How People on the Autism Spectrum Learn – A Detailed Explanation

By Razel Grace San Ramon and Adapted by Autism Spectrum Directory

In an effort to better understand how people on the Autism Spectrum learn, two different types of learning will be explored: associative learning (classical conditioning and operant conditioning) and observational learning. An example of each learning type will be given as well as the specific factors that often occur or must occur when a specific type of learning is used.

How People on the Autism Spectrum Learn 

How Neurotypical People Learn 

Associative Learning 

Learning by establishing connections between events

Observational Learning 

Learning by consequences


Stages of Learning


Stages of Learning

Method: Classic Conditioning 

Stimulus that brings forth a response

Method: Operant Conditioning 

Learning by reinforcing

Method: Observation and Imitation
1. Acquisition – training stage where a specific response is learned
2. Extinction – when a behavior recedes or is lessened 

3. Spontaneous Recovery – displaying the conditioned response when the conditioned stimulus is presented

4. Generalization – displaying the conditioned response when you are faced with a similar conditioned stimulus


1. Shaping – a desired response  that is gradually reinforced (using positive or negative reinforcers) 

2. Schedule of Reinforcement – a predetermined pattern of reinforcement

a. Ratio Schedule – a specific number of desired responses must occur for the person to receive reinforcement with a positive or negative reinforcer

b. Interval Schedule – a specific set amount of time demonstrating appropriate responses or behaviors before reinforcement with a positive or negative reinforcer

1. Attention – observing what the other person is doing and the consequences of that person’s action 

2. Retention – storing information in your memory

3. Reproduction – physically and intellectually repeat that behaviour and be motivated to perform the behavior

4. Reinforcement - attention to details that would indicate the appropriateness to model the behavior

Copyright Chart by Autism Spectrum Directory, please request permission to use, All rights reserved.

Learning defined is, “a relatively permanent change in behavior or the potential to make a response that occurs as a result of some experience” (Davis & Palladino, 2005). This definition separates behaviors that occur automatically, such as walking, from learned behaviors. Eating is not a learned behavior; however, eating with good manners is a learned behavior. When learning takes place in an individual or animal, behavior is changed. Children do not need to be taught how to go to the bathroom; that is a normal bodily function. Where learning is involved is when children learn where it is appropriate for them to go to the bathroom.

How People on the Autism Spectrum Learn

Associative Learning: Classical Conditioning

Classical conditioning is used as a form of associative learning. Classical conditioning is associated with Ivan Pavlov, a Russian scientist, who conducted most of his classical conditioning experiments with dogs. When a neutral stimulus and an unconditioned stimulus, so that the two become linked together, classical conditioning has taken place (Davis & Palladino, 2005). Classical conditioning was the first type of learning to be studied and discovered when viewing behavior. Simplified, classical conditioning is a stimulus which brings forth a response. Similar to reflexes, classical conditioning begins with an involuntary behavior, such as salivating when food is smelled or blinking when air is blown into your eye. These behaviors are behaviors in which we have no control over. When a neutral stimulus is presented with the unconditioned stimulus repeatedly, it generates a conditioned response, so that when a subject is only presented with the neutral stimulus, the conditioned response occurs (Huitt & Hummel, 1997).

An example of classical conditioning was used in dogs by Ivan Pavlov. Food was used as the unconditioned stimulus in his experiment. While a metronome was ticking, the metronome being the conditioned stimulus, Pavlov placed a small amount of meat powder, which is the unconditioned stimulus, into a hungry dog’s mouth. This caused the dog to begin to salivate, which was the unconditioned response because it had occurred naturally. After repeatedly performing this, the dogs’ mouth would salivate only when the metronome was ticking, which was the conditioned response (Davis & Palladino, 2005).

Acquisition is the training stage which a specific response is learned. This is what will occur after the controlled stimulus is presented. The factors that affect the conditioned response are sequence, strength, and number of conditioned stimulus pairings with the unconditioned response. In forward conditioning, the conditioned stimulus is presented before the unconditioned response and the conditioned stimulus remains until such time as the unconditioned response is present. Backward conditioning, which has been known to produce weaker responses, occurs when the conditioned stimulus is presented after the unconditioned response occurs. The strength of the unconditioned response is simply translated that a stronger unconditioned stimulus will generate a stronger unconditioned response. The number of conditioned stimulus pairings will affect the conditioned response. If the conditioned stimulus and unconditioned response are presented together more often, the conditioned response will become more powerful (Davis & Palladino, 2005).

