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Applying Naturalistic Interventions in the Home with Your Child with Autism

January 26, 2024

You’ve been through the identification process, and you have a diagnosis of autism for your child after noticing differences in behaviors and preferences; you may have been told by friends and family that your child would ‘grow out of ‘ something or that he is a late bloomer; after all, children do develop at their own pace.

Applying Naturalistic Interventions in the Home with Your Child with Autism

But here you are, at the other end of an evaluation, and you have many, many questions on the impact of autism on early childhood developmental areas such as language acquisition, play skills, early academic skills, and social skills.

What can you and other family members do at home to support your child’s learning and progress? An exploration of Naturalistic Interventions may help you to add more tools to your toolbox.

‘Naturalistic Interventions’ is a collection of strategies including environmental supports and interaction techniques designed to encourage specific behaviors based on a child’s interests by building skills that are naturally reinforcing.

Naturalistic interventions are used in daily routines to develop skills in the specific areas of communication and social development, which make this approach ideal for preschool children who are learning to use language to have their needs met and to interact with others.

The first step to any intervention is to identify a skill to teach; this is termed the ‘target behavior’ and should be included under a goal area of your child’s Individual Family Service Plan (IFSP).

If, for example, your child does not help put away his favorite toys, let’s say blocks, when he is finished with them, a specific target behavior (the desired outcome or skill) would be something like this: “William will assist in putting away blocks when he is finished with them.”.

This may be considered a social skill because as William ages, there will be an expectation that he helps with putting away playthings in various age-appropriate environments alongside peers.  This skill also requires engaging in shared attention, reflecting communication and language development.

In order to find out where to begin and to set a pace for learning, it’s essential to determine just how often William walks away from his blocks when he is done with them. It’s necessary to have a clear understanding of a child’s skills before beginning naturalistic intervention.

To find this information, William’s parents or caregivers would need to observe him over a few days and record how often he walks away from his blocks and also how often he helps to pick up the blocks. It’s important to note any prompts or assistance from the adult that appeared to help to bring out the skill.

For example, if a new container was brought out and the adult was singing a clean-up song the time the child helped, this should be recorded because it may help in determining what strategies to use consistently. This is termed ‘antecedent’ supports.

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Once you have a skill identified, you know how often the skill is occurring without adult help or prompts, and you have information on the kinds of supports that bring about the desired skill, naturalistic interventions may be identified to increase target behaviors throughout your child’s day.

Embedding strategies within your preschooler’s regular routines is absolutely critical for success.  At home, think of the times your child is able to pick an activity as a choice, or times when you or a sibling select something to do together.

Whenever blocks are played with, the expectation will now be that at the end of playtime, you and your child will attend to the blocks together and they will be put away instead of left out.

You will need to think about what you can incorporate into your home environment and routines that can support your child’s learning. Thinking about your child’s interests and reflecting on any antecedents that led to the skill being used will help.

You will need to put together materials that capture your child’s attention and motivate him to engage in the desired skill. Think of the example above: the use of an organizational tote led to William’s interest in helping to clean-up, as did singing a song during the activity. These are examples of supports that can be prepared to help you to teach and reinforce social and language skills.

Gaining your child’s attention and interest are key for learning. When you have the essentials in place, it’s time to jump in and engage your child in a richly reciprocal interaction as you model the task, praise efforts and successful attempts at the skill, and work to maintain attention and interest.

It may feel like a game, and it should; this approach is very child-centered and incorporates one-on-one engagement to teach in naturally occurring developmental activities. Overtime, the skill of picking-up blocks may be extended to picking-up other play things, too. This is termed ‘generalization’ and will help your child to be successful in many areas and spaces where toys are a part his world.

One final note: when you decide to use naturalistic interventions to teach social and communication skills, decide on the skills that will give the most benefit to your child across environments. Prioritize what you see as the most important for his age and stage of development and stick to teaching only a few new skills at a time.

This way, you will make the most of your time while give your child the best opportunities for learning without being overwhelmed.


Davies, D. (2017). What Is naturalistic intervention & how does it work? Retrieved February 2020 from https://www.autismag.org/news/what-is-naturalistic-intervention-how-does-it-work/

Hancock, T. & Kaiser, A. (2006). Enhanced milieu teaching. In McCauley R.J. & Fey, M.E. (Ed.), Treatment of language disorders in children (pp. 203-229). Baltimore: Paul H. Brooks Publishing.

Kaiser, A. P., & Trent, J. A. (2007). Communication intervention for young children with disabilities: Naturalistic approaches to promoting development. In S. Odom, R. Horner, M. Snell, & J. Blacher (Eds.), Handbook of Developmental Disabilities. New York: Guilford Press.

Roberts J., Williams K., & Carter M. (2011). Randomised controlled trial of two early intervention programs for young children with autism: Centre-based with parent program and home-based. Research in autism spectrum disorders. 5(4):1553–1566.

Schreibman, L., Dawson, G., Stahmer, A. C., Landa, R., Rogers, S. J., McGee, G. G., Kasari, C., Ingersoll, B., Kaiser, A. P., Bruinsma, Y., McNerney, E., Wetherby, A., & Halladay, A. (2015). Naturalistic developmental behavioral interventions: Empirically validated treatments for autism spectrum disorder. Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders, 45(8), 2411–2428.

This article was featured in Issue 106 –Maintaining a Healthy Balance With ASD

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