Noncontingent Reinforcement on a Variable Interval Schedule to Reduce Perseverative Speech and Increase Engagement

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Noncontingent reinforcement (NCR) has been widely studied and shown to be effective for reducing inappropriate behaviors in individuals with autism spectrum disorder (ASD). Previous research has found NCR on a fixed interval schedule of reinforcement to be useful for reducing perseverative speech and increasing engagement when the function of the behavior was attention. This study used a single subject A-B-A-B reversal design to evaluate the effects of NCR on a variable interval schedule of reinforcement to reduce perseverative speech and increase engagement in an adolescent boy with ASD. The intervention was found to be highly effective in reducing perseverative speech and increasing engagement.

Keyword: noncontingent reinforcement, autism, perseverative speech

Using Noncontingent Reinforcement on a Variable Interval Schedule to

Reduce Perseverative Speech and Increase Engagement

In noncontingent reinforcement (NCR) the response–reinforcer relation is weakened by giving reinforcement independent of the individual’s behavior (Lalli, Casey & Kates, 1997). Doing so may reduce the motivation to engage in the inappropriate behavior to obtain the reinforcer because reinforcement is readily available (Lalli et. al, 1997).  NCR has been shown to be effective in reducing behaviors such as aggression, self-injurious behaviors, property destruction, and disruptions (Wallace, Iwata, Hanley, Thompson, & Roscoe, 2012; Noel & Rubow, 2018). Studies have found that noncontingent reinforcement can also decrease inappropriate behaviors such as perseverative speech (Noel & Rubow, 2018) and as a treatment for liquid refusal when combined with escape extinction (Smith, Gadke, Stratton, Ripple, & Reisener, 2018).

NCR procedures may potentially produce changes in behaviors other than the target behavior (Newcomb, Wright, & Camblin, 2018). Ecott & Critchfield (2004) found from their matching law research that while implementing NCR procedures to reduce a inappropriate target behavior, “other alternative behavior may be adventitiously reinforced during implementation, thus influencing the individual’s behavior even further (Newcomb, Wright, & Camblin, 2018).”

 Perseverative speech is a stereotypic behavior that results in repetitive speech related to a restricted interest and occurs in inappropriate social contexts (Noel & Rubow, 2018). It can impair social engagement and prevent ability to participate in appropriate conversations (Noel & Rubow, 2018). Research has found that NCR to be effective in reducing perseverative speech and increase student engagement (Noel & Rubow, 2018). Noel & Rubow (2018) found that using a noncontingent attention procedure on a 60 second fixed interval for a 7-year-old boy with ASD, reduced his perseverative speech and increased engagement in a instructional setting.

Research on NCR has been confined to only a fixed interval schedule for reinforcement. Variable interval plus extinction has been found to be possibly effective for NCR procedures by Carr, Severtson, & Lepper (2009), but has not been confirmed yet. There is a gap in the literature on using NCR on a variable interval schedule. The current study aims to fulfill that gap. As well as, corroborate the research by Noel & Rubow (2018) and extend it by changing the setting, schedule of reinforcement, intervention time, and participant age. The purpose of the current study is to evaluate the effects of noncontingent reinforcement (given on a variable interval schedule) to reduce perseverative speech and increase engagement in a classroom setting for a young adolescent boy with ASD.


Participant and Setting

Sam was a 14-year-old boy diagnosed with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD). Sam attended special education classes during the day and received 6 hours of ABA-based therapy at home during the week. Sam had a one-on-one behavior aide with him at school, two total (each one came on alternating days of the week). Sam had age-appropriate verbal abilities, able to communicate with others, and comprehend instructions given to him. Sam was chosen for this study because of his frequent use of perseverative speech. Sam’s parents and teachers reported that his perseverative speech prevented him from forming friendships and staying engaged in the classroom. The other students in Sam’s classroom were also diagnosed with ASD but did not participate in perseverative speech. Sam’s perseverative speech centered around his favorite tv show Ben 10.

All observations were done while Sam was in class when the teacher was teaching a lesson. The participating staff carrying out the intervention and baseline procedures were Sam’s two current one-on-one behavior aides that had been working with Sam for two years. Both behavior aides were trained behavior technicians and had knowledge of applied behavior analysis. Two one-hour observation and intervention sessions were conducted per day for three days a week. Sam still received his regular scheduled ABA-based interventions in both the school and home settings.

Response Measurement and Data Collection

Sam’s perseverative speech and engagement in classroom was observed for each one-hour session by two independent observers. Each observer collected data on the amount of perseverative statements and duration of time Sam spent engaged in the classroom. Perseverative statements were recorded as a discrete measure. Perseverative statements were defined as any discrete comments or questions that were about Sam’s favorite TV show Ben 10 (including characters in the show). Scripting episodes in which Sam made comments, repeated dialogues, or asked others in the classroom about the show. If a peer or staff member asked Sam about the show, it was not counted as a perseverative statement if he replied. Engagement was recorded as a continuous measure. Engagement was defined as Sam verbally engaging in the classroom activity, looking at the teacher, following along with the lesson and instructions given by the teacher, and orienting toward the instruction materials. Sam had to fail to meet this criteria for at least 5 seconds before his behavior was no longer recorded as being engaged.

Two independent observers collected interobserver agreement (IOA) data for 70% of all sessions in the baseline and intervention conditions.  IOA was calculated by dividing the smaller frequency count (of one observer) by the larger frequency count (of other observer) for perseverative speech. IOA for engagement was calculated by dividing the smaller duration (of one observer) by the larger duration (of other observer) for engagement.


