Our behavioural specialist tells me that any action which receives a reward within 3 seconds of occurrence will be reinforced. So timing is critical when trying to modify behaviour.
When training animals, trainers will use a clicking noisemaker to identify the desired skill. The clicks are then followed up with treats. Otherwise, the gap between the skill and the reinforcement can be too long and too confusing.
The trouble comes when an undesired behaviour comes in between a desired behaviour and the reward. I've had this happen a lot, particularly with Alex. He will earn a reward but then begin throwing a tantrum before receiving it. Now I'm left with a problem. If I don't give him the reward, I don't enforce the good behaviour. If I do give him the reward, I can end up reinforcing the tantrum.
It's really tempting to believe that he will understand that the reward is for the good behaviour, particularly if I've praised it in the moment. After all, a typical child would understand that he or she is getting ice cream for having gotten an A on their homework even if they just had a tantrum about not getting to play Xbox. We are primed to understand and work with delayed gratification.
But delayed gratification is not instinctual. It depends on social understanding. So a child with autism may not be able to make those links. In Alex's case, his behaviour confirms it. He only understands what is happening in the moment. He has a great deal of trouble understanding that something in the moment is connected to the past or the future.
This is one of the hardest things to grasp, that his mind does not work the way ours does. I've had many people point to things he does and tell me that it is similar to what their typically developing children do. But it comes from an entirely different way of thinking. If he asks for ice cream at his grandmother's, he's not relying on grandparental indulgence or understanding that rules can be different at different places. He's negotiating and will continue to negotiate regardless of location if he has success. He doesn't categorize based on social rules. His criteria are likely more to do with weather or day of the week or something else.
It takes a lot of observation to figure out how he's putting things together and then try and coax him to see things in a way which is closer to neurotypical. Often we end up with the equivalent of "cheat sheets" rather than true understanding: like being told only an adult can open the door, which prevents him from taking off when it isn't appropriate. He can't understand the circumstances which make it appropriate vs inappropriate, so he needs a standardized rule to follow in all circumstances.