Many professionals in the autism field use the method of positive reinforcement when working with children with autism. That is, if the child does a correct behavior, he or she will be reinforced with a food, toy, tickles, etc. The results of a Stanford University study suggest these professionals are on the right track, when they studied the connection between the brain areas that respond to human voice and areas that release dopamine, the “feel-good” chemical.
The study used functional MRI to compare the brain activity of 19 typically developing children with 20 children diagnosed on the autism spectrum. The results showed a strong connection in the typically developing children, and a weaker connection in the group consisting of children with autism. In addition, the connection between the human voice area of the brain and areas of emotion-related learning showed a weak pairing in the group of children with autism.
Motivation is what drives us as humans to succeed in life, and based on this study, the motivation level of children with autism to listen and decipher human voice and tone simply is not there. This lack of motivation could be a factor in the developmental delay of speech in this population.
Each child is different, and what motivates one child to do well may not work for another child. Coralie Chevallier of The Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia—although not part of the study—reflected on the findings and suggested that positive reinforcement is “providing an extrinsic reason for the child to do something they didn’t want to do in the first place. So you’re working on motivation.” [i]
This study proposes a different view to the way people with autism see the world and how they interact with other humans, and suggests researchers and professionals explore just what motivates someone with autism to improve this interaction.
[i] “NPR” The Human Voice May Not Spark Pleasure In Children With Autism. 17 Jun 2013. Web. <http://www.npr.org/blogs/health/2013/06/17/192753499/the-human-voice-may-not-spark-pleasure-in-children-with-autism >