The experimental design employed was a A-B-A-B reversal design with a single subject. Prior to the study, a functional behavior assessment had been conducted by a BCBA to determine that attention was the function of Sam’s perseverative speech behavior. Therefore, in the study noncontingent reinforcement was provided in the form of noncontingent attention (NCA). A initial observation before the experiment began was done to calculate a average inter-response time (IRT) between perseverative statements. The IRT was found to be 4.5 minutes. Therefore, a variable interval of 5 minutes was used to implement noncontingent attention in the form of neutral comments. The observation periods were split into two one hour sessions per day with a total of 10 sessions per phase.

Staff Training. Sam’s one-on-one aides were given training on how to provide noncontingent reinforcement. The investigators taught them NCA procedures and the rationale for using the procedure over other methods. The aides were provided with a vibrating timer (MotivAider) to use to help prompt them to give noncontingent attention on a VI-5 min schedule. A bank of neutral comments was created to use for the noncontingent attention that did not reference Sam’s favorite TV show Ben10. They were instructed to redirect Sam’s perseverative speech behavior during the sessions as they normally did.

Baseline. During the baseline phase, Sam’s rate of perseverative speech behavior and percentage of time engaged in classroom activity were found. This was calculated from collecting the frequency count of perseverative speech statements and duration of time engaged. Sam was observed for 1 hour; the observer was told to not to interact with the participant. If Sam tried to engage with the observer, the observer told him they were busy. The staff and his aides in the classroom were instructed to continue interacting with Sam in a normal fashion and continue with the classroom activity. 

Intervention. Noncontingent reinforcement in the form of attention was given on a variable interval of 5 minutes based on the inter-response time found during baseline. Sam’s one-on-one aides provided noncontingent reinforcement in the form of neutral comments to Sam on variable interval of 5 minutes for each session. All ongoing ABA-based treatments were continued. Observers collected data on rate of perseverative speech and percentage of engagement in the background in similar fashion as baseline condition.

Follow-up. A follow-up procedure was done two weeks after the initial study was completed. The same observers and environment were used. The same baseline procedure as above was carried out to record percentage of time engaged in classroom activity and rate of perseverative speech.


 Perseverative speech data are shown in Figure 1. Perseverative speech statements during baseline occurred at a higher rate (M=11.85), this dropped during the initial intervention phase (M=3.85). The rate of perseverative speech during withdrawal increased (M=11), then the rate for the second intervention went down (M=1.15). Engagement data are shown in Figure 2. Engagement during baseline was very low (M=39.1). Engagement improved in the first intervention (M=80.6). During withdrawal, engagement was low again (M=53.7). The second intervention showed an increase in engagement again (M=83.1). The follow-up procedure results showed that the rate of perseverative speech (Figure 3) and percentage of time engaged

(Figure 4) had not fully returned to initial baseline conditions two weeks after our last intervention phase. There was a slightly lower rate for perseverative speech compared to initial baseline conditions with a mean of 8.55 statements. The percentage of engagement had a similar result with a mean of 44.2% time engaged.


Previous research in the field on noncontingent reinforcement has been limited to only using a fixed interval schedule. Our findings suggest that variable interval schedule of reinforcement may be as effective as a fixed interval for NCR procedures. The results showed a significant increase in engagement while a large decrease in perseverative speech when noncontingent reinforcement was carried out on a variable interval schedule. The follow up procedure results showed that the effect of our treatment conditions did not fully taper off two weeks after the last intervention phase. We believe this finding may be due to our use of variable interval for reinforcement, but cannot be certain until future replication of our study and results.

A possible limitation of our the study is that we only assessed the effect of NCR on two behaviors in a instructional setting. Also, our research focused only on a participant that was a higher functioning individual with ASD. Further research should be done to confirm our findings across settings, behaviors, and individuals on the spectrum with different levels of functioning.

Figure 1. Rate of perseverative speech

Figure 2. Percentage of session time engaged

Figure 3. Follow up for rate of perseverative speech

Figure 4. Follow up for percentage of time engaged


  • Carr, J. E., Severtson, J. M., & Lepper, T. L. (2009). Noncontingent reinforcement is an empirically supported treatment for problem behavior exhibited by individuals with developmental disabilities. Research in Developmental Disabilities, 30, 44–57. doi:10.1016/j.ridd.2008.03.002
  • Lalli, J. S., Casey, S. D., & Kates, K. (1997). Noncontingent reinforcement as treatment for severe problem behavior: Some procedural variations. Journal of Applied Behavior Analysis, 30, 127–137. doi:10.1901/jaba.1997.30-127
  • Newcomb, E. T., Wright, J. A., & Camblin, J. G. (2018, June 28). Assessment and Treatment of Aggressive Behavior Maintained by Access to Physical Attention. Behavior Analysis: Research and Practice. Advance online publication.
  • Noel, C. R. & Rubow, C.C. (2018). Using Noncontingent Reinforcement to Reduce Perseverative Speech and Increase Engagement during Social Skills Instruction. Education and Treatment of Children, 41, No.2.
  • Smith, H. M., Gadke, D. L., Stratton, K. K., Ripple, H., & Reisener, C. D. (2018, June 18). Providing Noncontingent Access to Music in Addition to Escape Extinction as a Treatment for Liquid Refusal in a Child With Autism. Behavior Analysis: Research and Practice. Advance online publication.
  • Wallace, M. D., Iwata, B. A., Hanley, G. P., Thompson, R. H., & Roscoe, E. M. (2012). Noncontingent reinforcement: A further examination of schedule effects during treatment. Journal of Applied Behavior Analysis, 45, 709–19. doi:10.1901/jaba.2012.45–709

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