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Tips for Teaching Autistic Children

Teaching functional skills in a functional manner is key to a child’s success. After all, if we teach something to a child and they cannot demonstrate the skill outside of our controlled environment or way of teaching have we really taught them anything?

This becomes even more critical when working with some autistic children as many have a gestalt learning style which leads to rigidity of thinking and lack of generalization. When this happens, a child is able to perform a skill in the exact same situation with the exact same prompts and cues but fails to apply the skill if anything in the environment, routine, prompt, etc. has been even slightly changed.

For example, a child may be able to select a picture of a dog from a field of pictures when asked, “Show me dog.” But later when a different picture representation of dog is shown and is asked to find it in a different way, such as in “Where is the dog” they may be unable to accurately demonstrate the skill.

This is due to the fact that a gestalt learner is experiencing the whole as greater than the sum of its parts. In other words, the whole (a plant, a bird) carries a different and altogether greater meaning than its individual components (roots, stem, leaves; or wings, feathers, beak, respectively). In viewing the “whole,” a cognitive process takes place – the mind makes a leap from comprehending the parts to realizing the whole.

Gestalt learning styles become more evident when a child is learning to talk. Typically, children will learn the meaning of individual words before combining them. However, a gestalt learner may begin speaking in “chunks” much earlier before they have a decent sized vocabulary or understand the word meaning of each individual word. For example, a child may say, “open door” to mean open the bag of fish crackers because they learned “open door” as a chunk as to mean the word “open”, without necessarily understanding the meaning of “open” and “door” individually. Essentially, children with gestalt language acquisition begin with multiword strings of words, attempting to say them as “unanalyzed chunks,” and are often produced in the form of echolalia in which they repeat verbatim from books, movies or language they hear modeled to them.

Other characteristics of young Gestalt learners may include the following:

  • Insistence on sameness, resistance of change

  • Difficulty seeing conventional connections and generalizing knowledge

  • Rejecting new things and activities; preference for what they have experienced and known

  • Imposition of routines and rituals

  • Difficulty to establish joint attention

  • Difficulty in making choices

  • Lack of compliance

  • Echolalia

For learners who display characteristics of Gestalt language acquisition it is important to consider not using rote carrier phrases, as they simply become another gestalt as the student will simply learn the sentence as a whole. The sentence then becomes a “skill” and not a form of functional communication. For early stages of language development, it is important to focus on expanding vocabulary in order to provide the necessary “building blocks” for generative language construction.

Other teaching strategies to help ensure Gestalt learners generalize skills being taught, can easily be embedded into your therapy session:

Multiple Exemplar Training

This is a teaching strategy in which you use multiple examples when teaching a student. Let’s say for example that you are teaching a student to identify a dog. If you were to only use one breed of dog, then you would be just using one exemplar. If you were to use a variety of different breeds to demonstrate dog, then you would be using multiple exemplars. Using a variety of examples ensures that the student learns exactly what features defines a dog.

Teaching Loosely

This is a way of intentionally teaching as needed to promote generalization from the start, versus teaching a skill first and then later helping the student to generalize the skill across environments. Teaching loosely is about randomly, yet intentionally varying parts of your teaching, including your teaching materials, your tone of voice, your choice of words, seating, and the teaching environment.

General Case Analysis

Is a systematic way of teaching examples that represent a full range of both stimulus and responses. For example, teaching a student to purchase an item at a grocery store with cash, and then later purchasing clothing from a clothing store with a credit card.

Teaching Non-Examples

It is just as important to teach our students examples of non-correct behavior. For example, if teaching a student how to make a sandwich, it is important that they learn that it is okay to make a sandwich with fresh bread, however, is not okay to do so if the bread is moldy.

Programming Common Stimuli

This involves having a stimulus control the behavior so that as long as the stimulus is present, the learner displays the targeted response. For example, if you were teaching a student how to count money, you would use real dollar bills and coins versus paper bill and plastic coins. There is then no need to “generalize” the skill as the skill is being taught with the exact stimuli that the student will come into contact within their natural environment.

Generalization occurs when a student learns a skill under one condition (i.e., specific staff, environment, etc.) and demonstrates that skill under a different condition (i.e., different staff, different environment, etc.). Many autistic children require specific training to achieve this. However, by carefully constructing our treatment strategies, methods and stimuli we can ensure that the skills we are teaching spontaneously generalize without the need to directly teach to do so.


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