Getting Kids with Autism to Like (or Love) Table Time

I’m a big proponent of table time even for toddlers. Most early intervention professionals and behavior analysts recommend more natural environment teaching methods for young children with autism. But I have found the quicker we can get a child sitting at a table to learn, the better he or she will do.

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Initially, we start out with very short bursts of table time. We bring the reinforcers to the table.  We don’t just bring out the table. We bring out a few edibles, a drink, an electronic reinforcer, and anything else we think the child might like so we can begin to assess reinforcers and begin to pair the table with good things.

If the child loves music, we might bring out a boom box. If the child likes certain books, we might bring out a book or a pile of books, but we control everything at and around the table.

We also need to sanitize the environment or at least the room we are working in, and by sanitizing, I don’t mean cleaning or scrubbing things down. I mean hiding toys or other potential items of interest, so that the child doesn’t want to escape. We need to have all the good stuff for table time and if they want to get away from us and the table, that means we probably don’t have the child’s strongest reinforcers right there with us at the table.

If the room is not sanitized and we don’t have really great stuff at the table, then you’re fighting an uphill battle. We don’t ever want to force a child to sit. We don’t block them with our legs or hold them in the chair.

When kids are first starting out they can’t leave the table with materials and reinforcers we have at the table. If they want to leave the table, that’s fine, but not with the table items because we need to control the reinforcers.

I’m also not a big fan of, “Let’s work for a break” because then the child is working to get away from you. I also don’t like to say, “Three more and then you get a break.” I want the child to RUN to the table, to the materials and reinforcement and to ME. I don’t want them “working” to get away from me.

What I do, if you are just trying to get up to an hour, is say, “He does great up until 10 minutes most of the time. Eighty percent of the time he does great with 10 minutes. When we get to the 15-20 minute mark, sometimes he falls apart.” I’m going to set a visual timer for 10 minutes or I can just look at my watch and I can say, “Tommy, we’re going to play here for 10 minutes, and then we’re going to go outside” or “then we’re going to go in the basement, in the playroom.”

But you’re going to go with him and that is going to be more natural environment teaching. It’s not a stim break. This break time is still engagement time. This break time is actually natural environment teaching times where the therapist can and should be working on things like manding, imitation, play skills, and generalization.

So in summary, the best way to get kids to like or love table time is to:

  1. Pair the table with highly reinforcing items and materials
  2. Sanitize the rest of the room so you can build instructional control
  3. Keep table sessions brief in the beginning and slowly increase the time at the table
  4. During breaks, engage the child with teaching activities away from the table
  5. Finally make your teaching sessions FUN so your client or child is running to learn from YOU!

Thanks for watching and I’ll see you next week!