Intermediate Learners Archives - Autism Mom, ABA Help for Professionals and Parents
Teaching Games to Children with Autism

Teaching Games to Children with Autism

On a plane ride home from an ABA conference, I read a book entitled: What You Need to Know About Motivation and Teaching Games by Steven Ward, MA, BCBA. I literally started recommending the book right away to Andy Bondy and Lori Frost who happened to be sitting next to me on the plane!

In the six months after, I recommended this book to many Behavior Analysts and parents as I have found it to be a very useful guide to help effectively teach children with autism to play games. The step-by-step breakdown of how to teach 12 common games such as “Go Fish” and “Memory” is excellent and the data sheets provided are superb!

When I returned home eager to teach Lucas how to play “Go Fish,” his therapist stated that he already could play the game. So I copied the blank “Go Fish” data form from Steve’s book and asked her to play the game with Lucas. In the past when I’ve watched Lucas play games I knew it didn’t look good but, by taking data using the data sheet provided, I was able to easily count errors and prompts. I was also able to quantify a lack of motivation. I was even able to immediately identify the trouble spots in the game such as Lucas’ inability to hold seven cards in his hand and fan them out so he could actually see what cards were in his hand. Using the book, Lucas can now play “Go Fish” with a few modifications. His motivation to play this and other games improved too.

I highly recommend this book to parents and professionals interested in helping children with autism or related disorders learn to play and, most importantly, enjoy games! For more information about What You Need to Know About Motivation and Teaching Games by Steven Ward, MA, BCBA go to:

Using the Verbal Behavior Approach to Teach Adolescents and Adults with Autism, Down Syndrome and other Developmental Disabilities

Using the Verbal Behavior Approach to Teach Adolescents and Adults with Autism, Down Syndrome and other Developmental Disabilities

I consulted in the past with a client I will call Dan. Unlike most of my other clients who are children with autism, Dan was in his twenties. He attended an adult day training program each day and volunteered with a job coach at various locations such as the hospital laundry.

Over the past several years since I’ve consulted on Dan’s case, I have learned a lot from him and his parents. I learned about adult services waiting lists, adult day training programs, and job coaches. I also feel that working with Dan has helped me improve my ability to teach others self care and vocational skills. The most important thing that I continue to learn from Dan during each consultation is the importance teaching children functional skills. After this consultation, for example, I decided to hold an extra reading program we were using at home with my son, Lucas (who was 13 at the time) because it was starting to cause him frustration and was not completely functional. Dan’s last consultation also made me decide to start teaching Lucas to identify numbers past 100 since Dan was sorting music into hymnals and needed to find the spot in between number 345 and 347 to place song number 346.

I believe that all of my previous blogs are applicable to adolescents and adults with autism (as well as other disabilities such as Down Syndrome). One of my blogs about the top three skills all individuals with autism need is particularly relevant.

Since working with several teenagers and a few adults with autism using the verbal behavior approach, I would recommend the following, especially if the teens and adults you are working with are not conversational:

1) Read my book, The Verbal Behavior Approach, and take advantage of many free resources on my web site. Also read Self Help Skills for People with Autism.

2) Purchase the VB-MAPP and complete the assessment (parents will most likely need assistance from a teacher or behavior specialist to complete this assessment). With the assessment complete, you can use this information to prioritize language goals based on your son’s or daughter’s (or client’s) strengths and needs. Self help and vocational goals are very important too and should be a major focus for older children, teens, and adults.

3) Parents may need to locate an advocate to help you navigate the system and to ensure that the transition to adult services is as smooth as possible. To find an advocate, contact your local autism society or mental health association.

Teaching a Vocational Task to an Adult with Autism

Teaching a Vocational Task to an Adult with Autism

When Lucas celebrated his 18th birthday, he was officially an adult. He participated in some pre-vocational and vocational tasks for the few years prior to his 18th birthday through his IEP at school. The next summer as part of an Extended School Program (ESY), Lucas started volunteering at a local hotel for an hour each week. There were all kinds of jobs at the hotel providing lots of opportunities for Lucas and his team to explore vocational tasks for him and other adolescents and adults with various disabilities.

As we continue teach Lucas to complete different job tasks, I thought I’d explain (with my Behavior Analyst hat on) how I break down and teach any vocational task to Lucas and learners with similar abilities.

In this 1-minute video clip of me teaching Lucas to roll utensils inside a napkin, the first step is to determine what the finished product should look like and if there are any important quality issues to consider. For example, the utensils need to be clean and the napkin needs to be tightly rolled so the silverware does not fall out. For a simple task such as rolling utensils, the napkin can be unrolled to see how it was folded, how the silverware were arranged, and how the napkin was rolled. For a more complex task such as setting up banquet tables and arranging the tables, it might be helpful or necessary for an employee or someone proficient at the skill to demonstrate how the job task is performed from start to finish.

