Teaching Kids with Autism to Love Table Time for Learning

A common problem in home and school ABA programs is kids resisting coming to the table or work area, or leaving the work area. Today, I’m going to talk to you about sanitizing the environment, and how this can be a critical step to get kids running to the table to start and continue to love table time for learning.


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In a previous blog, I talk about how to get kids with autism to like or love table time, and why I think it’s a very important part of any verbal behavior program. Today, I’m going to talk about sanitizing the environment so you can achieve the most learning for your child or clients when they are at the table.

One of the first steps in starting a home ABA program is selecting a room, or a corner of a room, where you can do intensive teaching. When Lucas was three years old, we used our basement as his therapy room. At that time, we were doing a Lovaas-type ABA program, and not a verbal behavior approach program, so we had toys laying around the room. In between tasks at the table, we would tell Lucas to go play, and since he didn’t really have any play skills, he would essentially go and stim with a toy while we recorded our data, and when he went to go play, he was essentially leaving us and all the learning materials and being on his own.

Using a verbal behavior approach is very different. We, as the instructors, want to be the giver of all good things, and we want to be a part of not only the instruction period, but we also want to be a part of that reinforcement period too. And one of the most important steps in switching to a verbal behavior approach is to sanitize the environment.

So, instead of picking a messy playroom like we had with my basement situation, we want to choose a room or space with limited distractions. If possible, you may need to gate the room or close the door to prevent the child from going into more distracting play areas where they could stim. This gate hopefully can be faded out eventually, but in the meantime, you may need to use something like a gate. We want to have toys and materials not laid out around the room. We want them in closed cabinets or in boxes, plastic boxes work well, or high up on shelves.

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At the beginning of the session, we want to bring reinforcement to the table, and we want to bring the activities to the table, either one at a time from the cabinet, or bring the whole box over, or have a rolling bin with some of the activities in it, and we want to bring that along to the table. So basically, the only thing in the room are you, and the toys, and the reinforcements, which are at the table. I also, which I think I talk about in the other blog, don’t like to use the word work for children with autism. Instead, I want to call the table the learning table, or I just want to label the activity. “Hey, come on over. We’re going to do some Play-Doh,” and as I have the Play-Doh out and the child should be coming, because of all the reinforcement we have at the table.

And if the child, for whatever reason, leaves the table or the learning area, we don’t want to tell them, “No, you have to come back. Sit down.” Actually be a little detective. Watch where they go and see what they gravitate to. Are they going to pick up a little figurine that was left out? Are they going to play with string that they found? Are they going to sit in a rocking chair that happens to be in the room? If they go to something like a string, or a figurine, or even a rocking chair, you can bring these items to the table, either right away or ahead of time next session, but we want to bring things to the table that the child really likes, and then we can be a part of that reinforcement period too.

At school, it may be a little harder to sanitize the environment, but school staff can work together to identify distractions and highly-reinforcing items that should be brought to the table before a session if possible, for each individual student. Overall, if the child is leaving the table, this typically means that you, the table, and the materials are not paired well enough, and/or you haven’t sanitized the environment enough.

In summary, I believe table time is extremely important for kids, especially those with moderate to severe autism, and one of the most critical steps is finding an area of a room that can be sanitized to help you make table time super fun and reinforcing. To get started turning things around for any child with autism, download my free three-step guide, which covers three steps you can take today to help your child or client with autism. Whether you’re a novice parent or a seasoned autism professional, I know you’ll find some helpful new tools in this guide. Leave me a comment, subscribe to my channel, and I’ll see you right here next week.

Ready to learn more and turn things around for your child or client with autism? Sign up for my free 3-step guide!