Edibles: A Dilemma
“Absolutely NO edibles!”
Over my years in the ABA field, I encounter more and more families who say
“I don’t want you to use edibles!”
We use what is reinforcing. We all need food to survive. Many kids enjoy certain food items. It is not that we WANT to use edibles or a lack of us trying to identify other reinforcers. We are trying to motivate your child to learn new skills that are difficult for them. If edibles are a reinforcer for your child and helps them learn tough stuff, then why not?
What is a reinforcer?
A reinforcer is something that, when following a behavior, increases the likelihood of that behavior occurring in the future. If edibles are increasing a behavior that is desired by the family, then what is the harm? Just like with all reinforcers, they need to be delivered contingently, only if a target behavior is displayed. If your child worked really hard to acquire a skill why not give them access to a highly preferred item?
ABA practitioners are not (or should not be) shoving handfuls of food into your child’s mouth. The amount of edible depends on the required response. So for instance when beginning to teach handwriting, we may deliver half an M&M for holding the pencil correctly. Then once the child is writing his or her name, we might offer 3 M&Ms.
What About Long Term?
Edibles, and any contrived reinforcer, are not forever answers. The ultimate goal for all motivational systems is for the behavior the reinforcer is maintaining to be transferred to naturally occurring contingencies in the environment. For example, when teaching a child to hold the door for another person in the community, you may need to deliver an edible or other reward following the child holding the door. The ultimate goal is that the person saying “Thank you” reinforces the behavior therefore causing the behavior to continue.
Don’t get me wrong, I understand the health factors. If your child has diabetes or other health concerns that require a specialized diet, then edibles, no matter how reinforcing, are not appropriate. The health of your child is always top priority. If that is not the case, I ask that you give it a try. That is, only if your BCBA identifies edibles as highly preferred and (based on data) identifies them as a reinforcer. Ask to see the data, and ensure that the edible is actually increasing or maintaining the desired behavior. ABA is a science, and decisions should always be made based on data. If a reinforcer is not causing the desired behavior change, then try something else or maybe a different motivational system altogether. Again, edibles may not function as a reinforcer for your child, but not even considering the option could be preventing your child from acquiring some important lifelong skills.