ABA for Everyone Archives - Autism Mom, ABA Help for Professionals and Parents
Why do Students with Autism Have Such a Difficult Time with Transitions?

Why do Students with Autism Have Such a Difficult Time with Transitions?

Imagine you are at the beach on a beautiful sunny day having a cold drink and reading a great book. On a scale of 1 to 10 with 10 being the most reinforcing activity, you would probably rate being at the beach on this day to be a 10.

Without warning, I abruptly come up to you and say “all done beach, time to load heavy boxes in a truck.” You would most likely not like this at all and might start displaying problem behaviors in the form of arguing, stomping your feet, and slamming your chair onto the sand. You might even refuse to leave your preferred activity and literally dig your heels into the sand. What I want to illustrate is that we all have problems with transitioning from high preferred to low preferred activities.

The key is to ease transitions by not asking a child to transition from a 10 (a highly preferred activity) to a 2 (work) constantly throughout their day.

Below are five tips and techniques to help ease transitions. Want a cheatsheet with the 5 techniques? Click here to download.

1) Dangle the carrot (the reinforcement) before problem behavior occurs.In the beach example above, if I would have come up to you and offered you $50 to help me load 5 heavy boxes in the truck that would have been fine but waiting to offer cash until you start stomping your feet and refusing to move is a very bad idea. Remember any behavior that is reinforced will maintain or go up. Propose the reinforcement before you place the demand to transition not after problem behavior occurs.

2) Don’t physically move a student from one location to another (even if they are small enough to carry or move). I wouldn’t even think about physically dragging you off the beach to help me load heavy boxes as this could lead to me getting arrested for assault. It disturbs me that some people try to physically move students with autism from one activity to the next. If you try to prompt the child to move and he or she resists with equal but opposite pressure, this is considered a physical restraint. If you are currently using too much physical guidance for transitions, you need to stop and implement some other appropriate interventions.

3) Whenever possible, give choices. If I would have come up and stated that I needed help with some heavy boxes and asked you when would be a good time for you to transition, you would probably have been a lot more cooperative. You may have suggested that we load the boxes when you finished your drink or after you finished a chapter in the great book you were reading. We make a lot of choices throughout the day, especially when we are faced with difficult or unpleasant tasks. We need to give our students with autism as many choices as possible to ease transitions.

4) Sandwich harder activities between two preferred activities and consider using schedules and timers. Some students benefit from visual schedules and the use of timers to indicate that one activity is over and a new one is beginning. The use of a “promise” reinforcer is also successful for many students. A promise reinforcer is used when it is time to transition to a less preferred area. The child is approached with a favorite toy or a small edible reinforcer and this is used as the “carrot” and a visual reminder that reinforcement is available for a smooth transition. Some students need several small edible reinforcers on the way to a less preferred area. It is also important that all the hard activities are spread out throughout the day and placed in between reinforcing activities. In the beach example, if you knew that you would be at the beach from 1 to 4 pm then you would spend 10 minutes helping to load boxes in a truck followed by going home for pizza, the task of loading boxes would not have been such a big deal.

5) Make sure all “work” stations are paired with reinforcement and avoid the word work whenever you can.Some of the best classrooms and home programs I have seen have strong reinforcers at every “work” area. Each area has some electronic device (a computer, DVD player, or music box) as well as a separate box of toys and items kept on top of a rolling cart that can go with the student and his instructional materials to each area. I often tell professionals and parents to avoid the word “work” for students who have difficulty with transitions and to spend a few minutes at the beginning of each session pairing yourself and the materials with reinforcement. If students are not running towards the next activity or at least moving there without problem behavior, your demands are too high and/or your reinforcement is too low.

Check out chapter 2 and 4 of my book (The Verbal Behavior Approach) for more tips on easing transitions! Also, you may want to sign up for my free ebook, More Talking Less Tantrums. 

Want to apply this information immediately to help your child or clients with autism?
Click the button below to download 5 Techniques to Ease Transitions cheat sheet so you can get started today!Click Here to Download

The Verbal Behavior Approach is now available in several languages

The Verbal Behavior Approach is now available in several languages

One of the most exciting things that has happened since publishing my book (The Verbal Behavior Approach) in 2007, is the interest in translating my book into different languages.

