Is this a candidate for the Lame Brain Parenting Hall of Fame?

autism, tagteach, ABA, applied behavior analysisI am the parent of a nonverbal teenage boy with autism, and I have a confession to make: I reward my child for BREATHING! You heard that right: I reward my child for breathing. Can you believe it? But, before you slap your forehead and moan that this idea is a top candidate for the Lame Brain Parenting Hall of Fame, please hear me out. There is a reason.

On the surface, the idea of rewarding a kid for breathing seems preposterous. But let’s look at how important breathing is. A newborn baby takes its first breath. A dying person takes his last breath. Living is breathing. We often describe emotions in terms of breathing: “panting,” “choking,” “gasping.” A sigh can be a sigh of relief, a sigh of grief, or a sigh of resignation. Descriptions of breathing tell us a great deal about the emotional state of the person. And what about all those people who pay for and attend meditation and yoga classes?  An important skill taught in many of those classes is how to practice breathing in order to achieve a calm state of mind and reduce stress.

Kids with Autism

Now, let’s look at our kids with autism. Our kids experience neurological and sensory feelings that we do not experience and that we can neither comprehend nor relate to. We know our kids experience sound, light, and movement in a different way, and that these sensory issues can create problems for them. We also know our kids with autism can be quickly overwhelmed by the combination of sensory issues and performance demands, with the result that they become angry and agitated.

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How to Observe Your Child with Autism

Microsoft Word - Child Observation Checklist Phase2.docx

Parents of children on the autism spectrum by necessity become keen observers of their child’s behavior.  We are ever vigilant, watching for signs of an impending meltdown, or to appreciate those wonderful, elusive flashes of understanding or emotional connection. Our kids have shining moments of great behavior when they are happy and all is right in their confusing world. Wouldn’t you like to have more of those moments, and have those moments last longer?

Study what the child is already doing

An easy and effective way to accomplish this is to start with something that the child is already doing (even if it is only fleetingly) and increase the strength of that behavior. By behavior, I mean a physical movement that the child is doing (as opposed to “good,” “bad” or other emotional descriptions of what is happening). If your child is shrieking and running around, he is not “driving you crazy,” he is demonstrating a behavior, i.e., the physical movements of moving his feet and moving his vocal chords.

Dr. Martin Kozloff, in his excellent book: Educating Children with Learning and Behavior Problems suggests that you take five minutes and observe your child, recording every movement of every body part. This will give you objective information of what actual physical movements your child is making. Once you have a catalog of the child’s movements, you can decide which ones could be the basis of new, “good” behaviors. We have created a download for you to use in recording your child’s movements that has additional instructions.

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Introducing the acoustical support for autism

Hand holding clicker

The purpose of this article is to introduce you to a new type of support for children with autism: the acoustical support. Most people are familiar with adaptive equipment for children with physical disabilities such as wheel chairs, braces, and work platforms. In the autism community, most people are familiar with visual supports: picture systems, schedules, token boards, and so forth. These visual supports play a crucial role in educating children with autism and have proven to be extremely useful in both home and school settings.

Introducing the acoustical support

Now, for the “acoustical” support:  An acoustical support is a neutral sound: a tap, click or ping. The purpose of the sound is to inform a learner that he has done something right. The sound says, “YES, you did it.” The instructor, therapist or parent makes the sound at the exact moment that the child has performed a desired behavior. This behavior may be pointing to a picture of a cat, putting a puzzle piece into place, or, one of those rare beautiful flashes of meaningful eye contact or comprehension. As soon as the child has performed the task and the instructor has produced the sound, the child receives a treat (reinforcer). After a few trials, the neutral sound becomes a “conditioned reinforcer.”  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 child starts to pay attention

After a few experiences of hearing the sound and receiving a treat (reinforcer), the sound itself becomes meaningful for the child, and he starts to watch out for it. After the child is paying attention to the sound, he starts to pay attention to the behaviors that produced the sound. When he realizes that his own behaviors are producing the sound and the reinforcer, he learns to produce those desired behaviors more often. At that point, you have learning and communication! The use of a sound to signal success to the learner is called Teaching with Acoustical Guidance or TAGteach.

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Think about what your child is doing, not what you want him to do

In the summer, moms and dads have a lot more unstructured time with their children with autism. During this time, we may engage in a lot of wishful thinking.  “I wish he would play with legos. I wish she could go on a play date.  I wish he did something other than running around and screaming.”

