Pairing: The Key to Turning Things Around for Kids with Autism

Whenever a child has problem behaviors it is most likely due to the demands being too high or reinforcement being too low. Any problem behavior can be analyzed in the same way. If we have a child who is falling to the ground and crying, we can look at that and we could say, “Okay, the demands are too hard and/or reinforcement is too low.” If we have a child with higher language skills arguing, we can say, “Okay the demands are probably too high and/or reinforcement is too low.” In either situation, the key here to turning things around is through pairing.

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When I say pairing I mean pairing ourselves, the work environment, table time, the materials, the room —- pairing all of this with reinforcement. Very few people really know as much as they need to about pairing and how to implement it.

If you go into a child’s house, and that child is not talking, has very few skills — it’s easier to see how you could pair. You could blow bubbles, for instance, and pair the word bubbles with blowing bubbles. You might tickle the child. The child is young and hopefully you’re at least getting some smiles and some reaching for the bubbles and popping the bubbles. That kind of feels more natural to people to pair with younger children, at least for limited play opportunities. But if you have an older child who is speaking in little phrases or even in full sentences and they are having problem behaviors, you can’t use the same techniques, but you definitely have to know how to pair yourself with reinforcement.

In this situation, say you have an eight year old who loves to play with Legos, but he loves to play with them alone. You’re going in for the first time and you’re thinking, “How can I pair myself with these Legos to make it more fun because he’s used to playing them himself.” I’d say with higher language kids it’s really important not to go in and bombard them with questions. Instead, sit back, watch them play with Legos and interject only occasionally. You can interject not with questions but, “Hey, I like that spaceship you just built. That is awesome.” Then you could wait another minute or two and make another comment and see if the child is beginning to warm up to you.

Another important point, when we talk about pairing with any child, is that there cannot be a pairing period and then an abrupt change to work. The change to increasing the demands and lowering the reinforcement has to be so subtle because if it’s not, the child will think, “Okay, they’re fun for the first five minutes of the session and then all the sudden it becomes not fun.” We want to make sure that we’re pairing throughout the session, throughout the day, throughout the activities and that we’re never going to abruptly change our behavior.

Basically we want the child to run to the door if you’re providing therapy in the home, to run to the station within your classroom to do work with you, to run to get a bath or to put their shoes on. If they’re not running to the task or at least walking there without any problem behavior, then I think you need to go back to the drawing board and look at ways you could increase the reinforcement and maybe make the demand a little bit easier.

Hopefully you got more information about pairing. Chapter four of my book is all about pairing. If you also want to have a sneak peek at my online courses, which I talk a lot about pairing in, you can go to the link right below this video to watch a four-part free video workshop and get a sneak peek at the procedures I use within my online courses. Thanks a lot. Happy pairing this week. I’ll see you next time.

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