Sunday, December 8, 2013

Autism Diaries: the value of extrinsic rewards

J has recently come home with his best report card ever: all As and Bs; more As than Bs. Now a high school junior, he has finally made the honor roll.

These grade improvements are partly a function of J's particular course roster. This semester he happens to have only one language-intensive class. Physics, AB Calculus, and Java programming all come naturally to him, and he loses points mainly when he leaves out verbal explanations, which, mercifully, are only required in physics, and only for lab reports. He's also shining (nay, sweating!) in PE class, and doing fine in Health--where I've opted him out of sex ed in an attempt to keep that particular can of mischievous worms as tightly sealed as possible--for as long as possible.

Also fostering J's grade improvements is a better-than-ever communication between home and school, with teachers who respond immediately to email and an online SchoolNet system that lets me see weekly assignments and grade reports. There must be thousands upon thousands of autism parents whose frustrations are eased, and whose children's performances in school are improving, as schools put these systems in place. Indeed, as I write this I realize that, for all my criticisms of technology in the classroom, this particular deployment is an unequivocal boon--for everyone, really.

But a third factor behind J's grade improvements are the extrinsic rewards I now give him based on what I learn from these weekly SchoolNet reports. In order to earn a new ceiling fan visit, or a dollar, or an extra sign language signing of the number two (his favorite number), he has to have an A average in his three best academic subjects. As a result, the responsibility he's shown for writing down his assignments, doing them thoroughly, and remembering to turn them in has increased substantially.

Of course, J's capacity for responsibility has also grown along with his growing maturity. And when the goal is something more important to him than good grades, he doesn't need extrinsic rewards.  I recently walked into the kitchen to find him standing over a systematically laid out row of ingredients, the cookbook open to a recipe for ginger bread cookies. I endorsed his project (though he hadn't asked my permission), and left the kitchen confident that he could assemble the mixer and follow the recipe. When I returned, he had balled up the dough and was putting it in the refrigerator to chill. (He was less motivated to clean up his mess).

Two days ago, a package arrived in the mail which he eagerly grabbed from my hands, anticipating correctly what it contained. Apparently his battery recharger had stopped working ahead of its warranty, and here was the replacement. He showed me the receipt that accompanied it, which indicated no new charges, and explained that he'd filled out a replacement form online, complete with the requisite information about the unexpired warranty.

It's wonderful to see this wild child of mine becoming so responsible. But, like so many teenagers, he only looks so far into the future. And, though I've heard many armchair experts tell parents and teachers that extrinsic rewards are bad, I suspect that the incentives I give J to earn good grades do more than increase the prospects of his future, more responsible self. Those incentives also, I suspect, help J acquire habits that help him become that more responsible self, as he gradually internalizes the best of his fans-twos-and-dollars-driven behaviors.

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