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When it comes to replacing undesirable behaviors with those that are more appropriate, long-term actions, operant conditioning is often a preferred method of choice. While understanding operant conditioning’s objectives may be straightforward, grasping the differences between punishment and reinforcement, both positive and negative, may take a bit more explaining.

Let’s look at the ins and outs of punishment and reinforcement and how they can be useful in ABA.

  • What is Operant Conditioning?
  • Punishment vs. Reinforcement
  • What is Punishment?
  • What is Reinforcement?
  • Using Punishment Effectively
  • Positive Reinforcement and ABA Therapy
  • Understanding Positive Reinforcement
  • Measuring the Success of Positive Reinforcement


What is Operant Conditioning

Operant conditioning is how one learns to increase or decrease specific behaviors. This form of conditioning is possible by making associations between one’s behavior and receiving a positive or negative consequence for that action.


Punishment vs. Reinforcement

In ABA therapy, it’s essential to understand that punishment and reinforcement are not associated with our typical understanding of good versus bad. Nor does it imply any form of physical, verbal, or emotional punishing. Both punishments and reinforcements can be either positive or negative. Let’s break down their meanings, mainly how they apply to children when implementing ABA strategies.

In simplest terms, positive means to add, while negative means to take away.

Often, this refers to a meaningful object or reward, such as:

  • Screen time on an iPad or tv
  • A favorite toy
  • Extra time outdoors


What is Punishment?

Punishment is a term that refers to decreasing specific target behavior. While positive punishment involves adding something unpleasant to a situation to decrease a child’s behavior, negative punishment involves removing something from the situation to decrease the target behavior.


What is Reinforcement?

In contrast, when implementing ABA strategies, reinforcements offer a way to increase a child’s target behavior. Positive reinforcement offers a desirable incentive as a reward to increase, strengthen, or replace a target behavior. Negative reinforcement involves taking the desirable stimulus out of the situation to increase the child’s target behavior.

While it does take a bit of adjustment in our natural thought process – understanding how positives can be useful in punishment and negatives can assist in reinforcements – they can offer astounding long-term results when implemented correctly. These results are particularly true for ABA practices.


Using Punishment Effectively

Using punishment as a behavior-modifying technique can be useful in various situations by parents, teachers, and ABA therapy team members. To clear up any further confusion, think of positive punishment’s primary goal as a tool to deter your child from undesirable behavior. For instance, if your child spent extra time on her iPad while neglecting to make her bed for the day, a parent could add an extra chore, such as gathering up her laundry. In this situation, the parent will use positive punishment – the additional chore – to help her realize she should spend less time on her iPad tomorrow before making up her bed. Doing so will condition her to decrease her screen time, make time to make up her bed, and eliminate the additional chore.


Positive Reinforcement and ABA Therapy

Once science was able to demonstrate that the use of positive reinforcement was successful in creating new behaviors and skills, it slowly began to replace the harsh and abusive treatment of individuals with autism. ABA therapy brought new approaches and success stories, replacing the horrible treatment of behavioral change in those with autism.

The use of positive reinforcement became an essential component in ABA therapy. It plays a critical role in the teaching, replacement, and strengthening of appropriate behaviors. When implementing positive reinforcements correctly and consistently, replacement behaviors become a new, long-term action. The utilization of positive reinforcement becomes a powerful tool for ABA professionals, but also caregivers, parents, and family members who work towards the behavioral goals of children with autism.


Understanding Positive Reinforcement

Positive reinforcement provides undeniable results, making it known for being one of the most effective behavioral management forms for children with autism and behavioral issues. When using positive reinforcement in combination with ABA therapy, potentially harmful behaviors may also be replaced with new, healthier behaviors. Using this style of reward system focuses on finding a reward that is personal to each child. Positive reinforcements should consist of favorite items or privileges your child finds most meaningful and willing to work towards earning. A favorite toy or game on your phone will strengthen the likelihood the child will continue to revert to the new behavior. Ultimately, the objective is for this personalized reward, chosen by your child’s ABA therapist, to provide enough excitement and encouragement, eventually leading to the adoption of new, positive behavior.

If your child’s ABA team is not seeing the demonstration of a desirable behavior or skill, the child will not receive their reward. It is essential to repeat the modeling process as often as necessary, providing your child with ample time to learn and repeat the new skills and behaviors independently. While this may seem a difficult task, your ABA professionals will work closely with you to give plenty of guidance and modeling of each step.

