Association for Behavior Analysis International

The Association for Behavior Analysis International® (ABAI) is a nonprofit membership organization with the mission to contribute to the well-being of society by developing, enhancing, and supporting the growth and vitality of the science of behavior analysis through research, education, and practice.


40th Annual Convention; Chicago, IL; 2014

Event Details

Previous Page


Invited Paper Session #210
CE Offered: PSY/BACB

Some Musings on Automatic Reinforcement: Central Concept, Controversial Status

Sunday, May 25, 2014
2:00 PM–2:50 PM
W375e (McCormick Place Convention Center)
Area: AUT; Domain: Applied Research
Instruction Level: Basic
CE Instructor: Jessica L. Sassi, Ph.D.
Chair: Jessica L. Sassi (New England Center for Children)
WILLIAM H. AHEARN (The New England Center for Children)
William H. Ahearn, Ph.D. and BCBA-D, joined The New England Center for Children (NECC) in August 1996, and currently serves at NECC as the director of research. He is also an adjunct faculty member for Western New England University's master's and doctoral programs in applied behavior analysis. Currently, Dr. Ahearn serves as the president of the Board of Directors for the Association of Professional Behavior Analysts. Formerly, he served as president of the Berkshire Association for Behavior Analysis and Therapy. He was named the 2009 American Psychological Association--Division 25 awardee for Enduring Contributions to Applied Behavioral Research. Dr. Ahearn's research interests include social skills in children with autism, verbal behavior, assessment and treatment of stereotypy, severe problem behavior, and pediatric feeding difficulties. He also is interested in resistance to change, behavioral economics, and conditioned reinforcement. His work has been published in the Journal of Applied Behavior Analysis, Journal of the Experimental Analysis of Behavior, Behavioral Interventions, Behavior Modification, The Lancet, Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders and he has written book chapters on teaching children with autism and pediatric feeding problems in children with autism. He is currently the editor-in-chief for Behavioral Interventions and is on the editorial boards for the Journal of Applied Behavior Analysis, The Analysis of Verbal Behavior, and The Behavior Analyst.

Automatic reinforcement is a controversial topic. Skinner (1957) described automatic contingencies in Verbal Behavior as an important concept relative to complex human behavior. However, empirical evidence relative to the existence of automatically reinforced behavior is scant. Vaughan and Michael (1982) described automatic reinforcement as referring to three types of functional relations and practitioners have operated on the assumption that automatic reinforcement, as in producing sensory consequences, provides a helpful context for crafting more effective intervention. However, problem behavior that is automatically reinforced is thought to be persistent and challenging to alter across the lifespan. This presentation will explore whether automatic reinforcement actually provides a useful account of behavior that clearly offers pragmatic value to behavior analysis and its successful application. Whether behavior, referred to as automatically reinforced, is operant, respondent, or adjunctive in nature also will be discussed.

Target Audience:

Anyone interested in autism and behavior analysis.

Learning Objectives: At the conclusion of the presentation, participants should be able to (1) Describe the concept of automatic reinforcement as having three usages (i.e., describes three types of functional relations); (2) Describe whether there is evidence that automatically reinforced behavior is operant in nature; (3) Describe whether automatic reinforcement is a useful concept in behavior analysis.
Keyword(s): autism, best practice, treatment



Back to Top
Modifed by Eddie Soh