With more than 30,000 copies sold, The Verbal Behavior Approach is now available in several languages including Romanian, French, simplified and complex Chinese, Italian, Japanese and Russian. 

I never envisioned that there would be so much global interest in my work. Almost every day I receive FB and website messages from parents and professionals from the US and all around the world. It is always exciting to hear from people who have been impacted from my Facebook page, articles, blogs, YouTube clips, my online course and/or my books!

I’m often asked “Why is your Verbal Behavior Approach book not available in Spanish?” or “How can I translate your book into Hungarian?” Unfortunately I have very little control over the translation of my book. However, if you would like to help get my book into another language, there are three things you can do:

Find a publisher in your language who might be interested in purchasing the translation rights from Jessica Kingsley Publishers (www.JKP.com)

Have the potential publisher visit my web site (www.MaryBarbera.com)

You or the publisher can contact me via my website or directly at: [email protected] and I’ll get you connected with the person who handles translations at JKP!

Thanks for your interest in helping me continue to train parents and professionals around the world!

Chicken Camp: What it is, Why I Went, and What I Learned!

Chicken Camp: What it is, Why I Went, and What I Learned!

In 2012 I went to Seattle and, while I was in beautiful State of Washington, I went to Chicken Camp. Since posting a few pictures on Facebook of me holding a chicken, I’ve been getting tons of questions. This blog will cover the answers to three main questions: What it is, Why I Went, and What I Learned!

1) What is Chicken Camp? As many of you know, I’m a Board Certified Behavior Analyst (BCBA) and work with children with autism using the science of behavior, Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA). ABA is based on operant conditioning which is a theory formulated by BF Skinner in the 1930s.

BF Skinner and his colleagues studied animals (mostly rats and pigeons) and discovered the basic principles of behavior; most importantly that positive reinforcement could increase behavior in all animals, including humans.

Beginning in the 1960s, Karen Pryor began using operant conditioning principles with animals and developed a technology called Clicker Training. With Clicker Training, a clicker, whistle, or bell is used to audibly mark a behavior as correct and is immediately followed with a reinforcer.

In the past decade, TAGteach (clicker training for humans) developed out of Karen Pryor’s Clicker Training, which is an excellent technology for teaching children a variety of skills as well as adults.

Terry Ryan, an Internationally recognized expert in the field of animal training runs chicken camps. Chicken camps are 2 or 4 days long and are held either at Legacy Canine Training Center in Sequim, Washington or on site around the world when Terry is brought in to speak to small groups of about 20. Terry doesn’t travel with chickens though so for the training opportunities outside of Washington, the hosts need to work with local 4-H Clubs or farmers to supply the chickens.

Terry has worked and continues to work closely with Karen Pryor and is also TAGteach certified. The first two-day chicken camp is basic in nature with lecture, videos, and hands-on activities with chickens; incidentally the chickens are raised on the premises. Many people attend chicken camp to get better at training their dogs but, increasingly, managers and human trainers have been attending to sharpen their people-training skills. Our 2-day chicken camp was an advanced training since all twenty of us (who worked in pairs) were BCBAs (or had advanced ABA knowledge) so our camp was tailored to meet our unique needs.

2) Why did I go to chicken camp? Like chickens, many of the children I work with including my 15- year-old son with autism, do not understand complex human language. Since becoming certified as a Level 1 TAGteacher in 2010 and after reading “Reaching the Animal Mind” by Karen Pryor around the same time, I have become convinced that the key for me to become a better Behavior Analyst was to learn more about animal training.

I don’t own any pets, so in an effort to get some animal training under my belt, I was directed to look into Terry Ryan’s chicken camp. I found out that Terry’s organization was located in Washington State just 2 hours from Seattle. Because so many Behavior Analysts were scheduled to go the ABAI conference in Seattle in May 2012, I inquired with Terry about setting up an advanced ABAI 2-day chicken camp immediately prior to ABAI.