The most meaningful reinforcers help children with autism learn to adopt new behaviors throughout all areas of development, including life skills. The consistent use of positive reinforcement implements change and strengthens reoccurrence. Here’s how the pairing of positive reinforcement with ABA therapy should look:

  • The child demonstrates an undesirable behavior
  • ABA therapist introduces a replacement behavior through modeling, immediately after observing the undesirable behavior
  • A positive reward praises them for using the new behavior
  • When the child begins to revert to the replacement behavior, collecting the reinforcer for a job well done, it will begin to increase the likelihood of future reoccurrence


Measuring the Success of Positive Reinforcement

So, how do we measure the success of these ABA strategies using positive reinforcement? Through proper modeling and consistency, new skills and behaviors will begin to reoccur with less guidance. In time, the need for reinforcers to produce these changes will also diminish. Once the child can demonstrate the replacement behavior without prompting or rewards, it officially becomes a successfully mastered goal.

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How Children Develop Speech


Speech bubbles

Understanding how your child develops speech and language skills can help you recognize and support their development. When your child receives a diagnosis of autism, these typical milestones for communication look different. By seeking early intervention, in combination with ABA therapy best practices, you can significantly increase your child’s ability to develop the speech and language skills they need to communicate as efficiently as possible.

Speech and Language Development

During your child’s first three years of life, their brain is developing rapidly, the most critical period for acquiring vital speech and language skills. Speech and language skills develop best when you immerse your child in an array of sights, sounds, and consistent exposure to others’ speech and language, across all their natural environments.

There are crucial periods for your child’s speech and language development during infancy and early childhood. During these critical periods, the brain absorbs language most rapidly and effectively. When children do not receive proper exposure to speech and language during these critical windows, communication learning becomes more difficult. While each child varies in speech and language development, a basic guideline for these milestones can help determine your child’s progression.


What Is Speech?

Think of speech as how we say and form sounds and words. Children develop speech

by learning a combination of motor movements with their jaw, mouth, cheek muscles, and tongue, they begin to form and produce sounds, leading to words. Speech includes many components, including:


Voice is the use of vocal folds and breaths to form sounds. Our voice can be soft, loud, high- or low-pitched.


Articulation is how we form speech sounds using our lips, mouth, and tongue.


Fluency refers to the rhythm of speech, which allows us to express ourselves articulately.

Speech bubble

What Is Language?

Language refers to the words we use. It encompasses how we use them to express desires and needs. Developing language includes what you express and understand, both verbally and nonverbally. Language includes reading and writing, as well as:

  • The meaning of the words we use when they have more than one representation
  • How new words form to express different meanings
  • The order in which we use words to form proper thoughts and sentences
  • Knowing how to express the words you choose

Language development supports your child’s ability to communicate, understand, and express feelings while supporting:

  • Problem-solving
  • Thinking strategies
  • Ability to develop and maintain relationships

Learning to use and understand language is also a critical step to:

  • Foundation for learning
  • Literacy
  • Reading
  • Writing

Speech and Language: The Differences

Many children experience a combination of speech and language needs but can have one without the other. It’s important to note the differences between speech and language learning and disorders. Children who have difficulty understanding receptive language – what others say – or difficulty sharing their wants, feelings, and needs – expressive language – may have a language disorder. Children with speech difficulties may:

  • Have trouble producing correct speech sounds
  • Stutter or hesitate when speaking
  • Struggle with correctly combining sounds and syllables to form words, known as apraxia of speech

How Autism Affects Communication

Children with ASD struggle with the ability to communicate and interact with others successfully. Your child may have difficulty developing speech and language skills and understanding what others are trying to express. Even communicating nonverbally is a challenge, such as:

  • Hand gestures
  • Eye contact
  • Facial expressions

Your child’s ability to use speech and language skills may depend on their intellectual and social development. Some children with autism may not be able to communicate using speech or language, while others have limited speaking skills. Others have an extensive vocabulary, able to talk extensively about particular subjects.

Children with autism typically face issues with the meanings and rhythms of words and sentences. They have trouble understanding body language and vocal tones, limiting their ability to interact with others socially.

Children with autism tend to exhibit the following speech and language difficulties:

Repetitive or Rigid Language

Children with autism who can speak will often say things that lack meaning or do not relate to the current conversations. For instance, immediate echolalia occurs when a child repeats words another person says, in person or from media. Your child may also respond to a question with the same question.

With delayed echolalia, the child will repeat words from a previous conversation.

Some children with autism speak with a high-pitch, sing-song voice, or use robotic-like speech patterns. Others use generic or informal phrases to begin a conversation, even around friends, family, and regular caregivers.