Let’s change this pattern of wishing

During my son’s younger years, I made the mistake of thinking about the behaviors I wanted him to do, as opposed to thinking about what he was actually doing. I kept thinking of behaviors in terms that were too big and too complicated. I wanted him to play games, interact with kids his age, and have fun—according to my understanding of what should be fun for him. This was wrong. This kind of thinking kept me focused on the deficits in his skill levels, and took away the many opportunities that were actually popping up every day to build up his skill levels. Instead, I should have been looking for the tiny micro-movements he was already performing that had the potential to be shaped into bigger functional skills. What do I mean?

tagteach, autism, ABA, applied behavior analysisFirst, Move to a pattern of observing

Well, if you look at the picture of this beautiful piece of pottery, please remember that it started with a soggy lump of clay. In order to make a beautiful pot, you start out with the clay, knead it, form a base, build up the sides, shape it, finish it, and bake it in an oven. It’s quite a process, with many steps. With our kids with autism, we have to take the same step-by-step approach. Look at your child, and look for the smallest possible movements he is making with his body that could serve as the foundation for further behaviors. Does your child make eye contact with anything or anyone, even accidentally? If so, tag and treat all instances of eye contact, no matter how fleeting. Does he touch anything? If so, tag and treat all instances of him touching functional objects (toys, books, household items). After he is touching these items, switch to tagging and treating every time he picks up an item, then when he holds an item, moves an item from one place to another, or plays with or uses the item.

Second, Move to a pattern of reinforcing

After you have built up your child’s skills in looking at interesting things and people, and built up his skills in touching and holding objects, you have the foundation for increasing play skills. Set out various play items and observe what your child does. By this time, he will understand that touching and handling these objects results in treats, praise and attention from mom or dad. He will most likely pick something up and do something with it. It doesn’t matter if his action is inappropriate from our point of view, the goal is to get him handling these objects in different ways. See if he places one object on or near another object or holds two objects at the same time. Strengthen these behaviors with lots of positive reinforcement. If you have the good fortune to have other children or adults in the household who are around the child, reinforce your child with autism for looking at, walking close to, talking to, or interacting with family members.

tagteach, autism, ABA, applied behavior analysisThird, Move to a pattern of shaping and building

Now comes the time for creative observation and tagging. Keep observing your child and tag and treat all cute, clever and interesting things he does with these objects. This will encourage him to try more activities and to do these activities for longer times. The same goes for interaction with others. Watch the child’s interactions with objects and people and see if there are any times when these come together: he may show a toy to a person, or carry something to a person. If so, give yourself a hearty pat on the back. You have successfully set the foundation for teaching more play and personal interaction skills to your child.

By using positive reinforcement very precisely, parents can build up small physical movements into complete play skills. Naturally, I also recommend that parents consider using TAGteach (Teaching with Acoustical Guidance) for this process. TAGteach allows parents to deliver high rates of very precise reinforcement for even the most fleeting behaviors. Here is a review of the tag points for each phase. See the end of the article for more information about TAGteach.

Observation

Eye contact with object (book, toy, household item)

Touches object

Holds objects

Picks up object

Eye contact with person

Reinforcement

Picks up object

Pushes object

Moves object around

Holds two objects simultaneously

Walks near person

Walks to person

Interacts with person

Shaping and Building

Novel actions with objects

Shows object to person

Carries object to person

Carries 2 objects to person

What is 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 visit 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.clicker wrist

A River of Reinforcement and Smooth Sailing: TAGteach for Autism

Many of us as children played with sticks and homemade toy boats in streams or rivulets at the beach. How did we get those tippy little boats to sail downstream? We placed them in the middle of the stream where the water was deepest and flowed most strongly. Now, think about our kids with autism. We use positive reinforcement to increase functional skills, but how much reinforcement? I learned the answer from my son: a river of reinforcement.

autism, tagteach, applied behavior analysis, ABA, tag pointCreate a river that flows

Positive reinforcement is best when it is like a stream that can propel a twig or toy boat. The twig follows the stream just fine when the flow is deep and strong, but what happens when the stream dries up? There is no forward movement. The toy boat gets stuck and keels over. If we want the boat to move, the water has to be deep and flowing.

A strong flow supports learning

Let’s say a young girl is learning to pick up blocks and place them on a mat (with the eventual goal of stacking blocks and following block patterns). The tag point is Block On Mat. As soon as she places the block on the mat you would tag and treat. As she picks up speed with this skill, you can tag, tag, tag quickly for each block as it hits the mat. You can tag her literally almost every few seconds. Think of what she is experiencing: a flow of success and reinforcement that is supporting her every action. The flow gives her confidence, success, affirmation, and some very nice treats. She won’t falter, she’ll keep sailing along.

