Incidental Learning: How Parents Can Use Everyday Experiences to Help their Children with Autism

At PsychSystems, our behavioral health organization and division of Starr located in Wayne, Mich., we frequently meet families who have a child with autism who has developed many useful social and communication skills. At times, we find that these children were exposed to only a small amount of professional interventions but have progressed beyond what might be expected given the amount of treatment they have experienced.

When this occurs, we usually find that their parents, teachers and other caregivers have taken every opportunity to use natural experiences as teaching times. Children with autism who are involved in opportunities to learn, speak and interact during day-to-day activities show an improved skill foundation, better “real world” use of skills and a more natural style of relating to the world around them.

With what we know about learning and teaching, this makes sense. Even when we use Discrete Trial training models — one of the key Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA) strategies for teaching children with autism — we practice small parts of skills over and over again, praising successes and helping with near misses or mistakes. Life presents our children with autism many different opportunities to try various skills in ways that are meaningful to them. For example, a child with autism may be learning to make requests for certain items. Practice with his or her ABA tutor is helpful, but there are many natural situations where a child will desire a particular item, event or the attention of a person. Parents and caregivers who use incidental learning will only respond to the correct request — or at least some approximation of this request — rather than a “grunt” or an incorrect response. I remember seeing a child who asked his parent for milk when he saw her take a Pepsi out of her bag. She waited, held the Pepsi up away from the child’s grasp a bit, and asked, “What do you want?” The child became a bit impatient and did not ask correctly, at which time his mother began to say the first few sounds of the word Pepsi. The child immediately got the idea and said “Pepsi,” at which time she gave him a drink and said, “That’s right, Pepsi.” She then did another “trial” and said, “What do you want,” again holding the drink just outside of her son’s reach. This time, he said “Pepsi” without any clue. She again gave him a drink and enthusiastically praised him.

Imagine this type of interaction occurring during all waking hours of a child’s life. There will be countless opportunities to teach specific words, concepts and other things, and putting all of those experiences together creates a wealth of skills that help the child later in life. Even for children who are able to have intensive ABA therapy, skills learned at the therapy table do not have real world value unless they are practiced at home or school.

How can you provide incidental opportunities for your child?

1) Realize that every moment is an opportunity for a “teachable moment.”

There are so many things out in the world a child can see, taste and experience that help promote learning. Labeling items the child can see and getting him or her to try to make the sound that approximates the name helps put a word with an object or event. As time goes on, expectations for the responses get more exact, thereby teaching the child to speak and pronounce words more clearly. If a child wants something, this desire should always be paired with an expectation to use a form of communication — words if possible, if not, sign language or a symbol like a picture or PECS card avoid anticipating the child’s needs.

2) Don’t worry if your child becomes a bit frustrated.

Learning anything can be frustrating at first, but as we get better and better at a skill, it becomes easier, more satisfying and more useful to our everyday life. Remember a skill that you learned? Wasn’t this your experience? While we don’t want to make things toofrustrating, we need to accept that this is part of the learning experience. Accepting approximations of the skill we expect, then “raising the bar” as time goes on ensures that the child will learn without getting frustrated.

3) Don’t forget the “payoff.”

We know that any new skill needs to be strengthened or reinforced. Without such a payoff, the skill will never be truly learned. While praise and other social forms of feedback are important, it may also be important to use other things that the child is interested in to reinforce a particular skill. For example, if a child is learning about colors and is interested in cars, walking through the parking lot and identifying each car’s color may be a way to pair learning with a rewarding activity that motivates a child to work on the task. So, a child can go to a car and be asked “what color is this car?” Have the child identify the color, praise and allow some time to look at the car, then move to the next car and repeat.

The world is filled with opportunities that children, regardless of their current ability level, can learn about. Remember that you as a parent or caregiver are a teacher and the world is your classroom. Both you and your child will benefit.

Gary Carone, M.S., L.L.P., L.M.S.W., B.C.B.A.
Co-Executive Director of PsychSystems

Words on Autism

April is Autism Awareness Month, and our students have been working hard to find new ways to teach the world what it is like to have autism. Today, we wanted to share some words from one of our students in Montcalm School.