Exceptional Abilities and Narrow Interests

While some children with ASD can have in-depth conversations about a topic that greatly interests them, they may not have the ability to make this a two-way conversation. Others have musical talents or advanced abilities, such as exceptional mathematical skills. In fact, roughly ten percent of children with autism possess exceptional skills in areas including:

  • Memorization
  • Music
  • Math
  • Art

Uneven Language Development

Many children with autism develop some speech and language skills, but progress is typically uneven. Your child may develop a strong vocabulary in an area of great interest, while other areas will seem stagnant. They may be able to read words easily, but not register their meaning. You may also notice your child may not respond to others, even if addressing them by name.


Lacking in Nonverbal Skills 

Gestures are often a struggle for children with autism. During ABA therapy sessions, nonverbal cues are often a primary goal. Parents and caregivers benefit significantly by learning and using ABA techniques for this very purpose. Implementing ABA strategies, such as positive reinforcement, will help strengthen your child’s ability to communicate with nonverbal actions, such as gestures successfully.

Children with ASD often avoid eye contact, appearing to have a lack of interest or being inattentive. The use of meaningful gestures and other nonverbal skills will help enhance their language skills. Repetition and modeling through ABA practice will enhance these abilities, allowing your child to bypass frustration in their attempts to express feelings and needs. This may significantly reduce outbursts or other inappropriate behaviors they may commonly display. Through the consistent practices of ABA, your child will learn to form appropriate and acceptable behaviors, while adopting these new skills.

The most common speech and language struggles for children with autism are:


Roughly one in three people with autism struggles producing speech sounds effectively:

  • Babbling with word-like sounds
  • Parroting
  • Nonverbal
  • Grunting, shrieks, harsh sounds, and cries
  • Hums or talks in a musical rhythm
  • May use the correct words and sentences but uses an expressionless tone of voice


  • Ability to memorize but lack understanding
  • Difficulty with conversational skills
  • Struggles with eye contact and gestures
  • Heavy reliance on echolalia to communicate
  • Struggles with understanding the meaning of words and symbols

Treating Speech and Language Issues with Autism and ABA in Mind

Autism is typically evident before a child reaches the age of three. Speech and language delays can be recognizable as early as eighteen months of age. It is vital to begin therapy as early as possible, to have the most significant impact. Children with an autism diagnosis will receive referrals to an array of specialists, including a speech-language pathologist. Your child’s speech-language pathologist will perform a comprehensive evaluation of their abilities to communicate. Upon completion, your child’s team will meet and discuss individualized goals and create a course of treatment.

ABA therapy is also vital in the success of your child’s achievements and will significantly benefit your family. Your child’s ABA team will work alongside you to train and educate you on strategies. With your child’s entire ABA team, you will have the necessary resources to continue best practices at home and in all-natural environments.

Children with speech and language delays often require extra help and individual instruction. Speech-language pathologists work directly with you, your child, caregivers, and teachers. Addressing the needs of children with ASD through speech and language therapy improves their communication skills. It is essential to begin early intervention therapies, including ABA, to help them thrive and meet their full potential. While there are various approaches, the most effective therapy programs begin during their preschool years. Successful sessions tailor goals towards your child’s specific interests, as you will notice with ABA therapy. ABA and communication therapy sessions will address your child’s behaviors and communication skills through consistent modeling and positive reinforcement.

Children with autism typically respond better to a program with structure and predictable routines. Your child’s ABA team will work with you to develop a schedule to carry out strategies, so you are a part of your child’s daily treatment programs.

Some children with autism never develop oral speech and language skills. The goal for them may be learning primary forms of communication through gestures, including sign language. Other children may learn to communicate with a symbol system, using images to express themselves.  A symbol system may range from using picture boards and cards to electronic devices that generate speech.

The Speech-Language Process: What to Expect

Speech-language pathologists are an essential part of your child’s autism treatment team. Your child will benefit from early screening by a speech therapist. Speech therapists are often the first source of recognizing and diagnosing autism and making necessary referrals to other specialists, including ABA therapists.

When your child first receives a diagnosis of autism, a speech therapist will complete a full assessment to determine a course of action. Enhancing your child’s quality of life is of the utmost importance. Throughout therapy sessions, their speech-language pathologist will work closely with your family, school, additional caregivers, and other ABA professionals to ensure everyone is on the same page, working towards their goals. Your child’s therapist may recommend the use of:

  • Massage and exercise of their lips and facial muscles to improve articulation
  • Electronic gadgets which “speak” for your child
  • Signing or typing
  • Picture boards, picture exchange communication systems, and other image-communication devices

Benefits of Speech Therapy for ASD

Speech therapy helps improve your child’s overall communication skills. This dramatically increases your child’s ability to form relationships, respond appropriately in situations, communicate wants and needs, and function to the best of their ability in daily life.

