While one of the most effective methods for teaching children with ASD is using discrete trials, I can't stress enough the importance of naturalizing our teaching and reinforcement procedures. For readers who may not know what I mean when I say discrete trials, click here for the basics of discrete trial training.
When I was a discrete trial training "therapist" back in the early 90's, I acted in certain ways that do not make me proud. I worked with kids 1:1 in isolated settings, I worked with kids for 1-2 hours at a time at a table using only adult directed learning activities, goals were often selected simply because they were the goals that were always part of discrete trial training programs, I would often talk in incomplete sentences (ex. "get cup"), I always used exactly the same words and directive tone of voice when I gave directions and asked questions, and best of all: I learned how to cut skittles and m&m's into fours so that I can use them for positive reinforcement without the kids getting "satiated." Over and over again, I would hear and read how children with autism lack motivation and the ability to generalize skills they learn. Well, if we taught typically developing children in the manner described above, I believe they would lack motivation and generalization skills as well.
I wish I could say that the isolated, unnatural, solely adult-directed, rote methods of teaching children with autism is a thing of the past, but there are still service providers that use discrete trial training as was done in the 80's and 90's. The fundamentals of discrete trial training are very powerful, and the A-B-C teaching sequence used is almost fool proof. However, we can embed discrete trials within ongoing daily routines across home, school, and community settings to increase motivation and generalization, we can select individualized and meaningful goals, we can vary the way we present things to children to avoid the learning of rote responses, we can use warm facial expressions and natural tones of voice, we can use natural language and talk in complete sentences, and we can use natural reinforcement.
I'm going to bring this home with something a little boy that I used to work with many years ago said to me one day: I was working one-on-one with him doing simple tasks like identifying colors, shapes, and objects. Each time he answered correctly I would give him a small edible treat. This particular child did not care for skittles or m&m's, though; he liked cookies. We all know what happens to cookies when you try to break them into tiny pieces: they crumble. So, as we were sitting at our little table doing our adult-directed tasks, I would give him a little piece of a cookie to positively reinforce his correct responses. Finally, he looks right at me and says, "Don't give me crumbs, it's not nice to do to people." I couldn't agree with him more.
Written by Deb Leach, Ed.D., BCBA