Everyone who has been diagnosed with anything has had their psyche and self-esteem damaged, no matter who they are. No one plans on being diagnosed with any form of autism. Most kids that already have been diagnosed will blame their troubles on their ‘problems’. But autism is never a problem, it is a gift. Autistic students are first-class because with weakness comes strength, and with strength comes greatness!

Self-esteem issues because of autism can eat away at a kid’s heart. The issues can also make a kid think that no one is listening. The more awareness that is spread about autism, the more people, like our parents, can understand that a negative view on autism can cause a negative spiral throughout their life.

"Seeing the world from a different angle" is written on the wall of our Sensory integration Room.

“Seeing the world from a different angle” is written on the wall of our Sensory integration Room.


Community Garden Grant!

The Ann Arbor Branch of the Woman’s National Farm and Garden Association has given Starr Commonwealth a grant of $1,000 that will be used towards purchasing plants, seeds, gardening tools and supplies this spring. The community garden at Starr has always been an important part of life and learning, and we are proud to have received this grant again.

Beauty is a Silent Teacher

The gardens at Starr are maintained by students on campus.

The gardens at Starr are maintained by students on campus.

Floyd Starr believed that, “Beauty is a silent teacher,” especially for Starr’s students who have suffered from the effects of abuse and neglect, substance abuse and delinquency. Starr’s garden project plays an integral role in this philosophy as students learn not only the science of growing plants, but the nurturing and care needed for their gardens to thrive.

For more than a decade, Starr has, in collaboration with the Calhoun Intermediate School District (CISD), developed a formal garden program that was incorporated into the educational curriculum at Starr Commonwealth. The purpose of Starr’s garden is to teach youth about science, agriculture, health, nutrition, origins of food, and cooking.

To do this, Starr’s residential youth tend and care for the community garden, providing all of the maintenance and upkeep required to harvest fruits and vegetables. Additional raised salad garden beds at each cottage teach students about sustainable food sources by using home-grown vegetables to compliment their snacks and meals.

Through the garden project, students learn about commitment, patience, responsibility, and positive decision-making – all of which further Starr’s goal of “helping children achieve lasting improvements in values and the development of skills which help them succeed long-term in society and in life.”

Learn more about the effects of this grant on the students of Starr here!

Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory!

This Saturday, February 22, at 3:00 pm, students at Starr will be performing Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory! These students have been working hard to make this an amazing production, from creating the costumes and sets to afternoon rehearsals.

This production is free for parents, staff and community members, and any donations will go towards funding our next play!

Our Fine Arts productions only come around once a year, so catch it before it’s gone!

Willy Wonka and his Oompa Loompas!

Willy Wonka and his Oompa Loompas!

Memories from Starr

Starr recently received a letter from Don Potrafka, an alum from 1930, filled with memories of the Starr Albion campus and Uncle Floyd. We were so touched by his story that we made him our Alumni Spotlight in the Fall 2013 issue of Starr News.

Below you can read the full version of Don Potrafka’s story.

If you are interested in becoming an Alumni Spotlight, please send your stories to


Why I came to Starr Commonwealth for Boys on October 17, 1930 I didn’t know at the time. Now I realize that it was the result of my father and mother being divorced in 1925 at Traverse City, Michigan and mother could not watch me and my sister and also work long and late hours at the telephone company in Alma, Michigan. I can recall being shuffled around between staying with my mother, then a stay with an Aunt Bertha Robertson in Traverse City and a short stay with my father who worked on the highway near Lake City, Michigan.

Don Potrafka2

Don Potrafka when he attended Starr Commonwealth.

With limited supervision, a young boy under ten years of age surely can get into trouble. Although, I don’t believe there were any serious troubles which I might have caused the family. Apparently, it was decided that a home like Starr was needed to care for me and guide me through those tender years of my youth. As “there is no such thing as a bad boy”, Uncle Floyd opened his arms and heart to me in that fall of 1930. I look back now on those two years at Starr as one of the great experiences of my life.

When I arrived at Starr, there was the Gladsome house where Uncle Floyd lived and the Old Barn down by the lake which was the start of Starr Commonwealth. There was Newton Hall where I first lived and Wilcox Cottage where I lived just before leaving Starr. Boys were grouped by ages for each cottage with a housemother for supervision. One building was used for offices, school and chapel.

