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Building Language Skills in Children with Autism

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Building Language Skills in Autistic Children

By: Kimberley Powell

Increasing Motivation to Learn Through Applied Behavior Analysis

© Kimberley Powell Feb 26, 2009

Applied behaviour analysis (ABA) is an intervention that has been successfully used for the treatment of autism.

Children with Autism learn very little from the environment. They are often capable of learning, but it takes a very structured environment, one where conditions are optimized for acquiring the same skills that typical children learn naturally. ABA is all about the rules for setting up the environment to enable the kids to learn.

The ABA Curriculum

The most effective way to teach a child with ASD, is by breaking a skill into its essential parts (trial) and teaching each part, step by step. By gradually increasing expectations of the child and reinforcing each attempt, the behavior of the child is slowly shaped.

It is essential that each program develops creative reinforcers based on the child’s interests. These reinforcers are then provided when the child demonstrates a new skill or behaves appropriately. It is important to pair tangible reinforcers, such as food or toys, with social praise, such as a high five or hooray, so that the child eventually learns to find social praise motivating as well.

Repetition is an important method for autistic children, but it should not be boring or tedious. In order to acquire a new skill, it is often necessary to teach new skills with repeated trials so that the new skill becomes ingrained and the child has more opportunities to recognize when the skill is to be used. In order to determine when a child has truly mastered a skill, it is rehearsed and then the child is distracted with other tasks.

Teaching in a quiet environment by reducing auditory and visual distractions is important. Noise level, movement of others, windows, even air conditioners can excessively distracting to autistic children. The goal is to begin in a very structured environment, but to move the child into more ordinary environments as the child becomes able to work in the presence of distracters.

A Brief Introduction to Discrete Trial Teaching

The discrete trail is the primary teaching method for a number of the behaviourally-based interventions used in teaching children with Autism. DTT is very structured and used to teach many skills such as cognitive skills, self-help skills and communication skills.

Many children with Autism begin a program with very short attention spans. In DTT, tasks are broken down into small steps called trials and taught each step one at a time. A trial consists of four components; an instruction (discriminative stimulus, SD), a response, a prompt (guidance/assistance) and a consequence (reinforcement). An instruction is given to the child. If the child responds correctly (within 3-5 seconds) by putting on underwear, a reinforcing statement, edible or small tangible item is given. However, if the child demonstrates an incorrect response or does not respond, a prompt (guidance/assistance) is given to teach him/her the correct response. As the child’s attention span increases, the length of the interactions increases as well.

Children with Autism may not be as motivated to learn as other children. In addition, discriminating between stimuli such as invitations from peers and environmental cues (school bells, alarms, etc.) also presents a challenge for children with autism. DTT attempts to increase motivation by rewarding performance of desired behaviours and completion of tasks with tangible or external reinforcement (i.e. food, toys, time to play).

Parental involvement is heavily emphasized in ABA programs. Parents are encouraged to implement strategies taught during therapy to help reinforce skills at home. Optimal intensity of discrete trial teaching is 40 hours per week. Results may not occur as quickly and children may not achieve as significant gains however, improvement is usually seen.
ABA helps builds the skills and achievements of children in school settings; and enhances the development, abilities, and choices of children with autism. ABA can result in large gains in the cognitive, language, and social adjustment of children with Autism.


The copyright of the article Building Language Skills in Autistic Children in Autism Treatment is owned by Kimberley Powell. Permission to republish Building Language Skills in Autistic Children in print or online must be granted by the author in writing.

We have published this article with the express permission of Kimberly Powell

Our Featured Author: Kimberley Powell

Kim Powell holds a Master’s Degree in Speech & Language Pathology as well as certificates in reading Braille, Applied Studies in Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorder, Child Psychology, Acquired Brain Injuries, oral deaf education and Child abuse.

Over the years, Kim has had the opportunity to work with children with Down syndrome, cerebral palsy, autism, acquired brain injuries & fetal alcohol spectrum disorder. During her free time, Kim volunteers at her local Children’s Aid Society, sits on the Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorder (FASD) committee for Resources for Exceptional Children and works as a child abuse prevention educator for the Red Cross. Kim values the opportunity to work with so many children and help make a small difference in the lives of children and families. She continues to advocate for a system that will guarantee that every child/youth – regardless of geography, parental income and the level of challenge access to quality support services that respond to their individual needs.

Please support of Authors visit Kimberly Powell's blog HERE

Tags: Autism Applied Behavior Analysis SLP Autism OT Article Language