April 25, 2024 | Mental Health Therapy

Punishment Vs. Reinforcement

Disciplining and educating children on what is right and wrong are appropriate ways of instilling good behaviors in them. However, teaching good behaviors is challenging for parents without guidance from autism therapy support, considering many find it difficult to understand non-verbal communication cues. In addition, disciplining a child, especially one with autism, requires great patience, and as a result, most parents are torn between reinforcement and punishment strategies when implementing discipline.


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In behavior psychology, reinforcement introduces a favorable condition or stimulus to a child's desired behavior that is likely to happen or continue in the future. There are two basic types of reinforcement, namely negative and positive reinforcements. Both can be effective and useful when applied correctly in shaping a child with autism. Parents can also use reinforcement to teach a child the right skills for use in the future, such as table manners, communication, socialization, and self-helping.


●       Positive Reinforcement

Positive reinforcement involves adding a pleasant stimulant to enhance the desired behavior. For instance, a parent might reward a child by giving them access to their favorite toys for good and polite behavior. However, parents should not always reward children with something tangible. The use of verbal praise to applaud the child for displaying positive actions is highly encouraged. This lets the child know that their actions were appropriate and motivates them to continue displaying these positive behaviors. It also helps them to feel good about themselves, which is something children with autism continuously struggle with.


●       Negative Reinforcement

With negative reinforcement, parents remove an aversive or undesirable stimulus to enhance or increase a behavior. This method, however, rarely works with children with autism as they need direct instructions and ways to work within the structure their autism level requires.


How Does Reinforcement Help Change Behavior

Reinforcement is an effective tool in promoting good behavior among both neurotypical and neurodivergent children when applied correctly. Using reinforcement might not get you the most intended results, but it is the most appropriate tool to promote desirable behavior. Parents should also consider the interest of each child and identify their motivation accordingly when using reinforcement to ensure positive behavior change.



Punishing children with autism to make an undesired behavior less likely to occur is not a method that works well. It is crucial to understand positive reinforcement aims to increase a desirable behavior while punishment aims to decrease undesirable behaviors.


There are two kinds of punishments:


●       Positive Punishment

Positive punishment, also known as punishment by application, is the most common type of punishment people know. Positive punishment involves introducing an aversive stimulus after an undesirable behavior has occurred. For instance, a parent might scold or use verbal warning when a child with autism misbehaves. This method has been shown to be the least effective for children with autism. It lacks the structure needed for even children with a Level 1 diagnosis.


●       Negative Punishment

Negative punishment involves taking away a pleasant stimulus to discourage a behavior. In this case, parents might take a child's favorite toy when they get messy and fail to clear up the room after playing. In the future, the child will avoid cluttering the room or clear it up after playing to prevent their toys from being taken away. This also does not work for children with autism, no matter what level they are diagnosed with, even though this may work for neurotypical children.

The Role of Positive Reinforcement in Making Behavioral Changes

Positive reinforcement is most effective for children with autism. The goal is to teach appropriate social, academic, communication, and behavior skills that will become a regular part of their life as they grow and develop. Positive reinforcement is ideal for this because, as children, they are drawn to positive words and actions, and even as adults we tend to find ways to avoid things we don’t like.

Why Choosing Reinforcement Is Vital For Children with Autism

There are a variety of ways to encourage or discourage the behavior. However, choosing reinforcement over punishment is more effective. First, the process is painless (emotional or physical) and involves dialogue over physical action. It also promotes bonding between parents or guardians with children with autism. The key to implementing reinforcement successfully is consistency.

Call Marshall Pediatric Therapy Today For Therapy Service for Children with Autism

Parents can get in touch with our experts at Marshall Pediatric Therapy for more information since understanding the difference between punishment and reinforcement when parenting can be difficult.

Contact Marshall Pediatric Therapy at any of our multiple locations for all therapy services for your child with autism.