The Hillside Commissary was where all the meals were prepared. Food was grown on the Starr Farm located along the main road leading into Albion. The older boys worked on the farm and went to high school in Albion. During the summer, the younger boys and I worked snapping beans and shelling peas outside the front of the Commissary. Others helped to pick the beans, peas and cucumbers. I guess they were canned for use throughout the year.

My stay at Newton Hall is most vivid in my memories of Starr. Here I learned to make my bed, help to clean the cottage, set tables in the dining room and do other chores needed at home. We slept in a large dormitory on the second floor. I can remember I liked to go to the commissary to pick up the food for our meals. I remember one time when running down the hill I slipped on the wet grass and fell down. I was carrying a glass jar and it broke and a piece of glass jabbed into my left wrist next to my little finger. I don’t recall it being a serious situation.

We ate at tables which seated four boys at each table. We all had to be seated and a prayer was said before we could start eating. I remember that we could have only butter, peanut butter or jelly on our bread. We were not allowed to have some of each on a slice of bread. If we did something wrong while eating we had to stand behind our chair for awhile and watch others eating. Of course we never went without our meals, but it quickly taught us to behave at mealtime. After meals, tables were cleared and we took turns washing, drying and putting away the dishes. It was always a fun job to do.

Starr was always open, no fences, and we could go to the playground down by the lake. Those who could swim could swim out to the raft and dive from it. I remember one boy getting tangled in the weeds in the lake and someone had to help him get back to shore. There was a dance hall across the lake and we could hear the bands and the people having fun on Saturday nights. I can remember when playing on the playground I would play I was a train. I always liked trains as I had ridden them and had been near them earlier in my life. The steam engines fascinated me with the big wheels, driving rods, whistle and bell. I used my arms to imitate the driving rods and would go “choo-chooing” around the playground making the noises of a steam engine.

I can recall the time I walked down the road from Starr to a small creek where I played before returning to Newton Hall. I was always trusted by my housemother and loved and obeyed her because she was like a mother to me. Of course there was always that fear of having to go see Uncle Floyd. He was the one “who had the strap he used for spankings”, so we were told. I never had to go there but do recall being spanked one time by the housemother. I probably deserved it.
During weekdays I went to school, but I don’t recall much about that. I remember that I sang in the chorus and played castanets. It was great fun. Our group would perform at different meetings of grownups.

Don Potrafka at Graduation in 1939

Don Potrafka at Graduation in 1939

One of our big days was Starr Tag Day. We were always excited by that as it meant leaving Starr in a big truck early in the morning for a nearby town to give out tags for donations received from people on the streets. One of the towns we went to was Marshall, which had a large water fountain with changing colored lights. We could see these lights for a long distance as we came into the town. It was so very pretty from a distance. When we arrived in a town, each boy was stationed on a street corner in the downtown area. Each of us was given a bunch of round red tags with a string on it and a can with an opening in the top so money could be put in the can by the people who wanted to help us. We would ask people if they would help our home and when they gave us money we would give them a tag to wear and would be sure to say “thank you” each time. We always wanted to see who had the heaviest can at the end of the day. We usually had sandwiches and soft drinks which were brought to us. It was like going on a picnic.

It was usually dark on the way home. Sometimes it was chilly riding home so we always cuddled together behind the cab of the truck to get out of the wind. I can remember the election was in progress for I saw Republican banners, flags and pins and heard about Hoover and Roosevelt.

One time we visited the Post cereal factory in Battle Creek, but when we got there the plant was closed due to a strike of the workers. We didn’t get to see how cornflakes were made, but we visited the plant club room and were treated to soft drinks and samples of cereal to take home.

I don’t remember seeing any movies and there weren’t  any televisions at that time. We never paid much attention to radio, for we played with the toys in the playroom or went to the playground. We didn’t have any bicycles to play with. At bedtimes when the lights were turned out, we would take turns telling spooky stories before going to sleep.

Holidays at Starr were always exciting. Fourth of July parades, Thanksgiving with turkey and Christmas with caroling and gifts were something we always looked forward to at Starr. Of course, we didn’t know all the nice people who supplied the money and gifts for us children. I do recall how we would get the Christmas stamps ready for mailing to all those who supported the work of Uncle Floyd.

