Strategies for Teaching New Skills

February 8th, 2018

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:
  • 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.

Is your child with autism a picky eater?

January 29th, 2018

Many parents have expressed concern that their child will only eat certain types of food. It’s not uncommon for children to be picky and only desire to eat certain foods (for example pizza, hamburgers, chips, etc.). Who doesn’t have their preferences? However, eating a healthy meal may require a child to eat a combination of things that he likes and things that he can tolerate, but isn’t overly fond of.

Everyone can identify food that they like and don’t like. If someone walks up to you and asks you to eat something you don’t like, you are likely to politely decline. We view the purpose of this blog in a similar manner. That is, this blog was written to provide parents with pointers on how to get the child to eat food that he can tolerate and be more willing to try a new food item. It is NOT meant to get your child to eat foods that he dislikes. Put simply, how would you like it if someone tried to force you to eat something that you didn’t want to eat?

The key to teaching a child to sample and possibly enjoy different foods is to target his flexibility with consuming various food items. Here is a strategy that we’ve used and had some success with:

  • Start by categorizing foods into different groups: foods that the learner absolutely dislikes, foods that are moderately preferred, foods that they can tolerate, food items that the child has yet to try, and foods they love to eat.
  • Identify the learner’s favorite food. Then, pick a second food item that the learner also enjoys eating (slightly less preferred, but still highly preferred overall). Ask the learner to take a bite of the slightly lesser preferred food item. Upon eating it, give him a piece of his favorite food.
  • Using the above process will teach the child that eating one type of food will give him access to another, highly desirable food item. After the child learns this association through repetition, require the learner to eat a moderately preferred food item before getting a bite of the highly preferred food item. By repeatedly presenting the moderately preferred food item and having the child eat it just prior to receiving the highly preferred food item, the moderately preferred item might become more preferred over time! As the child consistently displays a willingness to eat a bite of the moderately preferred food item, you can require him to take an increasing number of bites prior to getting a bite of his preferred item. For example, the child can take 3 bites or 4 bites before getting a couple of French fries.
  • As a final step, require the learner to eat a bite or two of the foods he can tolerate prior to giving him a bite or two of the highly preferred food item.
  • When the learner is eating moderately preferred food items or food items that he can tolerate, it may be worth attempting to have him try a new food item to see if he likes it!

By applying the above tactics, you may be able to increase the range of foods that the child is willing to eat. Again, the goal is to get the child to be willing to eat more types of food. This strategy employs a procedure known as reinforcement and uses it to motivate the child to eat new foods. To learn more about how to develop motivation and deliver reinforcement to strengthen targeted behaviors (for example, increasing flexibility with food consumption), we recommend the book Success on the Spectrum: How to Teach Skills to Individuals with Autism.

How To Teach Your Child With Autism To Sleep In His Own Bed

January 23rd, 2018

Many children with autism have difficulty going to sleep in their own beds.  It’s not uncommon for children to sleep in the same bed as their parents—it provides comfort to be right next to those who provide love and care.  However, as they grow older, it’s more appropriate for children to eventually learn to sleep in their own bed.

Getting your child to sleep in his own bed involves making some specific adjustments to his evening routine in order to reduce his activity level.  If possible, food should not be consumed for at least an hour prior to bedtime.  The evening routine should be consistent, which includes asking the child to lie in his own bed at a certain time each night.  When the child gets into bed, close or dim the light and make sure that the room is quiet.  For instance, the TV, tablet, etc. should now be powered off.

Once the conditions for falling asleep are in place, it’s likely that the child will want the adult to remain next to him or even to lie beside him in his bed.  We strongly caution parents against lying in his bed with him—if he falls asleep, it will be very difficult to get out of his bed without waking him up. If he were to wake up, you would have to start all over!  To avoid this outcome, we recommend sitting on the floor, directly next to his bed.

Once the child is lying in bed with you beside him (on the floor), tell him it’s time to go to sleep and that you want him to close his eyes and lie still. You want him to lie calmly in his bed and reinforce him for doing so. This might include rubbing his head or chest while saying, “Thank you for lying down” every few seconds.  As the child lies down and stays calm for longer periods of time, the rate of giving feedback and rubbing his chest or head can be decreased.  This process should be implemented until the child falls asleep.