Specific goals of speech therapy for children with ASD you will become familiar with include:


  • Articulation of words
  • Communicate verbally and nonverbally
  • Understand verbal and nonverbal communication
  • Understanding the intentions of others in various settings
  • Initiate communication without prompting
  • Understand and recognize appropriate times and places to communicate and how to communicate
  • Develop adequate conversational skills
  • Ability to successfully exchange ideas
  • Communicate in ways to develop relationships
  • Communicate, play, and interact with peers and caregivers
  • Learn to self-regulate



Additional Speech and Language Tips

Parents and caregivers are the first and most essential teachers during a child’s early years. Children quickly absorb and learn language by listening and practicing, so integrating ABA strategies is imperative. Help develop your child’s speech and language skills by:

  • Responding to their sounds, gurgles, and gestures, even at infancy
  • Repeat what they say and continue the conversation to introduce new words
  • Talk about the world around them, pointing to what you see
  • Ask questions and encourage responses
  • Telling stories often
  • Utilize songs and rhymes
  • Encourage your child’s speech and language development by talking together – whether it’s things that interest your child or exploring new topics. Follow their lead and note what they may show you, point to, or babble about most.
  • As your child learns new and helpful gestures, respond to their attempts to communicate with you. Repeat what they may be relaying and encourage confirmation.
  • Utilize ABA best practices to encourage them to continue sharing through gestures. Use ABA positive reinforcements to reduce tantrums when frustration arises.
  • Read to and with your child often. Select more complex books as your child progresses. Reading allows your child to hear different words in different contexts, helping them learn the meanings and functions of words.
  • Relate books to what’s happening in your child’s life. This may be going to a doctor’s visit, getting a new pet, or learning about families. Encourage your child to point or talk about the images. It’s a great idea when browsing through photo albums of your family and encourages communication.
  • When reading aloud with your child, point to pictures and words, and track them with your finger as you say them. Tracking helps your child form a connection between written and spoken words and enhances early literacy skills.

Finding Additional Resources

Your child may qualify for various speech and language delay and disorder programs. Talk with your child’s ABA team to find out what you may qualify for. Typically, a child under the age of three can qualify for early intervention special education services. Children three and older can qualify through their local school districts.  School-age children typically receive referrals and testing through their home campuses and may undergo the schools’ testing for speech and language disorders.

Children with specific learning disabilities are eligible for special education services and accommodations under the Individuals with Disabilities in Education Act (IDEA) and Section 504.

At Blossom Behavioral Wellness Center, we believe in an all-encompassing approach to providing your family with exceptional therapy, education, and support. We encourage you to visit our site for ABA information and additional resources and invite you to visit our highly trained team of professionals at our centers. We’re here to ensure your child thrives. Visit us today.

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Two children smiling

Children with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) often have difficulty relating to and communicating with other people. They may be slower to develop language, be non-verbal, or have significant difficulties understanding or using verbal language. Through the use of various tools and resources, along with ongoing speech and language pathology sessions, children with autism can learn and build upon various means of communication. We’ll explore:

  • Developing Communication Skills: Typically Developing vs. Children with Autism
  • Unconventional Communication Methods
  • AAC Options During Speech and Language Pathology Sessions and Natural Environments
  • Pairing AAC and Speech and Language Pathology

Mother and son sitting and talking

Communication and the Typically Developing Child

Children tend first to use communication to ask for something, protest, or satisfy a need. The second phase of communication is typically to get or maintain someone’s attention. This phase may include a child wanting attention or asking to be held. Lastly, and the most challenging part of communication skills, children learn to direct a person’s attention to an object or an event for social reasons.

Communication and Children with Autism

Children with autism learn to communicate best through a step-by-step process and usually require in-depth speech and language pathology sessions. Teaching communication skills may include gradual phases, such as reaching towards a toy they want. After this skill is successful, move to utilize eye contact. Verbal skills will eventually be the last step to teach in this progression.