While Terry has previously conducted private chicken camps for groups such as the FBI and for managers from a Fishing Boat Company, she had never hosted camp for a room full of eager Behavior Analysts. I didn’t know if the idea would be appealing to other BCBAs but was happy to sell out the workshop 2 months prior to the end of May.

3) What did I learn? My chicken camp experience was excellent! While I was initially nervous to handle the chickens, I soon learned the skills needed and felt successful in every way. Here are a few specific things I learned or were reinforced during the 2-day camp:

When teaching people, it is important not to jam too much information in every minute. During chicken camp we took a 10-minute break every 50 minutes. When we took our first 2 breaks (50 minutes after we got started and then another one hour later), I was thinking that these constant breaks were excessive. By the afternoon of the first day though I became to appreciate the frequent breaks, which led to excellent networking, a relaxed training environment, and happy “campers.”

Reinforce early, not late. This is especially important for new/difficult behaviors. When we were first teaching our chicken to peck the red chip, for example, we were instructed by Terry to click as soon as her beak was going toward/almost touching the chip. I applied this in the past week when I was working with a 3-year-old client. We were having a difficult time “pairing up” the intensive teaching table so as soon as he started to approach/walk toward the table, I directed the therapist to turn on the iPad video. In the past, I might have waited until he was sitting to reinforce and we wouldn’t have been as successful.

In this video,  you will find a 3-minute video with some highlights of our chicken camp experience.

Don’t assume you know what the extraneous variables are to which the chicken or child may be responding. Since returning from chicken camp, I feel that I am much more aware how difficult it is to evoke target behaviors and reinforce immediately since we work in uncontrolled settings with multiple variables operating at all times.

If you suddenly are not getting target behavior, the animal may need to rest, may be full, or may need to lay an egg. As a nurse and a behavior analyst, I am keenly aware that most of the kids we work with sometimes have physiological issues in addition to autism, which can be a factor.

Short sessions are best to keep everyone on his or her toes. In addition to the humans taking breaks every hour, we also were careful not to overwork the chickens. With the chickens, we targeted a behavior for 30-60 seconds at a time, then picked up our chicken and re-grouped. We only repeated the short intervals for about 10 minutes then the chickens were put back in their cages for a drink and a rest. The chickens were not the only ones who needed a break every 30-60 seconds, since the instructors needed time to analyze what went right/wrong and to plan for the next interval.

Don’t over-prompt by physically trying to move the chicken or by “luring” or “baiting” the chicken to do the task. For instance, to get the chicken to go around a cone, don’t put the food out so the chicken just moves for the food. Instead, reinforce head or leg movements in the right direction with a click (indicating the behavior was correct) followed by a food treat. In general, children with autism are physically prompted and “lured” too often. Since camp, I’m more aware that reinforcing successful approximations is a much better way to go!

If the chicken is making repeated errors, the skill is too high and/or the reinforcement is too low. If the chicken/child is stuck on a program, he or she doesn’t have the prerequisite skills or you haven’t figured out how to teach the skills he/she needs. If you are not getting the target behavior, increase the reinforcement, reduce the field size, give a better prompt, or somehow look to make the task easier. Once the chicken/child is successful, you can ramp up from there. The idea that the chicken/student/child/trainee is never wrong was heavily reinforced during our 2-day chicken camp. If they don’t “get it” you are not “teaching/training” them correctly

If you are interested learning more about behavior analysis and directly improving your own shaping skills with animals, please email Terry at [email protected] or check out her web site: www.legacycanine.com for more info about chicken camp. To learn more about using ABA to teach children with autism, read my book The Verbal Behavior Approach.


Getting ABA/VB Services Started in Your Child’s School

Getting ABA/VB Services Started in Your Child’s School

There are lots of ways to try to educate school staff on the principles of ABA/Verbal Behavior and get this type of programming in place within educational settings. Bringing in a knowledgeable speaker on the topic of ABA/VB is probably the most common way to begin. This can often “jump-start” enthusiasm for ABA/VB but will take time and money to sponsor a speaker. If you have a local autism support group or autism school with some ability to bring in a speaker, you may want to try to get that agency to sponsor or co-sponsor a workshop.

