Autism Teaching Strategies: How to Teach a Child with Autism or Signs of Autism

Many professionals believe that teaching on the floor in a child’s natural environment is the best way to teach kids with autism or kids with developmental delays. Over my two decades as a BCBA, I have found that a table is better to incorporate my autism teaching strategies. Rather than chasing a child around the room following their short attention span, I’ve found more success from teaching by using repetitions in a positive environment centered around table time.

Step 1 and 2 of the Turn Autism Around approach is all about getting an assessment and a plan so that you can be prepared to dive into step 3: Teaching. The assessment is going to help you see where the child is at so that the child’s goals are realistic and achievable. A child cannot learn colors when we shouldn’t be teaching them to put together two syllables. Once we have a baseline assessment of their general abilities, then we can put together a plan that will meet them where they’re at, and move them toward their goals.

Each of us thrives in a positive environment, and I really believe in making my autism teaching strategies as fun and positive as possible. We teach prosocial behaviors at the table using activities that build a child’s skills. The fun things like bubbles, puzzles, and sensory toys live at the table, and that makes kids excited to join the parent or therapist for some learning disguised as fun.

There are children who struggle at table time, but that just makes us as parents and professionals have to work harder to figure out how to reach that specific child. My approach to table time works for most children, plus it promotes parent education. Parents can take this strategy and apply it throughout their child’s day to create positive engagement during the majority of their child’s waking hours.


  • How to set up a learning center so that a child will be excited to “work” with you.
  • Engaging a child with autism for most of their waking hours sounds like an unbelievable task, so I have some tips for how you incorporate positive engagement throughout the day.
  • Rather than jumping straight into teaching, I share why I think you should start with an assessment and a guide to help you get it right from the start.

Start making a difference for your child or client with autism or signs of autism through free training!

Attend a FREE Workshop!

Sign up for a free workshop online for parents and professionals
#108: Autism Assessment: Step one of the Turn Autism Around Approach
#112: Planning and Setting Goals for Autism
#024: Jenna P. (Autism Mom): Autism + Other Diagnoses and Risk of Autism in Siblings

Transcript for Podcast Episode: 115
Autism Teaching Strategies: How to Teach a Child with Autism or Signs of Autism
Hosted by: Dr. Mary Barbera

You're listening to the Turn Autism Around podcast episode number one hundred and fifteen, I'm your host, Dr. Mary Barbera. And today I am doing a solo show, going to talk about step three of the Turn Autism Around approach, which is all about teaching. And I'm going to specifically dive into one of the unique features of the Turn Autism Around approach, which is table time. And I'm going to tell you how to what are some of the benefits and how to get started with using table time. So before I get there, I do want to let you know that my new book, Turn Autism Around: An Action Guide for Parents of Young Children with Early Signs of Autism, is available for preorder. And it's going to come out in two weeks from the time that this show is airing.

So if you haven't preordered or even if you have preordered, you're going to want to check out And that's where you can find out how to order the book, what the book's about. And it's also going to be the link to autism around dotcom for all the book bonuses. So if you get to the assessment in Chapter four, you're going to be able to go and get a sample assessment, get assessment you can download right at an autism around dotcom. It's going to be a really important website for you to keep in mind. Good thing is the same name as this podcast, so you should not forget it. Anyway, let's get to this episode all about teaching and specifically teaching at the table.

Thanks for tuning in again for another episode of Turn Autism Around podcast. So let's start talking right away about step three of the Turn Autism Around approach, which is all about teaching. And I am going to be talking a little bit more about teaching at the table, which is a unique, a unique thing about the autism around approach for both parents and professionals. Many early intervention providers really do believe that teaching kids in their natural environment, specifically on the floor, is the way to go for children with developmental delays and even autism.

But I have found over the past two decades that really, using a table is much more advantageous, even for young children as young as one and a half and definitely by age two. So I'm going to talk about some of the advantages of using the table. But before I get there, I want to kind of go more high level and talk about the four steps of the Turn Autism Around approach. So I have done a whole podcast on the first step, which is assessment. And that podcast is number one 08. So any time I say a podcast number like one 08, it's found by going to This will all be linked in the show notes under this episode, which is 115. So I'm not going to recover all of the assessment tools that I talk about in episode number 108. But that is the very first step of the autism around approach.

Step two of the term autism around approach. Is it planning and making sure your goal selections are appropriate? And that is episode number 112. So in this episode, I want to cover the third step, which is all about teaching. And the fourth step, which I will cover at in an upcoming episode, is all about evaluating progress, using simple data.

