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, a program of Starr Commonwealth


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