Lucas couldn’t complete this task of putting on the smock independently and they would physically have to help Lucas, but he also wasn’t able to dress himself yet. With toys, they might point to the pile of toys to clean up or sing a cleanup song to get him to participate after the direction was given to clean up the toys.
What is Prompt Fading?
Now, back then when Lucas was three, I wasn’t a behavior analyst and I didn’t know much about prompts or prompt fading, but that report by the psychologist made me angry. Even back then, I knew that prompt dependency was not a child problem. It was and is caused by teachers and well-meaning parents like me, who did not know how to fade prompts.
I’ve spent the last two decades developing procedures to teach kids skills and to teach adults how to effectively fade prompts. Helping kids learn new skills can be hard. And as parents and professionals, we want to help our kids succeed. So we frequently offer prompts or help when we think they may need them.
How to Start Prompt Fading
We need to know how to use prompt fading to make sure kids don’t become prompt dependent. The first step is an assessment of your child’s or client’s skills. What skills are truly independent and what skills are not solid and require prompting? My one page Turn Autism Around Assessment Form is a great start. It will take you less than 10 minutes to complete and will help you learn whether your child can truly do things independently without prompts.
If you say “touch head,” does he touch his head or do you have to give them a prompt and touch your own head? Do you have to sing the Barney song so that he touches his head in a sing-song manner? These are all prompts that need to be detected so that you know what prompts have to be faded.
We also have to think about our child’s age or our client’s age, because a three-year-old needing some help getting a painting smock on like Lucas did is not that unusual. But a three-year-old that needs prompting to speak or to follow one-step directions is much more of a concern.
So we don’t want to just look at our prompts. We want to look at the whole picture. And I think that my one-page assessment form is a great start to look at the whole picture. I did a video blog called “What is Prompt Dependency in Children with Autism?” that can be helpful as well.
What is a Prompt?
A prompt is used when a child needs help to complete a task. It can be a physical prompt to help them put their socks on, or it can be an echoic prompt, like saying “cookie” to get the child to say cookie. Or saying “cuh,” as a partial echoic prompt. Prompts can be physical, or the can be vocal. They can also be gestural like Lucas’ therapist used to point to the toys, that’s called a gestural prompt.
We can’t consider a skill truly mastered until the prompts are faded. So in addition to assessing the child’s skills and needs, it is also important for you to assess your prompts and see which ones can be faded now, and which ones you’ll plan to fade in the future.
One of the big ways to work on prompt fading is to learn about transfer trials. Back in 2005, I published a study on this important procedure that I learned about when Lucas was six years old, right before I became a behavior analyst.
Transfer procedures are the key to fading out prompts. You want to use them when you put a prompt in to get a response to be more independent. So, if you hold up a pretzel and the child wants to eat it, you give a full echoic prompt by saying pretzel or “say pretzel.” The child then says pretzel. Way back, I was just giving Lucas the pretzel. I was giving it to him right after the full prompt and he accepted the prompt and he got the pretzel.
But the transfer trial is critical. So right after he says pretzel, I did a transfer trial and tried to get that response more independent by using another prompt. I would say “what do you want?” or “tell me again?” Or I would just hold up the pretzel and then hold it back and see if he said pretzel again.
If that doesn’t happen, you could also use a partial echoic prompt as a transfer. So say pretzel, and then when he says pretzel, say “Good. Tell me again.” Even start saying it, “pre.” And then when he says pretzel, he gets it on that partial echoic prompt. That is a transfer trial.
You can also use transfer procedures across every operant and skill. So if you’re not using transfer procedures, I urge you to learn more. This is the number one secret to fading prompts.
Prompts and Autism
Make sure any prompt you use is gentle and child-friendly. I did a video blog on why it’s important to avoid unnecessary physical prompts for children with autism. As with any behavior change procedure, collecting baseline data and data after intervening will ensure you’re going in the right direction.
If you want to learn more about my child-friendly Turn Autism Around approach, including how to effectively fade prompts, I would encourage you to take my two-minute autism quiz at marybarbera.com/quiz. Watch the free workshop after the quiz too, to start learning how to assess your child or client and ensure you’re effectively fading prompts.
Lastly, Don’t forget to take the two minute autism quiz at marybarbera.com/quiz so I can get you started in learning more about effective teaching that avoids prompt dependency.