Whether the job is simple or complex, there needs to be a determination whether the student or adult you are working with can complete the whole task or part of the task. The amount of supervision or assistance by a job coach or teacher also needs to be planned. Once a task is selected, a task analysis should be completed. A task analysis is a written list of the steps that are needed to complete a task. These steps can be written or typed on a data sheet so that data can be collected to ensure that the student is learning the steps. Next the job is modeled (for students who can imitate) or physically prompted. Practicing a skill at home or school can also be helpful, especially if there is one or two steps that are more difficult. Once the individual starts completing the steps of the job with no errors, prompting and assistance can systematically faded.

Watch this 1-minute video clip of the rolling utensils job task!

Teaching Children with Autism to Greet Others

Teaching Children with Autism to Greet Others

In the past, I evaluated a 4-year-old boy named Bobby. When I said “Hi Bobby,” he replied “Hi Bobby.” My son Lucas had similar issues when he was younger so I learned strategies to help him overcome this problem well before I became a Behavior Analyst. As a BCBA, I now run into greeting problems fairly frequently so I thought I’d write about some strategies I often use to address this issue.

1) Until you can build the component skills required for greetings, encourage parents, staff and other students to eliminate the child’s name when saying “hi” and “bye.” This way you will prevent the error and the child will be more successful. If someone interacts with the child and does not know this strategy or if they forget and say “Hi Bobby” and get an echo, just have them drop back to “hi” and get a correct echo of “hi.”

2) Next take pictures of all important people in the child’s life who he sees often (i.e. mom, dad, sister, grandma, cousin, friend) and make two sets of these pictures. You will need two copies of each picture since you will want to start with matching picture to picture. Instead of saying “match” or “put with same,” just say “mom” or “mommy” as you hand the picture to the child and point to the identical picture of “mom” while you have him match. If the child is echoic, he might say “mom.” If he does say “mom” you might want to ask “who’s that?” and have him say “mom” as a tact.

3) Once the child can easily tact all the people he sees regularly without any prompts (both in pictures and when the real person is around) and he can also say “hi” and “bye” without prompts, you can try to put greetings together. If the child cannot fluently tact pictures of people who he sees often and/or if you don’t have good echoic control (Child echoes “hi” when someone says “hi” or the child says “ball” when a therapist says “ball”), I think it is probably too early to put greetings together. In this case, just have all people say “hi” and “bye” without the child’s name until the pre-requisites are met.

4) To work on putting the greeting with the name, you’ll need two people. One is the person walking in or out and greeting the child and the other person is used to prompt the child from the side or behind. For example I’m with Bobby so when mom says “Hi Bobby,” I immediately prompt “Hi Mommy.” You will most likely need several prompted trials before systematically fading your prompts.

5) If the child is still having difficulty, you might also consider making a video of people ringing the doorbell and someone opening the door and having each person who comes to the door say “Hi Bobbie.” When viewing the video, an adult should sit and watch the video with the child and prompt the child for each clip as each new person rings the doorbell and the door is opened. This was a key strategy for Lucas and after viewing the video only a few times with prompting, Lucas mastered this skill. The video showed the doorbell ringing, me opening the door then therapist # 1 (Nina) would say “Hi Lucas.” I would prompt “Hi Nina.” On the video, she would ring the bell again, door would open, Nina would again say “Hi Lucas.” This time, Lucas would say “Hi Nina” with a reduced prompt or without a prompt from me. Therapist # 2 (Eric) would then ring the bell for the same type of practice.

6) The two main things to remember when considering teaching greetings are: 1) Make sure the child has the pre-requisite skills for greetings (tacting of people’s names and good echoic control of 2-3 word utterances) and to teach greethings errorlessly as many times as needed using two adults and/or a video.

For more information about teaching greetings, see page 99 of my book, The Verbal Behavior Approach

Teaching Children and Adults with Autism to Answer “Yes” and “No”

Teaching Children and Adults with Autism to Answer “Yes” and “No”

The ability to respond “yes” or “no” to questions is a very complex skill involving different operants. It has been my experience that a child needs to master yes/no mands (Answering yes or no to “Do you want a cookie?”) before you should attempt to introduce yes/no tacts (Is this a bed?) or yes/no intraverbals (Does a cow say quack?). Assessing yes/no within each operant is a good place to start.

I’ve done a lot of work with teaching yes/no mands to my son with autism as well as several other children. Teaching a child to say “no” or to respond with a head shake NO can be taught early to replace problem behavior such as crying or pushing items away but teaching a child to say “yes” should not be done until important prerequisites are in place.

I recommend not teaching “yes” mands until the child is spontaneously manding for dozens of items in and out of sight and manding for several actions too. I’ve see many children who have a defective yes mand because someone taught them to answer “yes” too early. The main issue is that they say “yes” when someone offers them something (Do you want candy or Do you want a tickle) but they cannot ask for those items (candy) or actions (tickle) spontaneously by using the item or action name. This often leads to problem behavior.

