Individualized Token Economy Systems – Strategies for Teaching Students with ASD by Autism Partnership

Individualized Token Economy Systems

 At Autism Partnership we have found the development and implementation of individualized token economy systems to be a powerful tool in accelerating progress for our students. Token economies have been shown to be an extremely effective contingency management system for a variety of populations. Initially, Ted Allyon used token economies to provide consequences to hospitalized mentally ill residents. The procedure proved to be extremely effective and quickly token systems were utilized with other populations exhibiting challenging behavior problems, including “delinquent” adolescents (Montrose Wolf) and mentally retarded adults (Nathrin Azrin).

Today, token economies are used to address a variety of behavioral concerns including those of children with Attention Deficit Disorder and Autism Spectrum Disorder as well as typically developing children. Token economies have been so widely recognized as effective and efficient behavior management strategies to such a degree that they are routinely being employed in general education classrooms throughout the world. (Star Charts, Table Points, Marble Jar).

Tokens are symbols (e.g., points, coins, stickers, ticks or check marks, toy parts, etc), which are delivered immediately after a target response and are exchanged later for an item or activity of preference. Tokens therefore symbolize access to other preferred items or experiences, technically referred to as “generalized reinforcement”. Initially the tokens in and of themselves are not rewarding but once the student understands that tokens can be “exchanged” for preferred activities, their value is established. A daily life example of this process would be our use of money which allows us to purchase desired items or experiences. Creative systems often use motivating tokens such as pictures of favorite cartoon characters, athletes or musicians. Pictures of the target behavior can be used as the symbol as well. The tokens are clearly displayed, allowing the student to always see how many they have earned, and how many more they need to earn until reinforcement will be delivered.

This is part of a guest series by Autism Partnership founders Ron Leaf, John McEachin and Mitchell Taubmann. Established in 1994, Autism Partnership is one of the nation’s premier agencies dedicated to providing intensive behavior intervention for children with autism and their families. They offer a comprehensive program and a variety of proven services, including in-home, in-classroom and one-on-one, as well as lectures and workshops. All programs are handled by expert staff and tailored to each individual child, family and caregiver, with the goal of helping that child achieve their best life. For more information, visit

Pick of the Week: Token Boards and Reward Charts

It can be a tall task to structure children’s days and reinforce good habits and behaviors. Daily chores such as getting dressed, brushing teeth, making the bed, and getting out the door on time can lead to a bit more excitement than desired. Token Boards and Reward Charts are a great way of visually structuring the tasks at hand and providing tangible reinforcement for a job well done. There’s the I Can Do It! Reward chart which covers all sorts of daily activities such as Get Dressed, Set the Table, and Say Please and Thank You. The I Can Do It! School Chart specifically organizes the early morning rush while teaching children independent, daily living skills. We even have charts specifically for Potty Training and Brushing Teeth.

This week only, save 15% on all of our Token Boards and Reinforcers by entering the Promo Code BLOGTBR2 at checkout.

*Offer expires on January 17, 2012 at 11:59 pm EST. Not compatible with any other offer. Be sure there are no spaces after the Promo Code when you enter it at checkout.

Toilet Training Tips

So, I’ve taken to spending the majority of a weekend when necessary, with families when it comes to toilet training their child.  It’s highly glamorous, really.  Just the mom, the dad, the child and me cooped up in the family bathroom for six or more hours at a time.  I brought donuts on the second day just in case anyone was in need of a morale boost since I left the parents on their own at the end of the first day.  They had a fresh pot of coffee on and were still in good spirits.  All kidding aside, it’s really the only way to do it.  During the weekend you are free from the week’s distractions and you have the entire family there for carry over, which in the long run is the deciding factor in a child’s success and generalization.  So, while I’ve been helping families with toilet training for years this was the first time I spent two full days helping to implement the protocol.  I thought I could share with you my general tips from years of experience along with some new insights from my newest adventure in toileting that I like to call the “weekend warrior”.

 First, we will start with the general tips:

 Prepare, prepare, prepare! This means talking about toileting every chance you get.

  • Learn your child’s routine (when do they typically “go”)
  • Watch videos about toileting
  • Read books or social stories about toileting
  • Use a doll for pretend toileting
  • Allow your child to watch you use the toilet
  • Provide opportunities to “try” without any pressure

 Gather materials. You want to have it all before starting.

  • A comfortable potty seat that fits over the toilet
  • A footstool for resting their feet and providing postural support
  • Data sheets
  • A timer
  • Lots of underwear!
  • Highly preferred snacks and drinks
  • As many reinforcers you can identify as highly motivating

 Several days before you begin:

  • Increase fluids to make sure child is well hydrated
  • Eliminate access to all items identified as highly preferred reinforcers to maintain potency

 What did I learn?