In classical conditioning, extinction can occur. Extinction is when a behavior recedes or is lessened. When the conditioned stimulus is presented without the unconditioned stimulus, the conditioned response may decrease in intensity, until it becomes extinct. When the conditioned response is stronger, it takes longer for extinction to take place. The acquisition process greatly affects the extinction process. Occasionally, subjects may experience spontaneous recovery. Spontaneous recovery is when the subject displays the conditioned response when the conditioned stimulus is presented after extinction has apparently occurred. Spontaneous recovery can occur the next day or the next year (Davis & Palladino, 2005).

Generalization can occur with classical conditioning as well. Generalization is when a subject displays the conditioned response when they are faced with a similar conditioned stimulus. Going back to Pavlov’s dogs, they not only salivated when the metronome was ticking, but when other tones were presented. (Davis & Palladino, 2005).

Associative Learning: Operant Conditioning

Operant conditioning is another form of associative learning and involves learning by reinforcing. Reinforcers can be either positive or negative. Positive reinforcers may include praise, food, and money, and they are often presented after a desired response has taken place. Negative reinforcers would consist of a stimuli being eradicated because a response has occurred. Both positive and negative reinforcers do increase the chances of the behavior to happen again (Van Wagner, 2006). The purpose of a reinforcer regardless of whether it is positive or negative, is to strengthen behavior. Negative reinforcers should not be confused with punishment. There are two types of reinforcers, primary and secondary. A primary reinforcer contains biological properties, such as food, water, and sleep. These reinforcers are stimuli that are not learned. Secondary reinforcers are associated with primary reinforcers, and because they are stimuli that must be learned, they are often called conditioned reinforcers. An example of a secondary reinforcer is money, as money alone has no value. Money that is used to buy food, water, and a place to sleep has a learned value (Davis & Palladino, 2005).

An example of operant conditioning was an experiment first studied by Edward L. Thorndike. A cat was enclosed in a box, struggling to escape. In time, the cat moved the latch that opened the door. When the cat was then enclosed in the box on repeated occasions thereafter, the cat eventually did not bother with the struggles it had previously encountered in trying to escape; it automatically went to the latch and opened the box (B.F. Skinner Foundation. 2006). An experience of operant conditioning that this writer has previously used was working in the mental health field. Individuals were to be taught personal living skills, such as hygiene, cleaning, and laundry. Plans were implemented to help these individuals obtain their goals. Behavior plans were also implemented to help decrease inappropriate behaviors and increase appropriate behaviors. If an individual was prone to violent outbursts over what society would deem a trivial matter, such as a commercial on television or the bus running late, the individual was placed on an individual habilitation plan to help teach that individual what was considered to be appropriate behavior in a specific situation. Positive reinforcement was always used; for example, if a week had gone by successfully with no violent outbursts, the individual would go out for ice cream. An interval schedule was used as the individual had to go through a specific set amount of days demonstrating appropriate behaviors before the behavior was reinforced.

Shaping occurs when a response is reinforced that resembles the desired response. When shaping is used, we often do not provide reinforcement until the subject comes close to performing the desired behavior. Shaping involves gradual reinforcement; for example, the learning to press a lever for food could involve shaping. When the rat goes near the food dish, you give it a piece of food to reinforce that the dish is associated with food. In time, you reinforce the rat only when he goes near the lever to dispense the food. Then the rat gets reinforced only when it touches the lever, and eventually, the rat gets reinforces when it presses the lever (Davis & Palladino, 2005). In this example, shaping would occur with certain individuals that may have required more direction in obtaining the goal of appropriate behaviors. Smaller steps would be taken, perhaps starting by reinforcing the individual for not physically aggressing, and increasing reinforcing to the point of no aggression at all, verbally, and physically. In some cases, reinforcement had to be provided with the very first step and repeated with every successful step thereafter. As an individual showed signs of responding appropriately, a step would be eliminated until eventually, the reinforcement would come at the end of a situation that could have possibly triggered an aggressive outburst.