So we're not going to touch the fourth step in this episode. We're going to just dove specifically into the teaching. And it's not just all about the table. I have some general procedures to use and we're going to talk about those two. But first, let me tell you two stories of kids that did are in the book. And one, Cody is a former client of mine that I went to his home who lives about a mile from me. And then I'm going to also tell you about a boy who I've never met him or his mother, but he's made great strides using the term autism around four steps. So Cody's mom, Jenna, has been on the podcast and her episode we can link in the show notes. But Cody was a child who was delayed from before the age of one. He had an early intervention team in his house. He had physical therapists, occupational therapists, speech therapists and teacher. They each came about an hour a week. And Cody was diagnosed with autism at 18 months of age. Much to his parent's surprise.

They actually thought that the doctor was going to say that he had cerebral palsy, which he ended up getting diagnosed with cerebral palsy years later. Oh, he has a mild case of cerebral palsy in addition to autism. But anyway. Prior to his diagnosis of autism and even immediately following it, he had four very well-meaning early intervention professionals in his home, but they were mostly following his lead and not knowing what to do about his tantrums and the self-injurious behavior that was emerging he would bite is not going to hit his head. He had pop out words all along, but nobody had any idea how to teach him to talk, to talk more, to imitate, to match or to play until I arrived and we started the Turn Autism Around approach.

Back then, I didn't call it the Turn Autism Around approach, but I called it applied behavior analysis and Skinner's analysis of verbal behavior. And I was taking all of my experience and really kids like Cody and his mom, Diana, helped me create my step by step on the four steps of the Turn Autism Around approach. Also, Brentley was another child who was not doing very well before his mom found my course online. But Brentley had problem behaviors. He was banging his head on hard surfaces up to a hundred times a day. He could not request things or manned for things. Yet she was driving him to an ABA clinic where they were trying to work on things like colors. He was leaving the clinic doors running into the street is also running into water. So Mom felt that he was extremely unsafe, which he was, and really confused by them trying to teach him colors and other advanced skills.

So when we look at the teaching component, the third step of the Third Autism Around approach, we have to remember that most of my podcast episodes, most of the video blogs that I have done over the past three or four years have all related somewhat to teaching. I have video blogs on teaching colors, actions, prepositions, teaching kids to talk, teaching kids manners, all those kinds of things. And if you ever want to, if you're thinking, I wonder if Mary has something on that. Just search Mary autism. Plus the topic you're interested in. And chances are really high that I'm going to have something pop up that you are going to find helpful. So in general, the main parts of using the Turn Autism Around approach strategies is in terms of teaching. We want to spend our time keeping children as engaged as possible. We also want to be positive and spend 95 percent of our time preventing problem behaviors.

So that's really very general, very basic. And you're like, yeah, that's not really helping me know exactly what to do, which is what my courses and also what my new book Turn Autism Around is going to help you do because it's much more step by step. So as I said, step one of the term autism around approach is finding your starting point by completing assessments. And I have an easy assessment that can be done in just ten minutes a day. And after completing the assessment and the language sample that I talk about in the health care checklist and the video recordings all in Episode one, 08, then you move on to step number two of the term autism around approach, which is all about how to plan. We have a ten-minute planning form that you can fill out right away. And then we also talk about goal selection. So for kids like Cody, who had for early intervention professionals in his home, you know, one of the important things is to look at those goals and then Cody's situation, maybe his OT and his PT goals were appropriate, but certainly his language, his social skills goals were too high.

Brantley also his goals were too high. They were working on colors for Cody. They were working on things like my turn, your turn for Lucas. I talk about him in the book and other podcast where they were working on some versus one versus all when he couldn't even say ball. If I said say so, that's really the the biggest parts of using the Turn Autism Around approach. Everybody wants to just dove into how do I teach prepositions? How do I teach this, how do I teach this? And it's like you need to step back. Look at the whole picture, look at the child. How old is the child? What's their general ability? Can they talk? What's their problem? Behaviors like because just because you want to work on colors or you can work on colors. Doesn't mean you should be and may not be the best use of your time or the child's time.

So step three is all about teaching. And like I said, we want to keep a child engaged as much as possible. Now, studies have shown that kids with a diagnosis of autism need 20 to 40 hours of ABA therapy per week. And that sounds daunting. I know it sounds daunting to me. And Lucas got 40 hours of ABA therapy at age three prescribed. But really what kids need with or without autism is they need to be engaged during most of their waking hours and their waking hours turns out to be about 100 hours per week of awake time.

