"Are you telling me I'm supposed to bribe my student into learning?"
This is one of the most irritating questions I get as I travel around my state working with teachers of students with ASD. Variations are, "Why should I bribe him into doing something he's supposed to do?" or "I don't believe in bribing my students!" Okay, neither do I. However, it's perfectly clear that the teacher or administrator making this statement does not understand the difference between bribe and incentive. Dictionary.com gives the definition of bribe as "money or any other valuable consideration given or promised with a view to corrupting the behavior of a person," and freedictionary.com similarly defines the term as "a gift offered to persuade a person to do something, usually dishonest." Definitions of bribe usually involve negative connotations - such as bribing officials, politicians, or others in positions of power to gain undue influence. Is that what we're doing with students with ASD when we offer a reward for completing their schoolwork or successfully learning a new skill?
Of course not. There is a real difference between earning a reward through hard work and being bribed to do something unearned or corrupt. According to thefreedictionary.com, the definition of the term incentive is "an additional payment made to employees as a means of increasing production." Incentives are used to increase motivation to work hard in order to gain a productive and positive end goal. Our country was built on the premise of working hard to achieve the American Dream. We all work at our jobs, getting paid in money at the end of the month for what we have done. The principle of "no work, no money" gives us our incentive to work.
Would any of us be happy to work an entire month only to be given nothing at the end of it?
As adults, we can envision the further rewards or incentives we will buy with the money we have earned as the result of our hours of labor. Since we have the ability to set long-term goals we know we can set part of our paycheck aside in savings or make payments towards the purchase of food, clothing, a car or a house. Children, however, live more in the moment. We offer immediate incentives so they will understand how to build toward long-term goals.
It is easier to teach typical children - who have a better ability to see the long-term goal of getting into a college or to get a good job after graduation - that putting effort into homework and earning As on their papers is worth it. But for many students with ASD who do not understand long-term goals, the grade on their paper means nothing at all. A college-bound high school student with Asperger's and an IQ of 130 may not understand that he needs to complete his assignment so he can get an A on his paper in order to increase his chances of getting into college. The work remains undone and his grades drop. For him, good grades are not an incentive to work hard.
Kristina is wrong when she says she's using "bribes" to get Max to cooperate in doing homework or other tasks. Max works hard to earn his Skittles because this small reward helps him challenge his intellect and ability and push beyond the wall of his autism. It is not a bribe; it is an incentive. If he had his preference he wouldn't do these tasks, but the Skittles encourage him to try. By trying, he is learning new skills essential to his independence. Although the tasks are not his preferred activities, Skittles are a preferred item. The incentives encourage him to do as Kristina asks.
Incentive programs can teach many lessons in life, but they must match the ability and understanding level of the individual. Surprisingly, one of the biggest mistakes made in educating students with ASD is offering a "reward" not wanted by the individual. By definition, that is not a "reinforce" and the student remains unmotivated. I'm happy to earn my paycheck at the end of the month; I wouldn't be happy to do my job if I earned a packet of stones. Why should someone with ASD be happy to earn a letter grade on a paper if he or she really wanted to earn computer time instead?
Listen to what the individual with ASD desires and work with him or her to achieve it. Life's lessons can be taught in any number of ways. Individuals with ASD will work hard to earn rewards that mean something to them - which is far different from being "bribed" to do something meaningless.
Written by Sheila Wagner, M.Ed.