I know Uncle Floyd would go out to talk to groups to get people to help with the needs of Starr. A friend of mine recently told me of the time that Uncle Floyd came to Traverse City, Michigan and told the people about his home for boys. She said that everyone marveled at the work he was doing and supported his work. Sometimes money was needed to build new buildings or repair the older ones. All of our cottages were usually named after the person who provided the money to build the cottage.

I’ve often heard Uncle Floyd say, “There is no such thing as a bad boy”. He was an inspiration to all of us and we always tried to be good for Uncle Floyd. We always had Sunday School every Sunday where we sang Christian songs and studied about Jesus. This was a great influence in my life as I grew up after leaving Starr.

I guess the reason I left Starr was because my father had found out I was there. There was a lady who wanted to

Don Potrafka1

Don Potrafka and his grandson visiting Starr Commonwealth.

adopt me. I guess when they contacted my father about the possible adoption, he and his new wife decided I should come to live with them. I left Starr Commonwealth on December 8, 1932.

But though I left Starr, I have never forgotten all the good things I received from Uncle Floyd, and the wonderful memories of my stay there have been a guidepost in my life – a change in direction from a boy in need to a man who served his country for thirty years in our Armed Forces.

I cherish these memories of my two years at Starr Commonwealth which cannot be forgotten and I’m always thankful that there was such a place to help me grow up. If there is a Children’s Home in Heaven, it will be Uncle Floyd’s.

Thank you, Uncle Floyd, wherever you are.

100 Years of Starr

This year was a big year for Starr Commonwealth; we celebrated 100 years of being able to help children, families and communities.

We commemorated this historic occasion at our Founder’s Day event in October, where we honored our alumni who came back to visit, talked about what Starr has done for the past 100 years and what we hope to accomplish in the next 100.

Holly Robinson Peete and Rodney Peete spoke about their son with autism.

Holly Robinson Peete and Rodney Peete spoke about their son with autism.

Our Founder’s Day event including speakers Holly Robinson Peete and Rodney Peete, who have a son with autism and are highly active in raising awareness. We also had an amazing performance by Matt Giraud, who was on season 9 of American Idol.

During this presentation, we also unveiled a video that includes interviews with staff and alumni from Starr, as well as descriptions of all of our different programs. If you were unable to come to our event, we now have our video up on YouTube!


For more interviews with attendants at our Founder’s Day event this year, please visit our Video Diary.

Starr Wins Community Spirit Award

Starr was recently recognized with The Michigan Chronicle Community Spirit Award for its significant contribution to the communities of Detroit.

Legacy in Motion 2013

Dr. Marty Mitchell after accepting Starr’s Community Spirit Award.

At one of the city’s most prestigious events, the Legacy in Motion Gala, on Saturday, Dec. 7, president and CEO Marty Mitchell accepted the award and celebrated the exceptional work of Starr’s Detroit staff over many years.

The event, which recognized Detroit’s top leaders and news-makers, saw Starr being honored alongside Motown legend Berry Gordy, the new Detroit Mayor Elect Mike Duggan, Chairman and Founder of Quicken Loans, Dan Gilbert, Bishop P.A. Brooks, First Assistant Presiding Bishop – Church of God in Christ, and US Congressman Gary Peters.

It is estimated that Starr has served over 100,000 children from the Detroit area, including the very first two students taken in by Floyd Starr in 1913, and the Community Spirit Award was a fitting tribute in Starr’s 100th anniversary year.

Marty Mitchell said: “It is an honor for Starr to be recognized alongside so many respected individuals and organizations but it is no less than our staff deserve. Starr has touched the lives of thousands of young people from Metro Detroit, helping to transform many troubled situations into positive ones. Over many years we have made a hugely valuable contribution to families and communities in the city, and it is fantastic to see this being recognized.”

Starr has been working in partnership with The Michigan Chronicle since September on a campaign to increase understanding and awareness among parents of the issues relating to children with autism.

The partnership with The Michigan Chronicle is also helping to promote Starr’s core mission of creating positive environments where children flourish, with a focus on Starr’s work to build resilience in children and their families.


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