Teaching new skills to children with autism can be very difficult. It is important to first understand the fundamentals of behavior.
Behavior is an important part of teaching because in order to learn a new skill, a child must understand what response is desired and when. A child learns when a response is desired by experiencing a stimulus (i.e. item/request/instruction) and discrimination (Sd- discriminative stimulus). A child simultaneously learns there is a desired response and discriminates that the response is only desired in the presence of the Sd. For example, if you are teaching a child to say “book” in the presence of a book, the Sd would be the book itself and the desired response would be saying “book.” That child will learn to say “book” only when that book is present. Later on, that child may begin saying “book” in the presence of new books, a pattern called generalization.
So, why is behavior important in teaching a new skill? It is important because a child’s response IS a behavior!
Descriptions Of Behaviors:
• Reflexive Behavior is our bodies’ natural reaction to environmental stimuli (e.g. blinking when someone blows in your eyes, or jerking your leg when someone hits your knee cap). These behaviors are called reflexes and occur without being learned.
• Operant Behavioris the opposite of reflexive behavior. This involves behaviors that are learned through consequences. The first time a response leads to reinforced consequence, a new behavior is created. For example, a child raises his hand in school and the teacher calls on him to speak. The operant behavior is the child raising his hand to speak. The child is taught to raise his hand to speak through the reinforced consequence: the teacher calling on him.
• Discrimination refers to a variation in responding. More simply, the process of discrimination involves responses that differ depending on the situation. For example, in the store your child may ask nicely for candy, and if told “no,” he stops asking. However, when your child is in the store with his grandmother, he may ask nicely for candy, but when told “no,” he screams until he gets it. This is due to the child discriminating what he can and can’t get away with, and with whom.
• Generalization is the opposite pattern of discrimination. The process involves similar responses that occur in different situations or locations. For example, you teach your child he needs to put on his coat before going outside; then, when your child is at school and the teacher says, “It’s time to go outside for recess,” your child goes to put on his coat without being told to. This child was never taught to wear his coat outside at school, but generalized what you taught him by performing the same behavior in all settings.
*Source: Fitzer, A., & Sturmey, P. (2007). Autism spectrum disorders: Applied behavior analysis, evidence, and practice. In W.H. Ahearn, W.V. Dube, R. MacDonald, & R.B. Graff. (Eds.), Behavior analytic teaching procedures: Basic principles, empirically derived practices (pp. 31-72). Austin, TX: PRO-ED.