Many parents and professionals have said my book (The Verbal Behavior Approach) gave them a great overview of the concepts so for relatively little investment, some parents have purchased multiple copies of my book for their child’s teacher, SLP, OT, and paraprofessionals.

But if education professionals are not motivated to read the book or attend a workshop, you could be wasting your money. And, even if they do hear a knowledgeable speaker present on ABA/VB and/or read my book, they still will most likely have difficulty applying the concepts.

Without on-going consultation and support, it is usually very difficult for teachers to learn how to apply ABA/VB concepts to correctly program and teach children on the autism spectrum. Some schools who agree to provide an initial training on ABA/VB will also contract with the trainer or another qualified Board Certified Behavior Analyst (BCBA) to provide on-going consultative support for a particular classroom or school. This is often a very good situation with program oversight provided for the entire classroom of students and training and guidance for the staff.

If you have difficulty getting things going in your child’s classroom or school, another strategy is to start small and focus on getting ABA/VB for your child only (not for the whole classroom). One way to get things started for an individual child is to try to get a BCBA with VB expertise in your child’s IEP for a specified period of time each month (i.e. 4, 6, or 8 hours) for program oversight. Putting staff training (for example 6 hours before anyone new works with the child) in the IEP also can also be essential and the BCBA whose services are the IEP can provide that training.

Having the BCBA hours within one child’s IEP may not change the entire classroom immediately but over time it might. Plus, if these services are in your child’s IEP, the BCBA and staff training requirements will follow the student to middle school and then to high school. This may mean that you won’t have to start your advocacy efforts over again as the child transitions and as staff come and go over the years. Getting BCBA services and staff training in the IEP may be difficult but since the IEP legally drives services, I believe it might be something worth pursuing.

The Big Three Skills for Individuals with Autism

The Big Three Skills for Individuals with Autism

I’ve been consulting with children and a few adults with autism for seven years now and I had a revelation about two years ago soon after I published my book. I now believe that there are three main skills every child and adult with autism needs to be successful. These skills, I believe, are the most important skills regardless of the person’s age or level of functioning.

The Big Three are:
1) Problem behaviors at or near 0
2) The ability to request wants and needs
3) Independent toileting

Whether your child is 5, 15, or 50 years of age, I think without these three skills, he or she will have little opportunity for inclusion at school or in the community. In addition, without these three skills, parents often cannot access babysitters, respite providers, schools, or work opportunities for their children. They also have a difficult time taking their children to pools, restaurants, on planes and even to visit friends or relatives.

If you or other people are working on different skills (double digit math or reading for instance) but your child has not mastered “The Big Three,” think about suggesting some additions and/or changes to your child’s program.

For more information, watch this 2 minute video below, and read my book (The Verbal Behavior Approach) specifically chapter 2 (reducing problem behaviors); chapter 4-6 (pairing and manding) and chapter 11 (toilet training).



Programming for Happiness in Clients with Autism

Programming for Happiness in Clients with Autism

Several years ago, I attended a Keynote presentation where Dennis Reid, PhD, BCBA spoke about the importance of programming for (and measuring) happiness in clients with autism.

During one of the activities, the participants spent 3 minutes writing down every choice we made that morning prior to arriving at the conference. We had the choice of whether to hit the snooze on the alarm, what to wear, what we wanted to eat and drink, whether we wanted to bring a jacket along, where to park, where to sit, etc.

Basically Dr. Reid made the point that we have many choices throughout our days and that choices lead to happiness. He also pointed out that many of our children and clients with autism have few choices.

As Dr. Reid suggested, I have now begun to measure and count behaviors such as smiles and laughs and I give more choices than ever before. I, of course, continue to focus heavily on pairing and manding as well as reducing problem behaviors in my effort to program for happiness.

Since seeing this presentation years ago, I feel strongly that we need to provide our clients with many choices throughout the day and should consider happiness as an important (and attainable) goal.

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