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Breaks and Rewards


Is it a break or a reward? Using breaks and/or rewards can improve an individual’s productivity and motivation if you follow a few simple rules and avoid some common pitfalls.

Let’s start with basic definitions:


a pleasurable or motivating consequence that follows the achievement of a specified goal.

To be effective, rewards should match the size of the achievement (i.e. a small reward for a small achievement; a large reward for a large achievement). They should be provided as soon as possible after the achievement has been accomplished. They need to be meaningful to the individual (desired by the person who is receiving the reward).

Rewards are earned!


a short period of time in which stressful demands are eliminated to allow one to rest, rejuvenate or recuperate in order to get back to the task at hand refreshed.

The number of breaks one might need will depend on how much stress the task creates for the individual as well as how much effort the individual is expending. To be effective, breaks should be time limited and related to the amount of time one has spent working (e.g., a 5 minute break for 20 minutes of work).

One should avoid the use of favorite activities for breaks as it will make it more difficult to return to the stressful or demanding task. Breaks should be taken away from the site of the stressful or demanding task and are often (but not always) comprised of activities that are the opposite of the work task (e.g. walk, stretch, get a drink as a break from desk work; read a book in a comfy chair following strenuous physical activity).
Breaks are not earned, but are necessary for many individuals with ASD.

Common Pitfalls:

We can illustrate this with an example:

John hates written output and struggles to think of what to write. He has fine motor difficulties and trouble spelling. He is very bright and can explain his ideas verbally quite well. When John is stressed in class he will often groan, break his pencil, slam his books or bang his head on his desk. John’s team understands that written tasks are a lot of work for John and want to motivate him. They set up a reward system in which John earns tokens for completing written assignments. Since he likes to read, they have decided to let him have an hour of reading time every Friday afternoon if he has earned 15 tokens that week. John’s team is also trying to help John learn to self-regulate and manage his stress and anxiety in appropriate ways. When they notice he is stressed they usually offer him a break to read quietly at his desk. The team finds that John is doing less and less written output as the weeks go by. He is behaving as though he is more stressed rather than less stressed when faced with written work.

What has gone wrong? Here are some possibilities:

    1. John gets breaks by behaving in challenging behaviour. Scheduled breaks may be more effective (e.g. work for 10 minutes then take a 2 minute break).
    2. John’s breaks are too rewarding. Reading is a favorite activity and it is difficult for him to put down the chapter he is reading to return to work in a timely fashion. He would much rather read than do written output! More neutral breaks that are “refreshing” (even an errand) may be more effective.
    3. John’s rewards are not particularly meaningful or motivating to him. He gets to read a lot anyway and the extra reading time available to him is scheduled during Friday’s computer time which he also enjoys. A menu of reward choices may be more effective in identifying activities or things John is excited to earn.
    4. John may need more immediate rewards. He may be more motivated to complete written tasks in a timely fashion if the reward is available immediately after the written task is completed to a satisfactory level.
    5. John may not understand that a break is designed to help him better cope with demands and is not intended to be used as an escape from demands. The team needs to ensure that when the break is finished, John is expected to complete the required task.
    6. John’s team may not have investigated accommodations that might make the writing task less stressful or demanding for John. For example, perhaps he would do better working in a quieter, less distracting environment. Or perhaps he would be more productive using a keyboard or a speech to text system to produce his written work. Because written output seems so effortful for him, perhaps he needs to be assigned a reduced amount of written output.

Bottom Line

don’t dismiss the need for breaks and rewards because they haven’t worked in the past. Instead, look closely on how those tools can be used effectively for the individual you are supporting.