If you are an autism parent, you probably want to help your kid learn new skills.
If you want to help your kid learn new skills, you probably don’t know about using an acoustical support.
You probably don’t know that the acoustical support is a great way to help kids with autism learn, even the severe kids, the nonverbal kids and the super-sensory kids. And guess what else? It’s easy, effective and low-cost. Low cost? Now that’s rare in the autism world!
So what exactly is an acoustical support?
An acoustical support is a neutral sound: a tap, click or ping. The sound is communication. The sound tells a child that she has done something right–at the precise moment she does it! The sound tells her, “YES, you did it, and now you are getting a reward.” The sound gives her success. The sound makes her feel good. The sound makes her want to do that great thing again.
Here’s an example
Let’s say your child has just touched a toy. Many kids with autism don’t play with toys, so we want them to learn how. Now your child has just touched a toy. That’s great! That’s the first step. You have your handy-dandy TAGteach tagger ready, so Immediately you press it to “tag” her action of touching the toy. Immediately after that you hand over a reinforcer (something she really likes). Guess what? She’ll figure out very quickly that she got attention, success and a very nice treat from Mom when she touched the toy. And then guess what? She’ll try touching again. Maybe she’ll touch another toy, or touch the toy for a longer period of time. You’re on your way to expanding her play skills.
What’s the sound got to do with it?
The sound serves to “mark” the child’s action. The sound “marks” the action of touching the toy. The sound “marks” the action at the precise instant the child did it. Now the child know exactly what she did to earn the success and positive reinforcement. She knows! And she knows better and faster than she would if somebody spent a lot of time giving her a long-winded explanation. The sound works as a “conditioned reinforcer.” Internationally known behavior scientist Karen Pryor explains, “A conditioned reinforcer is some initially meaningless signal—a sound, a light, a motion—that is deliberately presented before or during the delivery of a reinforcer.” The use of a sound to signal success is called Teaching with Acoustical Guidance or TAGteach.
Conditioned reinforcer? Positive reinforcement? That sounds like ABA.
You’re right. It does sound like ABA: Applied Behavior Analysis. TAgteach is an ABA-based method. TAGteach uses the laws of positive reinforcement to build skills and increase learning. TAGteach adds in that little extra something, the sound, the acoustical support, which does such a beautiful job of clarifying information for a child with autism. With TAGteach you reinforce precisely. You reinforce quickly. You reinforce often. You can build behaviors faster. You can really take advantage of the fundamental scientific laws of positive reinforcement. Karen Pryor explains it this way, “Behavior that is already occurring, no matter how sporadically, can always be intensified with positive reinforcement.”
Watch your child learn to pay attention to the sound
After a few experiences of hearing the sound and receiving a treat (reinforcer), the sound itself becomes meaningful for the child, and she starts to watch out for it. After the child is paying attention to the sound, she starts to pay attention to the behaviors that produced the sound. When she realizes that her own behaviors are producing the sound and the reinforcer, she learns to produce those desired behaviors more often. At that point, you have learning and communication! You also have a child who is paying attention to her environment. Isn’t this a wonderful outcome? Learning and attentiveness — we all want those traits in our kids.
As a parent, when I started using a neutral sound (the “tag”) to indicate to my son which behaviors of his would earn treats, he started doing more of those behaviors. My son was loud, chaotic and wild in the early years. He had self-stimulatory and aggressive behaviors. With my conditioned reinforcer (sometimes referred to as an “event marker” or a “tagger”), I was able to tag my child every time he did something productive. These productive things were functional behaviors like Quiet Mouth, Appropriate Vocalization, Both Feet On The Floor, Hands Still, or Eye Contact. The procedure is: Observe child, press tagger when child performs the desired behavior, then reinforce child (give a treat or token).
Tantrum busting with the tagger
The first time I used a TAGteach acoustical support was when my son had just erupted into a tantrum, complete with shrieking, stomping and storming about. I tagged every split second of “Quiet Mouth” or “Both Feet On The Ground,” and handed him a tiny piece of candy with each tag. Twelve minutes later he was sitting quietly and calmly on the sofa, and we were able to go about our day. During those twelve minutes I said not a word and did nothing other than press the tagger and hand out tiny pieces of candy. It was easy to do, and the result was amazing. It was an incredibly empowering experience for me, compared to all the previous tantrums when I always felt panicky, demoralized and helpless. I never feared a tantrum or meltdown again because I had a powerful tool to help him calm down.
My son became more skilled and happier the more I tagged
The more I communicated with my son via tags and positive reinforcement, the more skills he gained and the happier and better behaved he became. Despite the lack of speech, despite the sensory issues, the tag rang loud and clear and told him he had done something good. He loved it and responded beautifully. He had many difficult behaviors, but I was able to tag a split second of a functional behavior whenever it occurred, with the result that the split second became two seconds, then three seconds, then four seconds of the desired behavior, plus it occurred more often. Gradually I was able to “shape” disruptive behaviors into positive learning behaviors, and he gained many useful skills.
Clear, precise information for the child with no emotional or sensory burden
The reason the tag works so well is because of the precise information it provides to the child. It tells the child, in real time, exactly what he did that was right, at exactly the moment he did it. From the viewpoint of a child with autism, he receives precise, timely information from a neutral sound; there is no emotional burden, language processing or sensory issue to deal with. Thus the child is free to focus on the priceless information he is receiving: the wonderful knowledge that he has done something right.
NOW is the time for TAGteach for autism
The time has come for the use of acoustical supports in the autism community. There are many reasons. From an autism family’s perspective, this method is wonderful because it is easy, effective and low cost. From an autism treatment perspective, this method is wonderful because it is based on the scientific principles of Applied Behavior Analysis. It is flexible, portable and wonderful for teaching in the natural environment as well as in structured settings. It is an invaluable tool for weary, dispirited parents, and for over-burdened instructors in the classroom.
So, what about you? Are you ready to try TAGteach?
You may want more information. Please see the section below. If you need anything else, just ask me.
More about TAGteach
TAGteach stands for Teaching with Acoustical Guidance. TAGteach is a teaching and communication method that uses positive reinforcement and an event marker to tell a child that she has done something correctly. The event marker is a click sound made by a handheld device (the “tagger” or clicker). When the child performs the correct action, the parent/instructor immediately presses the button on the tagger and hands over a treat (candy, treat, token, praise, social recognition, or money) as a reinforcer. This results in the correct action occurring more often and for longer periods of time. With time and practice, children can learn many new skills with TAGteach. For more information about resources, research and other applications see the TAGteach website. TAGteach taggers are available here. See Martha’s book about TAGteach for Autism. Join the free TAGteach Listserve. Feel free to ask me a question.
For more information on TAGteach, autism and special education, click here.