My son’s progress in programs is often nothing short of phenomenal. He masters skills quickly, but then seems to lose the skills he has. We feel like we’re on a treadmill. Help!

Answered by Bobby Newman, PhD, BCBA
Room to Grow
Past-President of ASAT/Advisory Board Member

Unfortunately, this is a common dilemma. The good news is that this problem can be addressed. The bad news is that it means really looking at how you’re teaching, and possibly making some changes. Let’s first agree upon some vocabulary in everyday language:

  1. ACQUISITION: the learning of the new skills and concepts.
  2. STIMULUS GENERALIZATION: learning to perform a skill under different conditions.
  3. MAINTENANCE: the continued performance of the skill after the formal, intensive teaching period has ended.

From your description, your son is doing fine during the acquisition phase. But is he really acquiring the skills? A common problem is that the acquisition phase is conducted far too narrowly. Given a receptive program, for example, do you and your therapists always say “touch,” as opposed to “give me” or “point to” or “show me” or “which is,” or some other phrasing? Do you always use the same stimuli (for example, always using colored construction paper for color ID)? If we have always taught using colored paper, it is very difficult for the student when we ask him, for example, the color of a toy car. If he has always heard “what is your name?,” it is then not surprising if he cannot answer “what is your first name?” Teaching needs to be precisely structured but not so limited that generalization becomes impossible. Some people call this “loose teaching.” As simple as it sounds, it can be very difficult—most people need to be taught how to loosely teach. But it’s worth the effort. You get what you teach.

How then, can we encourage generalization? Basically, we are looking at the “Dr. Seuss” school of teaching: do it in a box and with a fox, in a house and with a mouse, etc. Vary where you do your teaching. Vary phrasings to make sure that you hit the common ways that people speak (e.g., “hi,” “how are ya,” “hello,” “how ya doin’?”). Wear glasses, and don’t wear glasses. Practice skills in the morning and in the evening, in the house and in the car. Some schools and programs prefer to do generalization training from the very beginning, by varying instructions and stimuli from the beginning. Others use precise and consistent phrasing and stimuli first, and then conditions are varied once mastery is achieved with the original phrasing and stimuli. You will find advocates of both approaches. Using the more limited stimuli strategy, you will probably see faster acquisition, but then you need to aggressively program for generalization. If you vary stimuli from the outset, you will probably see somewhat slower acquisition, but you will have the payoff of easier generalization. My own preference is to generalize from the beginning.

For Maintenance, you need to follow a similar plan. Remember that with children who have autism, we must consciously plan to help the child acquire, generalize and maintain skills. If you want to continue seeing a skill, it must be practiced. Too many programs focus only on the most current step (e.g., “touch your belly”) and fail to continue practice on the previously learned steps. Where I come from, each teaching session includes a block of the new step (“isolated”), and a block of all the previously mastered steps (“randomized”). Even when the full program is learned, we return to it periodically for a practice session, or we incorporate the skill into new activities (e.g., working on mastered body parts in a “Simon Says” game).

Also remember that you need to work on concepts, and not just responses. When doing body part ID, for example, don’t always ask the child to touch his nose. Ask him to touch his nose, your nose, the nose of a doll, the nose of a stuffed animal, etc. We want your son to know what noses are and not just think that the bump on his face is named nose.

Citation for this article:

Newman, B. (2002). Clinical Corner: Maintaining skills. Science in Autism Treatment, 4(1), 7.

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