Date of Award:


Document Type:


Degree Name:

Master of Science (MS)



Committee Chair(s)

Andrew L. Samaha


Andrew L. Samaha


Scott C. Bates


Sarah E. Bloom


The dominant approach to treating social dysfunction in individuals with autism views that dysfunction as a skill deficit. However, another plausible interpretation is that social dysfunction in some individuals arises from motivational deficits. The proposed study presents a method to assess motivational deficits for social attention in individuals with autism. By borrowing methods from behavioral economics, we assessed the essential value for social attention and compared it to the essential value for food.

Five individuals diagnosed with autism were included in the project. First, we assessed preference for food by using paired-preference assessment. To identify preference hierarchy for attention, we used a modified version of the paired-preference assessment. After establishing the preference hierarchies for food and attention, the top items from each category were delivered on a fixed-ratio schedule. During this reinforcement assessment the participants received one reinforcer every time they emitted the target response. The final stage of the study included the assessment of the essential value for each of the two commodities (food and attention). During this stage, we increased the number of responses participants were required to emit to earn a reinforcer across each daily session. All of the participants showed a decrease in reinforcers earned as the work requirement increased, and for three of the participants the essential value of food appeared noticeably higher than that of attention.

Using the methods from behavior economics allowed the comparison of two commodities that differed in nature, and assisted capturing the important qualities of these potential reinforcers. These results suggest that behavioral economic-based assessments of reinforcer value may have clinical utility.



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Psychology Commons