Autism and Communication

Children with ASD often can’t grasp the concept that communication is a process that uses a combination of resources, including:

  • Eye contact
  • Facial expressions
  • Gestures
  • Words and sounds


While some children may develop speech, others may have difficulty using language to communicate effectively with others. How well they learn to communicate is vital across other areas of development, including:

  • Behavior
  • Learning
  • Social interaction

The Role of Speech and Language Pathology

Speech and language pathology methods are essential for children with autism across all developmental areas. Early intervention and ongoing speech and language pathology therapy are especially vital in your child’s communication skill success. Through speech and language pathology, children with autism learn to recognize and adopt acceptable skills and behaviors, leading to more effective communication methods. During speech and language pathology therapy, your child’s ABA goals and best practices help strengthen desirable outcomes through modeling, repetition, and positive reinforcements.


Unconventional Forms of Communication

Many children with autism use words and various verbal strategies to communicate unconventionally. Echolalia, for example, is very common in children with autism. Children mimic words and phrases without particular meaning or in an unusual tone of voice. They may tend to repeat words they hear immediately or at a later point in time. They may repeat words they hear from others around them, on TV, radio, or videos. They may also use neologisms, or made-up words, focus on one word and repeat it, or mix up pronouns.

Common Nonverbal Communication

Children with autism may utilize additional ways of communicating, including

  • Physically manipulation an object or person: this may include taking your hand and moving it towards something they desire
  • Pointing, shifting, or showing through a gaze

Communication Through AAC

The use of AAC helps give children with autism a voice. It enables them to interact with the people around them. Alternative and Augmentative Communication refers to any means of communication, other than traditional speech, that allows your child to use language. AAC tools may include gestures, using pictures, sign language, various visual aids, or a speech-output device, such as a tablet.

Research has shown that the use of AAC resources does not prevent the development of a child’s verbal communication skills. Many research findings support the use of AAC, noting an increase of speech, supporting the child’s development of verbal communication. AAC is often a powerful steppingstone to their verbal communication.  It supports challenges children may have when developing speech and language skills through typical aging or even ongoing speech and language pathology sessions. In fact, AAC options are common during speech and language pathology sessions, often helping to decrease challenging behaviors children exhibit when they cannot successfully express themselves.


Pairing AAC and Speech and Language Pathology

Introducing AAC methods during your child’s speech and language pathology sessions allows them to explore the ability to communicate their wants and needs in a more effective, non-verbal way. Through the touch of a button or use of an image, they learn to express themselves without the tantrums and undesirable behaviors. Through redirection and the introduction of high and low tech AAC tools, speech and language pathology sessions offer your child a new communication method, building a stronger bond and trust between them and their caregivers and peers.


AAC High Tech Options

During your child’s speech and language pathology sessions, their therapist may utilize a variety of AAC devices. Through speech and language pathology, your child’s therapist will explore tech options that suit your child’s ABA therapy goals and overall needs. The use of AAC high tech options in your child’s speech and language pathology sessions and various natural environments may include:


  • Speech Generating Devices: VOCA’s, or Voice Output Communication Aids, help children communicate in various environments and situations while strengthening verbal and non-verbal skills through:
  • Expressive language
  • Joint attention/gestures
  • Pragmatics
  • Reading skills
  • Math skills


  • LAMP Words for Life: LAMP, or Language Acquisition through Motor Planning approach, centers around neurological, motor learning principles, and clinical experiences to address your child’s language development and communication needs. The LAMP program provides consistent motor patterns for words and a systematic way to help them develop communication skills and growth.
  • TouchChat: an app utilizing words, phrases, and messages, either spoken with a built-in voice synthesizer or by playing message recordings. TouchChat offers a variety of choices for your child, such as voices, English and Spanish, and screen display features.


Your child’s speech and language pathology therapist will work with you, your child’s caregivers, and the rest of their ABA therapy team, offering training and guidance with various AAC options.

AAC Low Tech Options

During your child’s speech and language pathology sessions, they will also explore various low-tech options. These may include the use of picture books, choice boards, and:

  • PECs: Picture Exchange Communication helps your child communicate through pictures while encouraging their spontaneous use to communicate with others. PEC’s start with one image then helps them gradually progress to adding on images and developing sentence strips.
  • Social Stories: narratives that illustrate various situations and issues and how children can deal with them, helping them understand social norms and how to communicate with others appropriately


Your child’s health and wellness are our top priority. From communication skills to school readiness, our highly trained team of professionals are here to support you through this journey in every way we can. Individualized ABA and speech and language pathology are just the beginning of meeting your family’s needs. For additional resources and to learn more about the all-encompassing services we offer at Blossom Behavior Wellness Center, visit us today.

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