Teaching this skill rarely goes smoothly at first.  Sometimes the child will sit up and/or try to get out of bed.  When this happens, gently prevent him from sitting or getting up and instruct him to lie down and remain still.  For example, you can say, “It’s time to go to sleep, you need to lie down and be still.”  Be sure that when he complies, you praise his behavior and rub his chest/head (if that helps to keep him lying still) at a higher rate.  As he lies calmly in bed, the rate can be decreased until he falls asleep.

While this process can take a lot of time, depending on how long it takes the child to fall asleep, implementing these procedures consistently can help to improve the likelihood that the child will be able to sleep in his bed each night.  Over time, as the child becomes better with falling asleep with the parent right next to him, the parent should try moving slightly away from the child’s bed.  The parent can occasionally go over to the bed and provide words of praise and maybe the occasional head rub or chest rub.

As the child displays comfort with the parent being close by, but not directly next to him (and is able to fall asleep easily and consistently), the parent can systematically begin to move farther and farther away until he or she is able to sit in the doorway as the child attempts to fall asleep.  The last step is to crack the door and sit outside of the child’s room.

The goal of the above procedure is to strengthen the targeted behaviors of lying still and closing his eyes and to gradually fade out, so that the adult no longer has to remain right next to the child as he attempts to fall asleep.

This is a basic strategy that may prove helpful for this specific situation. For a more elaborative explanation of this procedure, or for addressing problem behaviors that may arise, we recommend the book, Success on the Spectrum: How to Teach Skills to Individuals with Autism. 


Developing and Evaluating IEPs for Individuals with Autism

January 17th, 2018

Your child has a lot to gain from having a well-structured, individualized education program (IEP).  An effective IEP can be the difference between your child acquiring a few skills versus several, very impactful ones.  This blog will focus on aspects that will help you to select the most appropriate teaching objectives for your child.

The learner’s age should be considered when developing or evaluating a set of IEP objectives.   Specifically, goals should include skills that are both age appropriate and functional for the learner.  For example, a young child with autism would benefit from ensuring that his language and social interaction skills are developed.  An IEP for older aged children, teenagers, or adults with autism might include a combination of social interaction skills, language skills, and functional living skills—skills that will enable them to better care for themselves, interact with others, and carryout a more independent lifestyle.

The goals selected should also be functional for the learner. As a rule of thumb, goals should always include skills that will make a positive impact on the child’s immediate life, on a regular basis.  It is important that a young child knows how to label common objects and ask for things that he needs before teaching the child to label letters or perform basic math skills. It would be better to teach him skills that would allow him to better communicate with and learn from others (e.g., requesting, labeling, receptive language skills, imitation, etc.).  Likewise, teenagers or adults might be better served by including goals that target their ability to live more independently and allow for improved social interactions with others.

As a final consideration, one should know exactly what the learner knows and doesn’t know prior to developing any IEP goals.  While some skill deficits are very obvious to parents or professionals (for example, the learner never makes verbal requests for his preferred toys), there are other, less-obvious skills that a learner may lack, that are essential for future skill development as well. For example, these could include imitation of specific motor actions using objects or repeating specific sounds on request. Thus, it is important to use an evidence-based, comprehensive skills assessment to identify the exact skills that the individual has mastered and those that he still needs to develop.  To thoroughly measure the skills of the individual learner, we highly recommend the ABLLS-R—an evidence-based assessment that contains over 544 different skills that measures skills from specific skill areas such as language, social interactions, academics, self-help, and motor skills.  For older learners (teens or adults) or for those who want to thoroughly assess the functional living skills of a learner, we recommend the Assessment of Functional Living Skills or the AFLS.

Educational programming requires several factors to be considered.  This blog scratches the surface on what parents should look for and why they should attend to specific variables when developing or evaluating an IEP.  For more information on educational programming for younger learners or those with minimal skills, we refer the reader to the book, Getting started: Developing Critical Learning Skills for Children on the Autism Spectrum.  For those who want a more general, but powerful guide to walk you through the process of developing an effective educational program for your child, we refer the reader to the book, Success on the Spectrum: How to Teach Skills to Individuals with Autism for more details and information.  All of the noted products are reader friendly and will leave you better equipped to develop and evaluate IEP objectives.