  • Adherence to the protocol is important but above all there needs to be a discussion regarding what makes the most sense for the family.  This was more apparent to me than ever having been in the home for so many consecutive hours.  For example, I feel strongly about going straight to underwear from diapers without using an intermediate type of coverage.  However, the stress of cleaning up possible accidents resulted in anxiety on the part of the parents, which in turn led to stress on the child (reducing success).  So, after two days in underwear we went to pull-ups and guess what, the child kept it dry the majority of the time!  This experience should be a collaborative partnership with the family, whatever protocol you are using; if it doesn’t make sense to the parent it won’t work.  It is our job as providers to individualize the plan for each family in a way that empowers them without compromising the core details of the protocol. 
  • I also feel rather strongly about starting on the regular potty instead of a little child potty.  However, we ended up doing a combination of both with great success.  It turns out that the child did better with the postural support provided by the child potty.  Since, he didn’t show any fear surrounding the use of the actual toilet we decided it was ok to use the potty and later transition to the toilet. 

If you think your you and your child are ready these are my “go to” references.  Best of luck!

Azrin, N.H., and Foxx, R.M. Toilet Training in Less Than A Day. New York, NY: Pocket Books, a division of Simon & Schuster, Inc., 1976. 

Kroeger, K. and Sorensen, R. (2010), A parent training model for toilet training children with autism. Journal of Intellectual Disability Research, 54: 556–567. doi: 10.1111/j.1365-2788.2010.01286.x.  (Click the title to download the full article).


Pick of the Week: MotivAider

Save 15% this week only on the invaluable MotivAider. The MotivAider is a simple electronic device that vibrates at timed intervals to provide an individual with a private prompt to engage in a specific behavior. It can be programmed to vibrate on a fixed or variable schedule at different duration and intensity levels. The MotivAider is a fantastic tool that can be used to manage a wide variety of behaviors and scheduling issues for individuals of all ages.

Save 15% on the MotivAider today through March 29 by entering the promo code BLOGMVR at checkout.

*Offer expires on March 29, 2011 at 11:59 pm EST. Not compatible with any other offer.

Special Playdate helps parents connect with others to arrange play dates in their local communities. The site enables users to find a playdate for loved ones with or without special needs to create opportunities for them to build social and communication skills while making friends. Check out their site to learn more!

Pick of the Week: Emotions Flashcards

Emotions Flashcards Sale You’re in luck because this week’s pick is a whole CATEGORY of products! We’re highlighting our wonderful Emotions flashcards this week and offering them to you at a 15% discount. Click here to see the full list of products on sale this week. There are basics such as the Emotions Language Cards which are an ideal introduction to teaching feelings to young learners as well as the more advanced Faces & Feelings Listening Lotto which is a creative way to work on auditory processing and emotions. With 9 different sets of Emotions Flashcards on sale this week, you’re sure to find a set that’s right for your child or student.

Today through March 1, visit to save 15% on our Emotions Flashcards by entering the Promo Code BLOGEM22 at checkout.

 *Offer expires on March 1, 2011 at 11:59 pm EST. Not compatible with any other offer.

Free Downloads

I’ve never been busier during the start of a new year than I have been in 2011.  It seems like many of my students were off to an ambitious start this month as well.  Some students made such significant progress that the revisions seem to never end.  Other students have required a lot of creativity and extra effort in finding ways to reach them and facilitate learning.   I found myself re-evaluating many program books, behavior plans and strategies.  I won’t further bore you with my lengthy “To Do” list but I will share some of the rewards of my work.  The end result is that there are new and improved versions of the free DRL data sheets and graphs along with brief descriptions for each.  I hope you find them as useful as I have. You can find them under the “DRL Downloads” tab underneath the Different Roads to Learning banner.  Now off to work!

Preparing for Thanksgiving at School

This is an interesting article about students with special needs at Dexter Middle school “practicing” a Thanksgiving meal. We thought this was a fantastic idea! By preparing children for what to expect at a holiday gathering and meal, either in school or at home, perhaps some anxiety and behavioral issues can be avoided. Do any of you “practice” the holidays to avoid stress and make the event easier for your children?

Video Modeling by Mary Beth Palo of Watch Me Learn

Mary Beth is a dear friend of ours. Many of you know her as the amazing mother who used video modeling to help her son learn to speak. From there came the Watch Me Learn Video Series which has received near unanimous praise. Here are her thoughts on Video Modeling and how Watch Me Learn came to be.

“I was fortunate enough to see Temple Grandin speak years ago…. before she became a star….. I went to the presentation on a whim – I guess to get out of the house (pathetic right?)  Being the mother of an autistic child leads you to do things that a “normal” person wouldn’t be caught dead doing!  At the time, I believe that she only had one book published; Thinking in Pictures.

