the behaviour then this would be defined as “automatic reinforcement”. If another person is involved with the function of the behaviour this would be defined as “social reinforcement” or “socially mediated reinforcement” (Cooper et al., 2007).

For example, if you turn on your television then this is automatic reinforcement because you did it yourself but if you asked your friend to turn on the television this would not be automatic reinforcement because another person was involved; asking your friend to do it would be social reinforcement.

Automatic Positive and Negative Reinforcement

There are two classes of automatic reinforcement. The first is automatic positive reinforcement which occurs when a person obtains something as a result of their own behaviour.

The second is automatic negative reinforcement which occurs when a person gets away from something or avoids something as a result of their own behaviour (Miltenberger, 2008).

Automatic reinforcement shown broken down into positive and negative reinforcement.
Automatic reinforcement can have a positive or negative form.

Examples of automatic positive reinforcement include:

  • Brushing your hair because you want it to be neat
  • Dressing yourself
  • Putting salt on your own dinner to improve the taste of the food
  • Tying your shoelaces
  • Watching a movie because you enjoy it

Examples of automatic negative reinforcement include:

  • Washing your own hands to remove dirt
  • Cutting your own finger nails to reduce their length
  • Throwing out rubbish
  • Turning on your car windscreen wipers to remove rain water
  • Rubbing your leg to sooth the pain after banging it off a table edge

Take note that if a person brushed their hair to create a certain style before going on a night out and they did this because they think they get more attention from the opposite sex when they do, then this behaviour would be maintained by social reinforcement and not automatic reinforcement.

Self-Stimulation and Sensory Functions

Automatic reinforcement does not only occur when a person interacts with their environment; as is the case when someone turns on their TV or puts salt on their food.

Any behaviour that occurs without the involvement of another person and creates an internal state of pleasure or removes an internal state of displeasure (pain) can also be maintained by automatic reinforcement.

Behaviours maintained by these internal feelings are more commonly described as “self-stimulating” or “self-stimulatory (O’Neill, et al, 1997).

Examples could include ‘singing to yourself to produce auditory stimulation’ (LeBlanc, Patel, & Carr, 2000, p. 137) or scratching yourself to remove at itch (Cooper et al, 2007)

Automatic Reinforcement and Stereotypy

As described by Iwata et al (1994), some authors have used the term “stereotypy” to refer to behaviours that are not maintained by any social reinforcement. In essence this means that they were being described as occurring as a result of automatic reinforcement (self-stimulation).

However, to say that all stereotypic behaviours are maintained by automatic reinforcement is not accurate because stereotypy may function as self-stimulation for some people but for others it may function to obtain attention, to escape demands or obtain tangible items through the actions of other people (see Cunningham & Schreibman, 2008; Iwata et al, 1994; Kennedy, Meyer, Knowles, & Shukla, 2000 for discussions).

The term stereotypy is only describing the topography of a behaviour and it tells you nothing about its actual function.

A Small Clarification

It has been said that when ‘a behaviour occurs in the absence of other individuals, it is assumed to be maintained by automatic reinforcement’ (Rapp, Miltenberger, Galensky, Ellingson, & Long, 1999, p. 329). However, this may not always be the case because a behaviour can occur without a person present within the environment but the function of the behaviour will involve a person at a later stage.

Take a young boy who decides to draw a picture in his bedroom. Here the behaviour of drawing is occurring without another person present so it may appear to be occurring as a result of automatic reinforcement i.e. he could be getting an internal sense of pleasure from drawing or he wants a picture to put on his wall so does it himself.

But if this boy knows that he gets praise and social attention from his parents when they see his drawings this behaviour may be being maintained by social positive reinforcement and not automatic reinforcement. Just because a behaviour occurs in the absence of other people does not mean the behaviour does not have some form of social reinforcement maintaining it.

This “delay” in receiving reinforcement is described by Malott (2007) as an “analogue to reinforcement” because the consequence of the behaviour does not occur immediately after the behaviour.

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