Reinforcement that follows a predetermined pattern of reinforcement is called a schedule of reinforcement. Reinforcement can be continuous or intermittent. In continuous reinforcement, the reinforcement occurs after each desired response occurs. Intermittent reinforcement can be delivered in one of two ways, either by using a ratio schedule or an interval schedule. In ratio reinforcement, a specific number of desired responses must occur for the subject to receive reinforcement. When an interval schedule is used, a response is only reinforced after a specific amount of time has passed. Extinction can also occur in operant conditioning when the reinforcement is no longer presented after the desired response is provided (Davis & Palladino, 2005).

How Neurotypical People Learn

Observational Learning

Observational learning, also known as “modeling”, is learning by observation or imitation. In the early 1960′s, Albert Bandura introduced observational learning to eliminate trial-and-error fashion in learning, and to make learning less tedious and less hazardous than associative learning. Observational learning differs from associative (classical and operant conditioning) as it involves individuals learning by the consequences, both positive and negative, that they observe in others behaviors. Another term for observational learning is called social learning theory. For observational learning to be effective, there are conditions which must be present. Learning by observation involves four stages and processes – attention, retention, reproduction and reinforcement.

Attention - the individual must be paying attention to what the other person is doing and the consequences of that person’s action. Before observation can occur, one should attend to the teacher or mentor. According to research, warm, powerful and atypical people command more attention than those who are cold, weak and typical.

Retention – the information of what was observed must then be retained. Retention in observational learning involves imaginary coding and storing of information in memory. In order to progress to the next stage, one must be able to code and store needed information in memory.

Reproduction - an individual must be able to physically and intellectually repeat that behaviour and be motivated to perform the behavior. This is the stage where imitation occurs. But reproducing behavior depends upon a limiting factor – physical capability. This is the reason why dogs cannot walk upright, despite seeing, observing and knowing that all people around them walk that way.

Reinforcementattention must be paid to certain details that would indicate appropriateness to model the behavior (Davis & Palladino, 2005). A good example would be Bandura’s experiment, wherein he let children watch two videos – one where a person who displayed aggressive behavior was punished, another where the person was rewarded, and another where the person didn’t display aggressive behavior. Bandura found that the children who watched the video of rewarded aggressive behavior immediately displayed the behavior. However, when Bandura promised reward to those children who watched the punished aggressive behavior, the children remarkedly reproduced the aggressive behavior. This means that the children were able to attend to and retain the aggressive behavior in memory, and seem to be waiting only for reinforcement to reproduce the behavior.

Albert Bandura is well known for his Bobo Doll study as an example of observational learning. A film was made of a woman hitting and yelling at a bobo doll. The film was then shown to a group of kindergarten aged children, and then the children were let out to play. The play room they were let into contained a bobo doll. The children proceeded to imitate the woman’s actions on the film, beating up the bobo doll. This was Bandura’s demonstration that learning can occur, without reinforcement, simply by the observation of another (Boeree, 2006).


Boeree, G.G. (2006) Personality Theories, Albert Bandura. Retrieved on October 18, 2006

B.F. Skinner Foundation. (2006) Cambridge, MA. Retrieved on October 18, 2006 from:

Davis, S.F. & Palladino, J.J. (2005) Psychology. (4th ed). Upper Saddle River,
New Jersey; Prentice Hall, Inc.

Other Resources

Book: Attention and Associative Learning: From Brain to Behaviour

Book: About Behaviorism

Book: The Psychology of Associative Learning

Book: Mechanisms of Memory, Second Edition

Book: Perceptual and Associative Learning

Book: New Directions in Human Associative Learning and Kindle Edition

Book: Model Systems and the Neurobiology of Associative Learning

Book: Memories: Molecules and Circuits and Kindle Edition

Book: Learning and Behavior: A Contemporary Synthesis

Book: Learning and Behavior

Related Articles:

How to Encourage Observational Learning for a Person on the Autism Spectrum

People on the Autism Spectrum Have to Learn Information That Neurotypical People Already Understand Instinctively

How Do We Learn?

Complete List of All Articles on Autism Spectrum Directory

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