In that book and in her presentation she referred to her thought process as going back in her mind, retrieving a video tape from her mind’s library and then playing the proper video to think/see….  This hit me like a 2×4 across the head…. 

I am mostly an auditory thinker….. so I guess it didn’t dawn on me that this could be so impactful on educating. Couple this information with 2 years of therapy for my son with no progress, and a light bulb went off in my head.  Pure desperation led me to video modeling.  After my first attempt at VM, as a result my son was speaking within 2 ½ weeks.  Well, needless to say, video became my life and my son just kept learning and learning.  Video was our main teacher and our therapy hours were used for generalizing the skills he learned on video.

Video modeling can be used in sooooo many ways – self modeling, peer modeling, etc…  and it can be used to teach sooooo many skills – from simple receptive language, imitation skills to complex social skills.  Research supports video modeling as an evidence-based teaching method and it has been recognized by the CEC(Council for Exceptional Children) as a valid means of teaching.  The research exists and more will be coming. 

Now, when I teach my son, I always have visuals.  Of course, he was most successful with video, but after years of strictly video, we have been able to branch out into other visual inputs. The learning is always faster with visual inputs ….. even in 6th grade when we are using cookie dough and chocolate chips to make a visual model of the atom nucleus – who would have thought?

Why does it work?  Well, I don’t have the scientific answer to that – as I have yet to find a study researching the brain activity while watching VM.  Watching children for years and knowing how and what they react to, it is easy to see the reason why VM works.  Children love tv, children love other children, children have an inherent desire to be social and VM provides not only repetition but also removes outside distractions enabling a child to concentrate on one thing.

Today, there are many VM products on the market.  These products allow you an easy way to experiment with VM and a great learning opportunity for your children.  VM can also be done in the home, school, therapy and out in public.  You need to decide what is best for you and the child.

I am the proud mother of Brett Palo – a 12 year old boy who is now mainstreamed in 6th grade.  Without VM, he would not be there.  As a result of his success with VM and a zillion phone calls from other desperate mothers, Watch Me Learn Videos were created.  Watch Me Learn’s goal is to teach children in their natural environment – at home, in school and most importantly through play!  A child’s job is to play – let them do their job and learn at the same time!   They will learn without even knowing it!

The Eden II Running Club

Eden II in New York has a wonderful Running Club for their students. We love the story behind it, the ease with which they implemented it and think it’s a fantastic idea for any school or agency as a way to get kids into shape and out into the community. Here’s their story:

 In early 2008, Randy Horowitz, Associate Executive Director of Educational Services at Eden II tried to get the staff together to run for better health. Johanne and Chickie, both behavior specialists, thought it could be a good way to include both students and teachers.  And so, the Eden II running club began with a small group of student who were selected by age, weight and the ability to be outside without engaging in difficult behaviors.

 Originally they had seven students aged 10 and above but the program grew as more parents found out about the club and wanted their children to participate in a mainstream activity.  There are now 58 members at two program sites.  A new club, the Pee Wee Running Club for students 5-9, began a year ago and already has 25 members.

Each club goes out once a week.  The older students go out to Clove Lakes Park or to the Eltingville YMCA indoor track, depending on the weather.  For safety reasons, the Pee Wee Running Club trains only at the Eltingville YMCA indoor track. 

 Every parent is asked about her child’s daily routine and current level of physical activity before individual training plans are created.  The goals are kept very simple, “will walk 20 consecutive minutes before stopping to rest”.  A familiar staff person from each student’s classroom is assigned to work with him during training sessions.  That staff person is responsible for keeping the child safe and hydrated as well as modeling and prompting stretching techniques.  Most students quickly adjust to the routine of walking and jogging around a track or along the park’s running path.

 Timers and verbal praise are used to encourage some students to continue walking orjogging until they can take a break. Students with fewer cognitive challenges are also learning about proper nutrition while working with staff during running club outings.   

 There have been a lot of surprises.  It was never expected that some of the kids jogging and even walking without prompting.  The kids genuinely like it and have fun doing it.  Some of them have lost weight, and many of them are a lot calmer for the rest of the day after getting out for some physical activity in the morning. 

 Johannes runs with a particular student every Monday. He loves trying to break his record and feels so proud of himself afterward.  One of the things his mom stressed when he became part of the running club was that he had little to no self-confidence, and she’s very happy that running seems to have helped immensely with his self esteem. To keep him motivated, he is given some kind of award certificate every time he breaks his record.

 Randy, Johannes and Chickie believe this model could work for other agencies, because it doesn’t require anything complicated.  Just keep the goals simple, and as long as safety, transportation and staffing aren’t issues, any school can start a running club.