Teaching Functional Living Skills to Individuals With Autism

January 12th, 2018

Dr. Partington tells his clients, “Whatever you don’t teach him, long term, you will have to either do it for him or pay somebody else to do it for him.”  Take a second to think about the implications of this quote. This could include financial dependency and also a major time commitment from the parent.  Regardless of whether or not an individual has an autism diagnosis, it is important to teach him basic, functional living skills that will allow him to take care of himself.  Some of these skills may include the ability to independently brush his teeth, get dressed, take a shower, prepare basic meals, and maintain a clean living space or household. The more you teach him now, the less you’ll have to do to support him later!

While teaching methods may be different based on the existing skills of the learner, parents or instructors can either teach these skills as they naturally occur (such as getting dressed in the morning after waking up or brushing teeth after eating breakfast) or they can carve out time during the day to work on a specific skill.

When teaching a functional living skill (such as brushing one’s teeth), there are a few helpful hints to remember during the teaching process:

  • Simplifying the task: Break down complex skills (such as brushing teeth) into smaller, individual skills that the learner can be taught. These could include putting toothpaste onto the toothbrush, brushing a specific area in the mouth, spitting in the sink, rinsing mouth, rinsing the toothbrush and putting it away, etc. It is also helpful to identify the steps that the learner can perform on his own.  Let the learner perform those steps independently. Then, teach him to perform the other steps in the sequence.
  • Prompting: The learner will likely require some assistance as he learns to independently carryout each step of a complex task. For example, parents or instructors can provide physical guidance, use gestures, verbally state what to do, or write down step-by-step instructions for the learner to follow. As the learner develops the ability to consistently carryout each step, the level of assistance provided (i.e., prompting) should be reduced and eventually, eliminated.
  • Capture the learner’s motivation: A motivated learner is more likely to attend to the task and successfully use the skill. One strategy that can be used to increase his motivation is to withhold a highly preferred item or activity and only make it available after the learner completes the task. For example, tell the learner, “First, let’s brush our teeth, then we can go outside and play on the swing!”
  • Strengthen the response: To increase the chances that the learner will use the skill again in the future, he will need to see that there is a “payoff” for using it. If the parent or instructor shows the learner that “good things” happen when he uses the skill (praise is given, the learner gets to use a preferred toy or go to the park, etc.), he is more likely to use it again in the future.

This blog briefly touches on a few very important concepts that are needed when teaching functional living skills to an individual with autism.  For a more comprehensive overview of these concepts, we recommend the book Success on the Spectrum: How to Teach Skills to Individuals with Autism.  This resource is written in easy to understand language and will walk you through the teaching process.

Having trouble getting your child motivated to participate in learning activities?

December 21st, 2017

Do you want to teach your child new skills, but find it difficult to get him to participate in learning activities?  Those who find the most success with getting the child to consistently go along with their instructions will have taught the child, through their previous interactions, that there are payoffs for listening to them and engaging in activities with them (e.g., structured learning activities).

What do we mean by “payoffs” for going along with the instructor?  We need to teach the child that good things will happen for the child when he follows directions and engages with the adult.  Perhaps the parent delivers words of praise to the child. Maybe there is a fun interaction between the adult and the child (e.g., tickling the child, pushing the child higher on the swing, etc.). Maybe the adult provides the child with his favorite toy or lets the child watch TV for a few minutes.  If the child consistently sees that interacting with the adult leads to these “good things,” the child will be more likely to comply with the adult when the child is asked to do something.  Thus, it’s always beneficial to establish yourself as someone that is “fun” and as one who can give the child things that he seeks.

Before attempting to place a lot of demands on your child, spend some time playing with him—have fun together and allow the child to see that his interactions with you are fun and not work. When the child consistently enjoys his interactions with the adult, the child is likely to seek out the adult for continued, positive interactions in the future.  Building this type of positive relationship will increase the likelihood that the child will be more willing to engage with you, even if you are teaching him new skills.  Once the child is consistently approaching you and seeking you out, consider some of the following pointers as you begin the process of teaching new skills during daily routines and within more structured learning environments.