And even Temple Grandin, who Temple Grandin wrote the foreword for my new book, she's in her in her 70s, and she started showing signs of autism when she was just two years of age. So seven decades ago, her mother, who wrote a number of good books, Eutasia Cutler, she knew enough to get Temple engaged. She sent her to a little school out of somebody's basement and. Temple's mom hired a nanny to keep her temple and her sister engaged as much as possible, and that was seven decades ago. So the more we can keep our kids engaged, the better. No matter if they have a diagnosis or not. We also want to give children eight positives to every negative again. Doesn't matter if they have autism or not. We all really thrive best when we're in a very positive environment. So we want to use as for the teaching step, we want to use the assessment and the plan and all the materials. I suggested in Episode 112. And the same materials are in the book in my courses. And I also have a new materials checklist with which materials I recommend and actually links to the Amazon store where you can buy them directly. So that is an affiliate link, but I have them all arranged because people were wondering what type of toys I recommend.

So that is that will link that the show note as well. So the big parts of step number three before we get specifically into table time is that we want to use step one and two so that we are definitely working on the right things. We're meeting the child where he or she is at. We're working on the right goals in the right order. We have the right materials and we're ready to go. So one of the most important materials on the materials checklist is the use of a table. Now, when we're talking about a young child, a toddler or preschooler, we want to use a child sized table, preferably their feet are on the floor and they're not strapped in. They are free to come and go. And for older children, you may want to look at getting a card table or table where their feet can hit the floor.

Ideally, we want a separate learning table from the kitchen table just so that we can utilize that table in a room where the room doesn't have a lot of distractions and it's separate from the eating. But if all you have is a kitchen table, then that's fine. That's where you start. Some people start with even a coffee table and just scoot up a little chair to have the child sit on that. OK, so some of the advantages of table time. I know, like I said before, early intervention professionals really are from the mindset that and even ABA practitioners that young children, early learners really need a lot more natural environment teaching on the floor following the child's lead. But what I found over the past two decades that I've been in the autism world is that children do best when there are a lot of trials, a lot of repetition, and that the child really needs to have high motivation to stay with you.

What I found when I was in early intervention, going to homes and going to preschools is that if you would follow the child's lead to much kind of run away and get into other things, and you spent I spent, you know, 30 minutes just kind of not getting a whole lot accomplished. You might be playing with a puzzle on the floor and you hold up a puzzle piece that's a dog and you say dog and the child may take it, not take it. Child gets up, runs towards the window, looks out the window. Now you're following the child's lead. The puzzle remains on the floor. You go over, you're starting to point out, oh, there's a slide out there. Look at the slide. The child doesn't say slide runs to something else.

And you can see how we're not making a lot of progress. And that's what I think happens in a lot of situations. So as part of the autism round approach, I have developed table time now, table time is not what you're thinking. If you're out there thinking of ABA, it's a discrete trial. You make the child sit at the table. They're not happy. It doesn't look natural. Now we're basically bringing all the fun materials, all the reinforcers to the table. And we are engaging the child in those fun activities and making the work, quote unquote, fun. We're not calling it work or not forcing a child to stay with us. If the child wants to leave, they can leave. So one of the biggest things you have to do before you would expect a child to sit at a table is you need to as much as possible to sanitize the rest of the room so that the rest of the room is actually not that fun. So we have all the fun things at the table. We have bubbles, we have some animals, we have a drink. We might have electronics, we have cause and effect toys. And those are really fun. And we can get the child engaged and happy.

And then very slightly, once we have the child super happy, we can start sliding in some easy demands that are easy and fun. And the child doesn't even know that they are working and learning and they come to love table time. It signifies that we're going to actually concentrate. It builds a tension. We're working on all the quote unquote good behaviors or a fancier term is prosocial behaviors. We're going to work on attending, sitting, talking, imitating, matching, following directions. Also, one of the advantages of having a table is once you do start working on things like matching or puzzle building, object imitation, you have a flat surface. The area is very well paired. And so it's not a constant. I have to create a whole natural environment teaching lesson plan. Basically intensive teaching looks pretty much the same or table time looks pretty much the same on Monday as it does on Tuesday. Table time also looks the same, whether it's mom doing it or the speech therapist doing it or the teacher doing it at a preschool.

