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The Potential of Discrete Trial Training in Autism

October 23, 2023

When Lily’s son, Matt, was diagnosed with autism, their whole family embarked on a journey filled with questions and uncertainties. Among the many therapies and interventions available, one approach that stood out to them was discrete trial training. It didn’t take long before they realized that this structured method had the potential to unlock the world for Matt in ways they never imagined possible.

In this comprehensive guide, we’ll learn all about this incredible therapy method and all the different ways in which discrete trial training can help your child with autism live a happy and healthy life.

The Potential of Discrete Trial Training in Autism

What is Discrete Trial Training in Autism?

Autism Discrete Trial Training, commonly called DTT, is a structured, systematic teaching method designed to help individuals with autism develop essential skills and behaviors.

DTT is rooted in the principles of applied behavior analysis (ABA), which emphasizes breaking down complex skills into smaller, manageable components. This approach enables us to provide targeted and individualized instruction to children and adults with autism.

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Using Discrete Trial Training for Autism at Home

An example of DTT in the home could be if a child has a goal of washing their hands independently. Without discrete trial training (DTT), it would be counted as a negative or incorrect if the child could not do that task completely and independently on their own.

With discrete trial teaching, the reinforcement is given as the child learns each new step or trial within the chained program or training discrete trial. In this example, that same goal of washing hands could be broken down into:

  • Step one: Turn on the water
  • Step two: Wet hands
  • Step three: Pump soap into hands
  • Step four: Rub hands together for twenty seconds
  • Step five: Rinse hands
  • Step six: Turn off the water
  • Step seven: Dry hands

Trials would be run to see which point of the sequence or skill the child needs help with. If the child is unable to turn on the water independently, then that is the skill that needs to be worked on before moving to the next chain in the sequence. The ultimate goal in the end is for the child to be able to complete the sequence all together without prompting or help.

Using DTT in a Classroom Setting

An example of using the DTT method in the classroom could be a teacher shaping and modifying the behavior of a student who forgets to turn in work. The steps could be broken down for the student in need of intervention:

  • Step one: Take out your notebook for the day
  • Step two: Remove your homework from the notebook
  • Step three: Place homework in the tray on the teacher’s desk

Rewards can be used to reinforce all steps until those steps become habits.

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Using Prompts for DTT in Children with Autism

For children with autism spectrum disorder, they may need more prompts to get through each step. According to a study published by the National Institute on Deafness and Other Communication Disorders (NIH), children with autism often take a literal meaning of language, which can sometimes cause confusion and lead to behavioral challenges.

For example, if step one is to take out your notebook for the day, the teacher may need to help identify which specific notebook they are referring to. It may be obvious to a neurotypical child in a math class to take out their math notebook. Still, those social cues can be a daily struggle for anyone on the autism spectrum and could result in an increase in behavioral issues if the child does not understand what to do.

The same goes for step two – removing the homework from the notebook. It seems obvious to take out your math homework in a math class, but children with autism may need prompting to locate the correct assignment.

Step three of placing the homework in the tray on the teacher’s desk may need prompting, too. You might have a student who tries to run out of the classroom to place the homework on a tray on the desk of a different teacher because that was what came to mind when they heard that prompt.

In discrete trial training and ABA, understanding that teaching children with autism involves looking at situations with a unique perspective and a different set of lenses can help you be a better communicator and help decrease the occurrences of negative behaviors.

Key Components of Discrete Trial Training in Autism

Implementing DTT effectively requires careful planning and a deep understanding of the individual’s needs and abilities. This approach consists of several key components that make it a highly effective intervention method for autism: discreteness, structured trials, repetition and practice, and data collection and analysis.


DTT emphasizes breaking down skills into discrete, easily manageable components. Each skill is taught in isolation before being integrated into a broader context. This ensures that individuals with autism can grasp and master each skill systematically.

Structured Trials

Structured trials are at the core of DTT. These trials involve presenting the child with a clear, specific instruction or question, followed by a prompt or cue if needed. The child’s response is then reinforced, either with positive feedback or a reward.

Repetition and Practice

Repetition and practice are essential in DTT. Skills are practiced repeatedly to ensure comprehension. This approach helps children with autism generalize their skills across different settings and situations.

Data Collection and Analysis

Data collection is a critical aspect of DTT. It allows us to track progress, identify areas that require further attention, and adjust the intervention accordingly. Data-driven decision-making is fundamental to the success of DTT.

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Involving the ABCs of Applied Behavior Analysis

Another aspect of discrete trial training is the use of what ABA therapy refers to as the “ABCs of applied behavior analysis.” ABC is an acronym for Antecedent-Behavior-Consequence. All behaviors, whether they are positive or negative, can be applied to the ABC model.

The antecedent is also known as the prompt. In other words, it is what happened before a behavior happened. It could be something that someone does or says or something in the environment that you have no control over. The antecedent is the reason why the behavior that follows happens.

Behavior is the action of what the child is doing due to the antecedent in a discrete trial. The consequence is the result or what happened after the behavior. The consequence can be either positive or negative depending on what discrete trial training DTT program you are working on to modify behavior.

Examples of ABC

An example of ABC with a positive consequence could be an individual standing outside on a cold day. The antecedent is being cold while standing outside. The behavior would be for the individual to move indoors to get warm. The consequence, or result, would be the individual getting warm and comfortable from taking shelter from the cold outside.

An example of ABC with a negative consequence could be a mother trying to get her child to clean up their toys. The antecedent, or prompt, would be the mother verbally prompting her child to clean up their toys. The behavior could be the child gets angry and begins to throw toys. The consequence or result would be the child losing access to those toys or having to sit in time-out.

You can see that discrete trial teaching can help ABA programs by teaching the correct response using reinforcement and reward to teach the use of a more positive behavioral response.

Benefits of Discrete Trial Training for Autism

Discrete Trial Training has many advantages when it comes to therapy for autism, including:

  • Individualized learning: DTT can be tailored to meet the needs of each child on the spectrum.
  • Measurable progress: DTT allows for clear measurement of progress, which makes it easier to track improvements.
  • Enhanced communication: DTT often focuses on improving communication skills, which are important for the daily life of children with autism.
  • Effective behavior management: DTT helps manage challenging behaviors in children by teaching alternative, appropriate responses.


Discrete trial training DTT helps ABA therapists teach proper response consequences and behavior intervention. The technique can also be implemented in the home to help children with autism spectrum disorder learn ABA instruction through positive reinforcement and reward.

As ever, the overall aim of the approach is to improve the quality of life and independence for children on the autism spectrum.


Q: What age is suitable for starting DTT?

A: DTT can be initiated as early as 2-3 years old, but it’s never too late to start. The key is to tailor the program to the child’s developmental level.

Q: Is DTT effective for non-verbal children?

A: Yes, DTT can be highly effective for non-verbal children. It focuses on communication development and can help children with limited speech or non-verbal communication.

Q: How long does a typical DTT session last?

A: DTT sessions are usually brief, lasting around 20-30 minutes to maintain the child’s engagement and focus.

Q: Can DTT be combined with other autism therapies?

A: Yes, DTT can be integrated into a comprehensive autism intervention program, often alongside speech therapy, occupational therapy, and applied behavior analysis (ABA).

Q: Are DTT programs available for home use?

A: DTT can be adapted for home use with guidance from a qualified therapist. However, it’s essential to receive proper training to implement it effectively.

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