  • Make fun activities or desired objects available to the learner immediately after he completes a couple of easy tasks.
  • Initially, tasks should be easy, minimal, and ones that the child can quickly complete.
  • Work your way up! After the child is consistently responding to a couple of simple demands, carefully increase the amount of responses required to get the thing he wants.  Don’t increase the workload too quickly or the child may lose his motivation to continue responding for you!
  • Occasionally see if the child wants to earn something different for his continued, active participation—if he shows signs of that he is losing interest in getting tickled or receiving bubbles, he will make it obvious (e.g., his attention will waiver, might appear disinterested, or leave the instructional session). In these situations, the adult should consider changing the activity (or desired object) to a new and more exciting one.  Always make sure that you have something that the child wants to play with or earn access to at that moment in time.
  • End the learning activity on a good note. Stop while you are ahead and don’t push the child too far.  If the child views learning as fun and not stressful, and that it’s linked to the things that he enjoys, he is likely to be more motivated to participate in learning activities again in the future.

Take the time to build a positive relationship with your child, it will go a long way toward developing his motivation to interact with you.  As Dr. Partington always says, “We want the children to run to us, not from us!”

For more information and for a description of highly effective strategies on how to motivate your child to respond to you during both structured and typical daily routines, check back in early February of 2018 for the release of our newest book from the Teach Your Children Well® series—Learning to Motivate, Motivated to Learn.

Do you get Stressed Out Shopping with your Child with Autism?

December 18th, 2017

Taking a child shopping in a store can be a big challenge for a parent. It’s hard sometimes to even purchase one or two items if your child is distracted or wants something in the candy aisle!

If you have trouble getting your shopping tasks completed, we have some great shopping tips for you! It’s important to take very small, but achievable steps to teach your child to stay with you and behave appropriately on shopping trips.

  1. Before getting the child to go along with instructions outside the home, practice teaching the child to comply with instructions in the home and neighborhood settings. If he doesn’t comply with directions at in these locations, he is not likely to comply at the store either.
  2. When first teaching your child to go with you on shopping trips, take your child to the store only with the intention of teaching him how to behave well while at the store versus going to buy tons of food for an actual shopping trip.
  3. At first, the requirements for the shopping trip may be to have the child walk into the store and immediately walk out without engaging in any disruptive behavior. The emphasis should be placed on the appropriate behaviors and any praise delivered should show the child that there are pays offs for remaining calm, staying with his parents, and keeping his hands to himself! The two main goals of the shopping trip are to reduce the chances of him engaging in disruptive behavior and to have the good behaviors reinforced.
  4. Once the child can consistently act appropriately in the store for 5 to 10 minutes, try having him accompany you through the checkout line as you purchase an item. Consider that checkout counters contain tempting, nearby objects that the child may be inclined to reach for or want. Further, going through the line requires the learner to patiently wait for an extended period of time. For these reasons, it may initially benefit the child if the parent was able to proceed quickly through the checkout line and quickly purchase items.  This way, undesired behaviors (e.g., touching various items, becoming upset while waiting in line, etc.) are less likely to occur and the parent can place emphasis on and strengthen (e.g., by praising the child) the appropriate, desired behaviors (e.g., staying calm while waiting in line, hands to self, etc.). Try paying for the items in advance or arrange a time with the manager for a quick checkout experience so that the learner can practice the skill of going through the checkout line.
  5. Gradually increase the time that the child spends shopping at the store, including the checkout line (when appropriate), and make sure to always praise and attempt to strengthen the positive behaviors!
  6. Keep the child engaged in the shopping process such as locating items to purchase (“Do you see any apples?”). The child can also be asked to put items in cart, on the conveyor belt in the checkout line, etc.

It is essential to start with small expectations, as to what the child should do when in a store, and then gradually increase those expectations as he begins to develop those skills.

For more information on this topic and other related topics such as walking nicely, waiting patiently, eating at the dinner table, and having trouble sleeping, go to

Do you Experience Hectic Holidays?