Once children can spontaneously mand for many items and actions out of sight, this is how I start teaching yes/no mands. First, I gather three things the child loves (and will almost always mand for or take) and three things they don’t like and would usually push away (raisins or another non-preferred food item and certain videos). I then use these items during short (10-15 minute) yes/no mand sessions. I ask “Do you want a ___?” while holding one item and prompting yes/no and doing a transfer trial. For some children I have used textual prompts which are the written words “yes” and “no.” Textual and/or verbal prompts need to be faded carefully though by using transfer trials.

Here is an example of a prompted trial followed by a transfer trial:

Hold up a raisin (non-preferred) and say “Do you want a raisin?” prompt NO verbally, with a head shake and/or the word NO written on an index card. The child needs to say or head shake “no.” Then immediately complete the transfer trial by taking away the textual prompt (if used) and asking the question again “Do you want a raisin?” The child says “no” without any prompt and the item is removed.

I create many contrived situations, alternate between things they want and don’t want, and take trial by trial data during these short yes/no mand sessions. Once this skill is solid with the 6 items (3 items they like and 3 items they don’t like) in sight, I then specifically work on generalizing to other items and moving mastered items out of sight.

You also have to be careful about not accepting sloppy responses such as “pretzel, yes.” The answer has to be yes or no when teaching yes/no mands. Be careful also not to overuse yes/no questions outside of these yes/no mand sessions when the child is just learning this skill. Otherwise, the child may lose the ability to spontaneously mand for items.

Yes/No tacting (answering “Is this a pen?” or “Is this blue?” or “Am I standing?”) is a much harder skill and should not be introduced until the child can indicate yes/no for mand items out of sight (Do you want ketchup on your hot dog? Or Do you want ice cream?). He or she also needs a solid tacting repertoire for items, features, actions, etc.

For children with the ability to respond yes or no with manding but who have yes/no tacting difficulty, I have had success with teaching yes/no tacts within the mand frame. When my son was learning to tact yes and no and would mand for cheerios spontaneously, I pulled out cheerios and asked “Are these cheerios?” He said “yes” and then got the cheerios. Once he had this skill solid I pulled out a different box of cereal when he manded for cheerios and said “Are these cheerios”….then he said “no” and I pulled out another box and asked “Are these cheerios?” and he said “no” then I finally pulled out the cheerios. Eventually (and in random order) the answer was “yes” and he received the cheerios. I then moved on to presenting yes/no tacts with flash cards without a mand component. When I started with flashcards I used “Is this an apple?” as the only question and had a mixed pile of apples and other things that were very different from apples. Once yes/no tacts are mastered (Is this a bed?, Is this a car? as you present random pictures), you’ll need to also teach children to respond to yes or no to tacts involving feature, function and class (“Does this have wheels?” or “Can you eat this?”).

For yes/no intraverbals, it is important that the instructor know the answer to the question they are asking. For example, asking “Have you ever been on a boat?” is not a good question if you don’t know whether the student has ever been on a boat. There are many children and adults with autism who answer “yes” often (and incorrectly) because they don’t understand complex language. For this reason, I usually don’t focus on teaching intraverbal yes/no responses. I directly teach yes/no mands and tacts and let the intraverbal yes/no responses develop more gradually (and only teach basic, functional and important yes/no intraverbals).

I go over these techniques and more like this in my Autism ABA Help Course. Click here to find out more!

ABA and the Verbal Behavior Approach for Children with “High Functioning” Autism

ABA and the Verbal Behavior Approach for Children with “High Functioning” Autism

I am often asked if ABA/VB is appropriate for children or adults with High Functioning Autism (HFA). Since my book is geared more towards helping adults learn how to teach early learners, many parents and professionals think that ABA and specifically the Verbal Behavior Approach is not appropriate for “higher functioning” children.

First I want to say that I really try to avoid using the terms “high functioning” and “low functioning” to describe learners with autism. I explain why I prefer not to use these terms in chapter 12 of my book but very simply it is the same reason I wouldn’t label a typical child or adult as “smart” or “stupid.” All of us are smart in some areas but not so smart in other areas. It is unfair for us to put children with autism in boxes and to try to classify kids as either high functioning or low functioning. Instead we need to assess the child’s strengths and weaknesses. An individualized ABA/VB program should capitalize on the child’s strengths while helping him or her overcome weaknesses.

I spend at least half of my consultation time with children that most people would consider to be “high functioning.” These children look pretty indistinguishable in the community and some of these kids are even able to hold decent conversations. But most if not all of the high language learners I work with still have language deficits and social skill weaknesses that are in need of serious ABA/VB programming. Many of these students also have dyslexia and other learning disabilities too and this often complicates programming. Because of these skill deficits, all of the students I work with on a regular basis need a fine balance between demands and reinforcement.

ABA is the science of changing socially significant behavior and, in my opinion, is often mistakenly overlooked for children and adults with “high-functioning autism.” Check out my book (The Verbal Behavior Approach) specifically chapters 2 and 12 for more information about using ABA/VB techniques to teach children with autism, regardless where they fall on the spectrum

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