Verbal Behavior Approach: How to Teach Children with Autism and       Related Disorders [Mary Lynch Barbera]

Saturday, September 26, 2009

Pairing with Reinforcement: The First Step to Teaching Students with Autism

For all adults and children,  including students with autism, when you see problem behavior (crying, whining, hitting, biting, flopping to the ground, etc.), the demands are almost always too high and/or the reinforcement is too low.

If the child is displaying problem behaviors when the parent interacts with him, when the therapist arrives or when it is time to go to school, the parent, therapist, or teacher has most likely become aversive. He or she did not pair themselves well with reinforcement and has most likely made abrupt demands. To correct the situation, the adults need to learn about pairing themselves, the materials, and the environment with reinforcement.

If your child loves to play legos a certain way, for instance, the adult should sit next to him and let him play "his way" for a session or two. He or she should be taking notes about what the child likes during the first few sessions and the child’s reaction if the adult sits near him, talks, or plays alongside. During subsequent sessions the adult should interject comments, demands or questions very carefully.

The adult's demands should be so subtle that the child is unaware when pairing has stopped and demands have begun.

If the child is not running towards the people, classroom, therapy room, and/or the materials, pairing most likely needs to be addressed. Pairing is not a once and done activity. It needs to happen every day as new  activities, people and materials are introduced.

Chapter 4 of my book (The Verbal Behavior Approach) should help you learn more about pairing.


  1. Thank-you for all your help! (Sorry this query is so long?) Of course you are emphasizing pairing towards reinforcing the teaching relationship to facilitate the student's interest to learning, with the teacher, in that regard (if not of respect?) What problems do you typically encounter with pairing? Is it not also equally problematic to pair/try to reinforce the relationship "too much"? (of spoiling, even?) or, excuse the expression, is the devil in the details of getting it right, (of moderation and balance? realizing that time and money is also of the essence?) if not adjusting for what is right on a regular basis, somewhat? And also, is there a danger of coming across as contrived, which I guess might appear so where you weren't consistently projecting that you are feeling as would be suggested by your behavior? (As being satisfied [and perhaps in control, Thereof] with what you're doing? or perhaps children don't tend to notice such things?

    I suppose this pairing thing would also have to eventually be streamlined into what is natural and context appropriate, (typical?) perhaps of Communication or such reciprocally mutually beneficial/rewarding relationship or process, thereof? (Dare we suggest, of being social?)

    To simplify all that (where needed?) would you not propose that following the child's lead, of interests, (where the child demonstrates s/he has any) might not be such an incompatible (to ABA?) way to start, somehow dovetailing towards what you feel the child/student should also be learning? (Where it doesn't come up in the child-leading process? of pairing?) of providing whatever secondary, (secondary to what might be inherently/primarily interesting and motivating in and of itself?) secondary reinforcements might be required to facilitate that?

    I heard that reinforcement pairing can be as much as 80% of what we have to be doing, (of our interactions with the child/student, of teaching?) at least to start? Generally, is that the way it is with your practice? (That must drive some parents/clients batty?!? with regard to seeing any meaningful results soon enough? relatively speaking? or does the pairing process you recommend yield more results sooner than Lovaas style ABA, etc?)(Maybe it's "old-school" trainers/conditioners that go "batty" with the heavy-on-the-pairing approach? .. . I can imagine

    I would think many if not most "parents," as the primary care-givers, are "primed" to be accepted teachers, (for their children?) of probably already being paired, for the sake of teaching, of their primary care-giving ways? more than most would be, would you say? (Where they are helped with how and what to teach, perhaps, of what you [and others] can do for them?

    Where you should find the time, and interest, of Course? .. .



  2. Mike,
    I think you ask some very good questions. There are a couple recent blogs on the Lovaas Institutes website that give some insight into how/why you might spend more or less time on one particular skill: Mands vs. Tacts at

    I think you are correct that often "the devil is in the details." It is nearly impossible to get across in a single paragraph or book the intricacies of treatment decisions. Most critiques of "Lovaas style" vs. "Verbal Behavior" or ABA Therapy vs. Floor-time approaches take some guideline and treat it rigidly whereas a good behavior consultant understands why the guideline is there and treats a child individually, based on those guidelines.

    -Vince LaMarca
    Behavior/Program Consultant
    Lovaas Institute - Indianapolis