Description: Discrete- trial instruction is a highly structured teaching technique that often involves a teacher working one-to-one with an individual with autism in a distraction-free setting. Each learning trial begins with the teacher giving a short, clear instruction or question such as “Do this” or “What is it?” At the same time as the instruction or immediately after it, the teacher also may use a prompt to assist the learner in responding correctly to the instruction. For example, the instructor may take the learner’s hand and guide him or her to perform the response, or the teacher may model the response. As the learner progresses, the teacher gradually fades out and ultimately eliminates the prompt. After the instruction and prompt, the learner has an opportunity to respond. If the response is correct, the teacher immediately gives reinforcement such as praise; if the response is incorrect, the teacher immediately implements a correction procedure such as guiding the learner to perform the correct response. The learning trial ends with a brief intertrial interval (1-5 seconds) during which the teacher pauses before beginning the next learning trial.

Research Summary: Discrete-trial instruction is a well-established intervention technique and has been shown to be effective in teaching various language, social, and academic skills to individuals with autism. It usually needs to be combined, however, with other teaching methods to ensure that individuals with autism transfer skills from the teaching situation to everyday environments.

Recommendations: Discrete-trial instruction is an effective teaching procedure in teaching a variety of skills to individuals with autism. It is important to note, however, that this teaching procedure needs to be used in combination with other interventions such as incidental teaching.

Selected References:

Systematic reviews of scientific studies:


Goldstein, H. (2002). Communication intervention for children with autism: A review of treatment efficacy. Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders, 32, 373-396

Odom, S. L., Brown, W. H., Frey, T., Karasu, N., Smith-Canter, L. L., & Strain, P. S. (2003). Evidence-based practices for young children with autism: Contributions from single-subject design research. Focus of Autism and Other Developmental Disabilities, 18, 166-175.

Smith, T. (2001). Discrete trial training in the treatment of autism. Focus on Autism and Other Developmental Disabilities, 16(2), 86-92.

Related article:

Multiple Effects of Joint Attention Intervention for Children with Autism

Joint Attention Training for Children with Autism using Behavior Modification Procedures

Joint attention and symbolic play in young children with autism: A randomized controlled intervention study

Teaching Children with Autism to Respond to Joint Attention Initiations

Intervention targeting development of socially synchronous engagement in toddlers with autism spectrum disorder

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