So we use very familiar toys, very easy cause and effect type toys and materials and lots of reinforcement to get repetitive trials going so that a child hears the word water many times, hears the word cow many times, hears the word ear from potato heads ear many times, and we use what we call multiple control. I explain that a little bit in the book, how we pair a word. We say it, we show it to the child. So if the child is echoing it, they're not only echoing it, they're actually getting the piece, the ear to put in potato heads ear or the cow to put in an animal puzzle. They're getting it. They want it. So it's part mand, part tact or they can see it and part echo. And that's what we call multiple control. These activities at the table build not only the skill of the child, but it builds the skill and the confidence of the parent of the therapist, whether that's a novice therapist or seasoned therapist. And these procedures really work not for one child, but for all the children. Not to say that it's a slam dunk for every child. There are children that refuse to sit really hard, to find good reinforcers, really tricky to program for. And that just makes us as behavior analysts and speech therapists and teachers more like we have to roll up our sleeves. We have to figure out what to do for this specific child. But in general, staying positive, keeping a child engaged, preparing the table, sanitizing the room, making things repetitive and fun so that the child is running to the table really makes for a great environment, for learning and for learning day in, day out without a lot of natural environment, teaching lesson plans and those sorts of things.

So you really want to spend your time. If a child does leave the table, watch where they go. What are they looking at? What are they doing? Oh, they're rocking on a rocking chair or they're picking up a figurine from the floor. OK, so there may be the room, there's figurines on the floor. Maybe those should be in a box at the table that you can play with the child, with the figurines, maybe the rocking chair, maybe a little child rocking chair could come to the table. Or you could. That interspersed with table time.

So you also, besides sanitizing the room, first of all, you have to find a room or corner of the room. That would be an ideal space. So I don't like to use a child's bedroom, especially if they have trouble sleeping. But we want a room that can be pared down with just not a whole lot of things cluttered around the floor. And that just may be organizing one weekend and putting things in bins that the child can't open easily. And not to say that all day long we're going to keep everything that closed up with the child with nothing to do. But it really doesn't do any anyone any good to have potato head and all the parts strewn about the room and puzzle pieces and things not organized.

So I know you teachers out there who are super organized will understand and probably agree that the more organized you can be with toys and materials, the better children will do, because children, especially children with delays with or without a diagnosis of autism, need a lot of structure to learn, play and especially language skills. So using the whole four step Turn Autism Around approach encourages parents and professionals to really create those bins to create really helpful table time activities and keep those table time activities super short, like up to 15 minutes a day to start paring the table, start just slipping in very, very easy activities that the child likes. And if the child is having a tantrum, not coming to the table, we want to reverse things and really think about, OK, what don't I have here that could really turn things around? Because every child who's delayed needs to catch up. And the more we can help the child catch up, the better everyone will do. Creating a table time space enables is beneficial and enables you and your child or clients to really have some success.

Children will come to understand that great things happen at the table and will become eager to be a part of what's happening there. It really is not unusual to have children running to the table or when I arrive at their house at Cody's house, I can just picture it. Ten years ago I'd arrive at his house and he would go and he was only two years old and he would start dragging out the table and dragging out the materials. That's the kind of excitement and enthusiasm we want to create with our children. As I said, I would recommend keeping these table type sessions really short, but we're going to be using the same strategies, repeating words up to three times, being super positive, a positive or negative, trying to engage your child every space around the room all day long as much as possible. So that a trip to the grocery store can also be pairing words, having the child be happy, building excitement for going, having some reinforcers on hand so that we can deliver reinforcement when the child is being good. Bath time can also become super reinforcing.

So this table time promotes parent education so that they can learn these strategies to expand a generalizes skills throughout the day. So in summary, the term autism around approach includes four steps. Step one is assessment that's covered in episode one. Okay, step two is planning gathering materials, making sure goals are appropriate. That's episode 112. And now this episode one 15. We talked about step three, which is teaching. Teaching is done both at a table as well as throughout the day to keep your child and clients engaged as much as possible. As I said, I will cover step four of the Turn Autism Around approach, which is all about evaluating progress, using easy data, all explained in my book Turn Autism Around as well as my online courses. So by using the strategies outlined in this episode and also in the book in the courses, you are setting your child up for learning success. Remember, we want to use 95 percent of our time preventing problem behaviors. So if you hear yourself saying no, stop frequently, really need to rethink that and try to be more positive.

Also engaging your child in a positive manner, child friendly as much as possible throughout the day is key. Don't forget to preorder my new book, and check the same website. for all your book bonuses. And I will see you here next week while you'll hear me. I probably won't see you, but I have a special episode next week with my husband, Dr. Charles Barbera, talking all about his experience raising Lucas and some advice for dads of kids with autism. And then the following week, we'll be airing a podcast episode with Dr Temple Grandin. Just two more weeks til my book Turn Autism Around comes out. Can't wait. So for all the details and I'll catch it next week.