Increasing Language in Children with Autism Through a Shoebox

As some of you may know, I’ve been a behavior analyst since 2003 and worked for the Pennsylvania Verbal Behavior Project, which was a statewide grant from 2003 to 2010. When I left the project, I began working in the early intervention field with very young children through a contract with the birth to 3 provider in my county. It was in 2010 when I started to develop my own step by step procedures to help kids who were not talking or just talking a little bit and had what I call “pop-out words”. So today I want to share with you one of the procedures that I created early on, starting in around 2010, using a shoebox to start increasing language.

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Today I want to discuss this procedure using a shoebox that I created when I started working in the early intervention field with very young children of 1, 2, and 3 years old. These were kids who were either not saying any words or were saying some words, but I was having trouble establishing what we behavior analysts call echoic control. So echoic control is, I say ball, you say ball. For many of our young children with and without autism, they might have words, but unless you know procedures to get those words out, it’s really hard to teach them. So developing the ability to get echoic control is always the best situation because a lot of times with kids, especially with autism, the flood gates then open and we can start increasing language.

Way back some of my very first video blogs were with a little girl named Mia and you can look at those video blogs now. I went out to Mia’s house and I consulted with her. She was talking, but it had been months of intervention and the parents and professionals working there still didn’t have any echoic control. She had these pop-out words. I was really kind of wondering what the best way was to quickly gain instructional control and get the ability to produce a lot more language.

We want to focus on the mand, which is an operant, and means you have a word that you use because you want something. So if somebody says to me, my child has 10 words. I would say, what are the words? They then would tell me the words: cookie, drink, banana, mommy, daddy, tree, sun, whatever the 10 words are. Then I would ask how does your child use those words? They would say things like, “Oh, well when they want to go outside, they say out and I open the door” or “When they want a banana, they say banana I give them a banana.” So those are both examples of mands or requests. So they want something, they say the word and they get it. But with Mia, I remember her mom would hold up a cup with Dora the Explorer characters on it and Mia would just say “Dora, Boots,” whatever the character’s names were. She would label them or tact them. But when she wanted something she would cry. So she had tacts but not mands. With early learner programming, what I found over the years was that it’s really hard to separate out the different operants when you’re talking about early learners. So a lot of my early learner programs that I recommend, like the shoebox, which I’m going to talk about in a second, are actually a combination of all the operants together.

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So what I would recommend is you get a shoebox. Now in Mia’s situation, we came up with the box idea and mom had a pasta box so we used the pasta box. You can use any box. I find that a shoebox with a lid that’s attached is the best thing and you can cut a slit into it. Obviously, this lid is just hacked with a scissor. I had a client that was very exact and she wanted a perfect little slit. Whatever you can do is fine. Then you can gather pictures of family members. If you gather pictures of family members, make sure it’s one person per picture. So if it’s mommy, it’s just mommy. It’s not mommy holding a ball or mommy on a bicycle or mommy with a hat on because that might be confusing. So pictures of just one person and the picture pretty close up so that the child can see the face. I’d also recommend that you go to the dollar store and get pictures of various items. Then decide which words are best for your kid. So monkey, for instance, is a two-syllable word. Lots of little kids know monkeys. Sun is a good one-syllable word. So when you start to think about what words your child might come in contact with, the sun would be something they would come in contact with on a regular basis. So now in this packet, we’re also going to have things like X-ray. For a 2 or 3-year-old child that’s not talking, they don’t need to learn an X-ray so I would exclude that. I might exclude flower because it has a blend unless the child is really into flowers and exposed to them a lot. Kite depends if they have any exposure. Turtle is kind of a little kid word and two syllables so we’ll take it. Fish would be a good word too. Lemon depends on the child. Tent depends if they have any exposure. Cake, yes, everyone is unfortunately exposed to sugar and cake. So we have some words and maybe we have some pictures of family members too.

After we’ve selected the appropriate words, our next step in increasing language would be to sit diagonal from the child and then we would want to say the words one at a time. We would say them if we can three times “fish, fish, fish,” then we give it to the child. All the child has to do is put the fish in the box. They don’t have to say it. We want to pair up the ability for them to want to put it in the box. So what happens then if a child does echo cake or some part of the cake?  Because this will become a reinforcing activity and they will want to put it in the box, because they want it, it’s part mand. They’re labeling it so it’s part tact. They’re echoing to you because I’m going to say cake so it’s part echo. It’s part receptive ability because of the cause and effect, following directions, and sitting at the table with me, we’re pairing up so many things at the same time. What I find is if we really focus on 10 or 20 words and we pair them, some children will pick up some words or start word approximations and that is extremely exciting.

shoebox language program

So that’s why I feel a shoebox is one of the best tools in the house and some pictures of family members as well as dollar store cards to start increasing language. I also did a video blog a little while ago on the shoebox with a little bit more explanation of the procedure. I also have a free download (linked through the orange button below) explaining more step by step about how to do this shoebox program at home. One of the things I will say is if you are not engaging with a shoebox, cards, and the child, don’t have them laying around where the child could access them. Put it up on a shelf and engage the child when you are available because I have found that sometimes when you let it be free to access, it kind of loses its therapeutic value. You can use this in preschool settings and for even older kids who are not yet talking. You can certainly use this within homes and to get engagement, get responding going and hope to start increasing language. So again, if you like this, leave me a comment and download the free 6 step guide via the orange button below about how to set up your own shoebox program. I would love to see you here next week.

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