Strategies for Teaching New Skills

A child has much to gain from being taught skills by his parents.  While professionals can help to develop some of the child’s essential skills, parental involvement can greatly enhance the teaching process and ultimately, lead to the child developing even more skills.

Teaching skills to children with autism can present many challenges.  Some children may not be motivated to comply or work with their parents.  Others may have severe behaviors that can impede upon the instructional session. Here are some tips that can facilitate the process of teaching new skills to your child:

  • First and foremost, the parent should aim to develop a positive relationship with the child. We refer to this concept as “pairing.”  Spend time with your child, play with him, and do not put any demands on him.  The goal is to teach your child that life is better with you than without you.
  • After the child views you as a “good thing” and seeks you out for further interactions, you will need to see what skills the child possesses. Use a comprehensive assessment that is backed by empirical support (such as the ABLLS-R) to accomplish this task.
  • Identify developmentally appropriate goals for your child based on his age and skill level.  Data obtained from typically developing children using the ABLLS-R can help to guide this process. These data can be found here: http://partingtonbehavioranalysts.com/webablls/normative-data/
  • Pick goals that are easy to teach and keep the child successful! Shooting for the moon and targeting skills that are too advanced can lead to the child becoming frustrated and less willing to work with you.  Keep the objectives functional and easy for the child to learn.
  • Start by asking the child to perform skills that you know he can already accomplish and provide reinforcement for complying with the demands. This will keep the child motivated to work with you as he will see that he can get the things he wants by completing easy tasks.
  • Once the child readily complies, you can begin to introduce slightly more difficult tasks that require a bit more effort. Make sure to deliver reinforcement often enough (for responding correctly) or the child may lose his motivation to continue working with you.
  • Later down the line, more difficult tasks, such as brushing one’s teeth, can and should be broken down into manageable steps that you can teach. This is referred to as a task analysis. For example, this task can be broken down into the following steps: get toothbrush and toothpaste, open top of toothpaste, put appropriate amount of toothpaste on toothbrush, close cap to toothpaste, brush the outside teeth on the top right side of the mouth, brush the outside part of the top middle teeth, etc.  Score how well the child can perform each of these steps and teach those that he cannot yet perform on his own.
  • Sometimes, skills may be difficult for a child to immediately acquire. Rather than producing the correct response, the child may demonstrate a response that is a close approximation to what is being asked of him.  For example, if the child is asked to put his hands up and he lifts them to his shoulder level versus all the way up, and he hasn’t been able to do that before, you might consider reinforcing that response anyway.  By reinforcing responses that are closer and closer to the final, desired response (while refraining from reinforcing lesser quality responses), the child may be more motivated to continue trying to demonstrate the skill.
  • On some occasions, the child may require some assistance with demonstrating the correct response. Should this be the case, parents may consider using prompts in order to teach the child how to perform the skill.  As the learner becomes familiar with using the skill, the prompts should be eliminated as soon the child’s behavior permits (allow the child’s behavior to guide you on how quickly to remove the prompts).

There are many considerations that need to be accounted for when teaching skills to your own child.   It is imperative to use effective, research-supported teaching strategies that will allow you to maximize your impact on your child’s development.  To better accomplish this, we recommend the book, Success on the Spectrum: How to Teach Skills to Individuals with Autism.  This book breaks down and simplifies the teaching process.  Further, it identifies and discusses each of the individual skills and techniques that can be used to help you become a more effective teacher.


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