Graduation Date

Spring 5-7-2016

Document Type


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)


Medical Sciences Interdepartmental Area

First Advisor

Wayne Fisher


One of the most effective and commonly prescribed treatments for children with autism and/or an intellectual disability who engage in severe destructive behavior is called noncontingent reinforcement (NCR). During NCR, the consequence that previously reinforced destructive behavior is delivered on a time-based schedule, independent of destructive behavior, and the contingency between destructive behavior and its reinforcer is discontinued (operant extinction; EXT). Conceptual and quantitative derivations of behavioral momentum theory (BMT) suggest that certain aspects of NCR may inadvertently promote persistence of destructive behavior, thereby prolonging the treatment process. Guided by Shahan and Sweeney’s (2011) model of resurgence based on BMT, this dissertation evaluated two refinements to NCR designed to reduce behavioral persistence during treatment and mitigate response resurgence following NCR when all reinforcement was withdrawn. In Experiment 1, we evaluated a procedure designed to increase the saliency of the change from contingent reinforcement to NCR by altering a reinforcer parameter related to contingency discriminability, which BMT predicts will lead to faster reductions in target responding and decrease the likelihood of resurgence. Behavioral momentum theory also predicts that implementing NCR without EXT (as is commonly done for destructive behavior maintained by sensory reinforcers) increases the likelihood of resurgence. Therefore, in Experiment 2, we compared levels of resurgence when NCR was implemented with and without EXT. Results suggest that the proposed refinements are effective, to varying degrees, at reducing behavioral persistence during NCR and mitigating response resurgence. Findings are discussed within a translational research framework and broader context of strategies used to mitigate treatment relapse for severe destructive behavior.