Document Type



Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)



First Advisor's Name

Anibal Gutierrez

First Advisor's Committee Title

Committee Chair

Second Advisor's Name

Kyle Bennett

Third Advisor's Name

Daniel Bagner

Fourth Advisor's Name

Anthony Dick


Social Stimuli, Autism, Conditioning, Operant, Respondent, Early Intervention

Date of Defense



According to the DSM-IV- TR (American Psychiatric Association, 2000), one of the core deficits in autism is in the impairment of social interaction. Some have suggested that underlying these deficits is the reality that individuals with autism do not find social stimuli to be as reinforcing as other types of stimuli (Dawson, 2008). An interesting and growing body of literature supports the notion that symptoms in autism may be caused by a general reduction in social motivation (Chevallier et al., 2012). A review of the literature suggests that social orienting and social motivation are low in individuals with autism, and including social motivation as a target for therapeutic intervention should be pursued (Helt et al., 2008). Through our understanding of learning processes, researchers in behavior analysis and related fields have been able to use conditioning procedures to change the function of neutral or ineffective stimuli, including tokens (Ayllon & Azrin, 1968), facial expressions (Gewirtz & Pelaez-Nogueras, 1992) and praise (Dozier et al., 2012). The current study aimed to use operant and respondent procedures to condition social stimuli that were empirically shown to not be reinforcing prior to conditioning. Further, this study aimed to compare the two procedures in their effectiveness to condition social stimuli to function as reinforcers, and in their maintenance of effects over time. Using a multiple-baseline, multi-element design, one social stimulus was conditioned under each procedure to compare the different response rates following conditioning. Finally, the study sought to determine if conditioning social stimuli to function as reinforcers had any effect on the social functioning of young children with autism. Six children diagnosed with autism between the ages of 18 months and 3 years participated. Results show that the respondent procedure (pairing) resulted in more robust and enduring effects than the operant procedure (Sd procedure). Results of a social communication assessment (ESCS, Mundy et al., 2003) before and after conditioning demonstrate gains in all areas of social communication, particularly in the areas of initiating and responding to joint attention.





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