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Naturalistic Teaching: Does it Support Autistic Children?

March 22, 2022

Naturalistic teaching is a branch of applied behavioral analysis (ABA) therapy that takes on a more natural approach than the more commonly known discrete trial training. In this article we will discuss what naturalistic teaching is, the different naturalistic procedures and if it supports children with autism. 

Naturalistic Teaching: Does it Support Autistic Children? 

What is naturalistic teaching?

In the early days, kids with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) were often taught in individualized and controlled situations. This type of teaching is known as discrete trial training (DTT). This method of teaching took priority as it was thought to be highly beneficial for language and social development.

Naturalistic teaching differs as it can be applied in any natural environment and not only in a structured therapy session. A common characteristic of naturalistic teaching is that it can take place in the home, at school, or even be practiced at the supermarket. The intention of naturalistic teaching is to use the natural environment to promote generalization and encourage children with autism to initiate or participate in conversation and get excited about the subject matter.

How are naturalistic teaching methods used in ABA therapy?

Naturalistic teaching has proven to be an effective method of teaching for children with autism, beyond just promoting generalization. This method has proven to be effective in improving a variety of skills such as language and communication skills as well as the development of social skills.

As this method does not necessarily require the child to be in a therapy session, these procedures can take place in any natural setting and be done by any person in the child’s life. Naturalistic teaching procedures usually take place during naturally occurring situations such as play time or snack time.

There are many different approaches to naturalistic teaching. We will be taking a look at some approaches that can be integrated in children’s daily routines by their parents, therapists or teachers.

We will also be taking a look at some of the most commonly known naturalistic approaches. Namely, incidental teaching, the mand-model procedure, the natural language paradigm and pivotal response training.

Incidental teaching

Incidental teaching (IT) was originally created for disadvantaged children in the late 1960s. IT was only later used to teach two children who were diagnosed with autism to identify items during a lunchtime preparation routine and later used to teach prepositions in a classroom setting. 

During an IT episode, the trainer integrates desired objects into a natural setting. This creates opportunities for the child to initiate first contact in regards to the desired object. The adult will then request or encourage more elaborate language and approximations of speech before giving the child the desired object. Therefore enhancing language skills.

Mand-model procedure

The mand-model procedure is a modification of incidental teaching and works to eliminate child initiation in comparison to the original IT model. The mand-model approach focuses on the generalization of previously acquired language and not on the acquisition of new language.

This technique can take place at therapy sessions by a therapist or at school by a teacher. The word “mand” in mand-model refers to the verbal behavior of the therapist and the child as the listener.

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During mand-model teaching episodes, the therapist is able to initiate first contact and mands for a response from the learner. For example, this can look like “What do you want?” if a child wants a desired object, or “What is this?” if the learner is already engaged in material. If the child replies with the correct verbal response as to what they want, the therapist rewards them with the desired object. In the event that the child is unable to make the proper verbal response, the child will still receive the desired object but the therapist will model the correct response and engage in vocal imitation with the child.

Natural language paradigm

The natural language paradigm (NLP) technique was created to enhance the quality and quantity of language through integrating a child’s motivation into effective teaching.

This approach makes use of certain tactics to identify what will motivate the child to learn. These tactics include the use of desired stimulus chosen by the child, the use of reinforcers functionally related to the task, a combined selection of skills trials already mastered along with new skills trials, and turn-taking. This approach relies heavily on reinforcement to increase motivation.

An NLP procedure takes place when a therapist or parent places desired items specified by the child in front of them, sitting face-to-face with the child. The child will then have to choose one item out of the lot to “play” with first. The adult will then provide a phrase for the child to imitate, for example, if the child chose a toy car, the adult can then say “car drives” and wait for the child to imitate. Once successful, the child will receive the toy to play with whilst practicing the phrase until it is time to start over again with a different desired object.

NLP is also the first procedural step in pivotal response training (PRT). PRT is an intervention to target ‘pivotal’ behaviors that kids with autism must learn in order to generalize behavior change.

It is considered pivotal that children with autism learn to respond to multiple cues in any environment as they can be selective in their responses. PRT incorporates teaching the child to be curious and ask for information, encouraging social interaction. PRT encourages adaptive growth as it teaches autistic kids to observe and record their own behavior and self-administer consequences.

How is naturalistic teaching beneficial for autistic kids?

There has been extensive study and investigation into these different naturalistic approaches, but is naturalistic teaching worth incorporating into your everyday routine? 

Below is a table summarizing the uniqueness of these specific approaches.

Incidental teachingTrials are initiated by the child only, not the teacher
Mand-model approachAllows teachers to initiate naturalistic teaching with verbal prompts
Natural linguistic paradigmEmphasizes child motivation through incorporating turn-taking, mastered trials interspersed with new trials and any attempts taken by the child are reinforced
Pivotal response training Specifically targets “pivotal” behavior, encouraging a child to respond to multiple cues and self management

These naturalistic approaches have been proven to benefit and target not just language skills and communication, but approaches such as NLP or PRT specifically target the growth of social behavior. Naturalistic teaching methods are a fun way to incorporate trials into everyday natural settings that get children with autism to engage and willingly learn.


Luiselli J.K, Russo D.C, Christian W.P & Wilczynski S.M. (2008). Effective Practices for Children with Autism: Educational and Behavior Support Interventions that Work. New York, NY. Oxford University Press. https://www.google.co.uk/books/edition/_/WS7PDXF68toC?hl=en&gbpv=1

Le Blanc L.A, Esch J, Sidener T.M & Firth A.M.(2006). Behavioral Language Interventions for Children with Autism: Comparing Applied Verbal Behavior and Naturalistic Teaching Approaches 22(1), 49-60 https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2774588/

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