December 11th, 2017

Holidays can be very busy for all families, but can be even more overwhelming with a child with autism. If you plan early, you can alleviate some stress during the holiday season. We have included some tips to help with your stress during the holidays, so you can enjoy the season with your loved ones.

  1. Schedule activities for your child even during the holiday season to keep them active.
  2. Look into park district classes or local businesses that usually have extra classes set up during the holiday breaks from school.
  3. Schedule respite services for your child in advance.
  4. Plan ahead to alleviate last minute shopping. If you do need to take your child shopping, allow for enough time to let your child adapt to the holiday stimuli out and about!
  5. Try to continue with as many routines as possible. Try using visual schedules or social stories to prepare kids for times without routines or for new experiences.
  6. Have a contingency plan if you need to end the night early. It may help to have a ‘secret code’ which means it is time to leave or can also be used if your child needs to be alone for a while to decompress.
  7. Remember to have fun and enjoy the little things that the holiday season has to offer.

Do Changes in Your Routine Cause Behaviors for Your Child?

December 5th, 2017

Routines work to teach children stability and allows for them to predict what is likely to happen, but sometimes things come up and the routine has to be switched up. For instance, some kids may want to drive a specific way to school and get very upset if a different route is taken. Some kids have to sit in a specific chair for dinner. It’s common for parents to “walk on eggshells” with regard to changes in routines as they do not want to cause their child to have meltdowns or begin protesting.

Every situation is unique, but the basic idea to solving this problem is to take steps to teach the child to remain calm when things don’t happen as expected. If a child can get control of a situation, such as driving a certain way to school, he may start demanding control of other routines as well. It’s important to pick your battles and identify only one or two routines you would like to target for teaching the child to remain calm—you can’t address them all at once!

Before attempting to take on the big routine problem, it may be a good idea to reinforce (e.g., use specific praise to tell them what they are doing right) the child for going along with other routines that don’t seem to cause behaviors. If you walk a different way to the park and the child remains calm, reinforce them for that! Perhaps the child receives words of praise and a bonus minute or two to play at the park.  Changing up other situations that don’t cause behaviors, then reinforcing the child for remaining calm, will set a precedent for good things to come.

When teaching a child to remain calm when there is a change in routine, it is very important to deliver reinforcers for remaining calm. The idea is that good things will happen for the child if he remains calm. The adults must not give in to protests and stand firm since the routine has been changed. Children have to know that they cannot always get their way! Once the child learns that the protesting and meltdowns will not get them what they want, and that there are payoffs for remaining calm when routines do occasionally change, it will be much easier for him to cope with and respond appropriately to changes in the future.

For more information on this topic and others including: walking nicely, waiting patiently, eating at the table and having trouble sleeping; go to


Can’t Get Your Child to Walk Nicely With You?

November 28th, 2017


Does your child pull on your arm to get to certain places? Does your child run off when you need him to stay with you? Does your child run so you will chase him? Does your child just not want to walk with you?

It is common to reprimand your child for not listening or walking nicely with you. Unfortunately, lots of reprimanding is not the most effective strategy for changing this behavior. A better strategy is to first decide what behavior you want to see instead (the “desired behavior”) and ultimately, strengthen it. Do you want to have the child stand next to you? Do you want the child to walk nicely and hold your hand? After identifying the desired behavior (e.g., walk nicely with you), you then need to make sure that you can motivate the child to behave in that manner.   One strategy involves praising the child on a frequent basis for walking nicely beside you.  You could tell your child, “I like the way you are walking nicely!”  If the child is responsive to the praise and praise is given frequently, he may be more likely to continue walking nicely for you.

Keep in mind that in the past, not walking nicely has paid off for the child. It is now necessary to reduce the “pay off” received from behaving this way and teach the child that walking nicely—the “desired behavior”—will instead, result in much better things for the child.

Be sure to consistently use your strategy every time you are walking with your child. Behavior change takes time to work, but if you consistently place the emphasis on strengthening the desired behavior and reducing the emphasis placed on the undesired behaviors (e.g., running off), walking nicely will become second nature!

For more information on this topic and others including: waiting patiently, eating at the table and having trouble sleeping; go to