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Incidental Teaching for Children with Autism


The role of caregivers is just as important as therapists when providing supportive structure for children with autism spectrum disorder (ASD). In teaching and managing challenging behaviors, behavior analysts play a critical role in empowering caregivers to ensure interventions undertaken during private sessions cross-over to the home environment to ensure a holistic and functional developmental structure.

Incidental Teaching for Children with Autism

Incidental teaching offers caregivers or parents a means to use everyday occurrences in the home environment to build communication skills and teach positive behaviors to children on the autism spectrum. In doing so, the development of a child is not only positively reinforced in sessions with a private therapist, but also at home.

Since the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic, there has been an increasing need for parents and caregivers of autistic children to find alternative ways to assist their child’s development from the comfort of their home. As a parent, if you’re looking for interventions to apply at home to teach your child communication skills and improve behavior; perhaps incidental teaching is a good option for your family.

What is incidental teaching? 

Incidental teaching is a methodology that uses principles of Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA) to provide a structured way of teaching in a naturally occurring situation by using the child’s interests to motivate cooperativity. The child’s interests or toys are used as reinforcers which the therapist or caregiver immediately provides when the child delivers a desired response. 

This same procedure can be applied at home by caregivers as long as the proper training is offered. A study by Hsieh, et al., shows that even caregivers with limited experience in behavior analysis can successfully apply incidental teaching after training. 

When and how do you use incidental teaching? 

The main objective of incidental teaching is to create a structured learning experience in an unstructured situation such as free play. The term structured learning entails having a set lesson plan or objective for the duration of that session. 

Essentially, this mode of teaching is performed in the child’s natural environment during his/her daily routine. Depending on the learning objective, the learning trail (repeated prompts) occurs by using the child’s desired toy as a reinforcer to attain the learning outcome. For example: if the learning objective is speech, every time the child repeats the target word correctly, or attempts it, the toy (reinforcer) is awarded to the child. 

How does incidental teaching benefit children with autism?

Incidental teaching is based on the philosophy that teaching should be formulated using natural techniques. It is designed to help children with language and communication delays, including  children on the autism spectrum, learn in a conducive and safe environment. Research shows that when a child is taught in a natural environment such as play and meal time as opposed to a structured classroom setup, they are much more engaged and responsive.  

This mode of teaching is beneficial to children on the autism spectrum because:

  1. Behavior is taught in a natural setting to the child which makes it more functional
  2. Learning is promoted through the use of toys that the child is particularly attached to
  3. With adequate training, it is a method parents can utilize in the comfort of their home
  4. It offers increased motivation for the child to learn
  5. It increases spontaneity and generalization of skills

What are the four steps in incidental teaching? 

The teacher or caregiver follows the child’s lead and, in doing so, the desired outcome or objective should occur increasingly. The caregiver or teacher identifies the situation in which the child shows interest, the caregiver then derives a series of prompts to encourage the child’s response. 

It is initiated by setting up an environment that conveys the interest of the child. 


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There are four levels of prompts in incidental teaching:

  1. The first step involves a 30-second time delay when the child displays interest to the object
  • Restrict access to the object—it must be visible but out of reach
  1. The caregiver prompts the child to ask for the object
  • The caregiver asks the child what he/she wants
  • Wait for the child to ask for the object by making gestures such as pointing 
  1. The prompt involves the caregiver to elaborate on the request 
  •  If the child has language skills, ask prompting questions like: “What colour is the ball you want?” 
  • If the child doesn’t have language skills, ask prompting questions such as: “Where is it?” 
  1. The correct response is modelled by the caregiver and the child is prompted to imitate the response 
  • The caregiver can model the response by pointing; which motivates the child to respond by imitating the gesture

Incidental teaching according to the Walden Toddler Model 

The Walden Toddler Model is a program founded in the U.S that offers structured early intervention through a home and center based structure. It utilizes the incidental teaching approach to blend learning into the routine of families of autistic children; concurrently working with the early childhood center. 

The incidental teaching curriculum offered by the Walden Toddler Model includes comprehensive training for skills acquisition for toddlers such as verbal expressive language, social responsiveness to adults, social tolerance/imitation of peers, and independence in daily living.

The home based program is set up so that a family liaison works cooperatively with the autistic child from their home whilst also providing training to the parents. According to research, children with autism who have undergone incidental teaching have shown an increase in the ability to transfer what has been taught to them into new settings and building social interactions. 

Mand-model vs incidental teaching

Parallel to incidental teaching is the mand-model. The models differ in that incidental teaching is dependent on forming prompts initially initiated by the child’s interest whereas in the case of the mand-model, the caregiver or therapist controls the child’s opportunity to gain the desired object by continuously expanding on the child’s response through subsequent prompting.

The mand-model is said to be beneficial for children, including those on the spectrum who find it difficult to initiate an interaction as well as those who need to expand on their current communication skills. 

In parallel, incidental teaching is beneficial for children who easily initiate an interaction but the caregiver uses that initiative to teach new skills such as communication skills and teaching behavior.

An example of mand-modeling could be when a child approaches playdough, which is the child’s favorite activity. The following dialogue ensues: 

Adult: “Say, ‘I want playdough.’”

Child says: “Dough”

Adult: “Say, ‘I want playdough.’”

Child says: “Want playdough.”

Adult: “Say, ‘I want playdough.’”

Child says: “I want playdough.”

Adult: “Nice talking!”

Gives child the playdough

In conclusion

Incidental teaching is an effective strategy to implement at home. It offers several benefits not only for the child with autism but also for the caregiver or parent looking to apply an intervention at home to teach their child communication skills and behavior. 

Every child on the autism spectrum is different to the other; hence the term “spectrum”; as such, incidental teaching has the potential to the generalizability of skill acquisition for each child with autism spectrum disorder.  

References

Charlop-Christy, M.H., Carpenter, M.H. (2000) Modified Incidental Teaching Sessions: A Procedure for Parents to Increase Spontaneous Speech in Their Children with Autism. Journal of Positive Behavior Interventions, 2(2), 98-112. https://doi.org/10.1177/109830070000200203

https://www.slideserve.com/talmai/communication-and-autism-spectrum-disorders

Hsieh, H.‐H., Wilder, D.A. and Abellon, O.E. (2011), The effects of training on caregiver implementation of incidental teaching. Journal of Applied Behavior Analysis, 44: 199-203. https://doi.org/10.1901/jaba.2011.44-199

McGee, G.G., Morrier, M.J., Daly, T. (1999) An Incidental Teaching Approach to Early Intervention for Toddlers with Autism.Journal of the Association for Persons with Severe Handicaps, 24(3),133-146. https://doi.org/10.2511/rpsd.24.3.133
Peterson, P. (2004). Naturalistic language teaching procedures for children at risk for language delays. The Behavior Analyst Today, 5(4), 404-424. http://dx.doi.org/10.1037/h0100047

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