Change the flow

Want her to learn something else? Change the flow. She’s mastered the skill of placing blocks on the mat, so now you want her to learn to place a block on a square. You set out a new mat with a few big squares on it, and establish a new tag point: Block On Square. Now you tag and treat every time she places a block on a square, and you ignore blocks that are not placed on a square. Give her the same powerful flow of reinforcement for correct responses, and she will learn the new skill.

autism, tagteach, applied behavior analysis, ABA, tag pointLet your child drift down a river of reinforcement

Just as a smoothly flowing river supports boats and allows them to move, so a strong flow of reinforcement can support a child with autism who needs to learn functional skills. Keep the reinforcement flowing, tag accurately and often, and watch your child move along. That is smooth sailing!

TAGteach Principles and Tag Points: A Quick Review

Let’s take a moment to review TAGteach and tag points. TAGteach Basic Principles explains, “Clarity and simplicity are key aspects of TAGteach. A tag point is defined so that the Instructor can easily judge whether the tag point is achieved and can mark it with a tag. Tag Point Criteria: A tag point must satisfy the following criteria … : What you want (phrase in the positive). One thing (the word “and” will never appear in a tag point). Observable/Measurable (you must be able to judge the completion clearly). Five words or less. Ignore Errors and Try Again.” See also the TAGteach International Glossary of TAGteach Terms and Phrases. 

box clickers (1)What is 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 visit 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.

Motivating Students Who Have Autism Spectrum Disorders

Today’s blog post comes to us courtesy of the Indiana Resource Center for Autism. The author is Rozella Stewart, an Education Special at Indiana University, now retired. In this outstanding article, she explains how to develop motivation in students with autism by focusing on their individual interests and strengths, how to structure a supportive environment, and the importance of delivering successful experiences.

autism, tagteach, applied behavior analysisThe Challenge

Motivating individuals who have autism spectrum disorder is an essential but often difficult challenge. It is essential because, by definition, they have restricted repertoires of interests and skills needed for community living and coping. Without planned, positive experiences, these individuals often become increasingly victimized by their autism as they age. With successful experiences, each can become a victor who lives, works, and plays in the community. It is difficult, at least in part, because people who have autism are particularly vulnerable to key factors which impact motivation.

An individual’s motivation is strongly influenced by: learning history; learning styles; internal and external incentives to engage in tasks; expectations of success or failure with a particular task; meaningfulness and purposefulness of the task from the perspective of the learner; and task-surrounding environmental variables which affect attention and achievement. In general, tasks and activities which learners associate with past success tend to stimulate interest. Success begets success! Challenges which trigger memories of past anxieties and failures tend to stimulate avoidance reactions and self-preservation responses. Although occasional failure is often seen as a challenge by learners who are highly motivated to learn through problem solving, repeated failure fosters feelings of futility and frustration in fragile learners who lack self-confidence and may lack competencies for task-related problem solving. When diligently applied, proactive strategies often prove successful in eventually eliciting positive, productive responses and pride in personal accomplishment. The following are just a few success-oriented strategies that support motivation for individuals who have autism spectrum disorder:

Know the individual

  • Maintain a current list of the individual’s strengths and interests. Include preoccupations and fascinations that may be considered “bizarre” or strange. Use these strengths and interests as the foundation for gradually expanding the individual’s repertoire of skills and interests.
  • Note tasks or activities which create frustration and heightened anxiety for the individual. Attention to these factors can result in avoiding episodes which perpetuate insecurity, erode confidence, foster distrust in the environment, and generally result in avoidance behaviors.
  • Pay attention to processing and pacing issues which may be linked to cognitive and/or motor difficulties inherent to the individual’s autism. Give the individual time to respond. Vary types of cues given when movement disturbances are suspected.

Structure a supportive environment. Both the social and physical milieu should encourage and support successful task performance.

  • Teach in natural environments that contain the cues and reinforcement which prompt and maintain learned behaviors whenever possible.
  • Be sure that everyone involved encourages and supports independent effort whenever possible. Willingness to try to perform independently as opposed to remaining dependent on others results when the individual attributes successful performance to his own efforts rather than to external factors.
  • Plan optimally stimulating (neither too stimulating nor too nonstimulating) tasks and activities. Plan ways to decrease the impact of environmental distractors that interfere with task initiation and completion.

autism, tagteach, applied behavior analysis, ABAUse instructional strategies which support successful outcomes.

  • Assemble materials, or teach the learner to assemble materials, in task- appropriate sequences.
  • Teach new tasks by providing examples or modeling so the learner has a clear vision of task sequences and expected outcomes.
  • Incorporate learning tasks into preferred topics and activities.
  • Plan tasks and activities that result in meaningful outcomes from the perspective of the learner. Vary tasks and activities frequently as opposed to requiring boring repetition. Conversely, capture opportunities to expand learning when interest is high.
  • Plan and present tasks and activities at an appropriate level of difficulty for the individual involved.
  • Provide instructions or information visually as opposed to verbally to decrease distraction and to make information more user friendly for the person.
  • Introduce unfamiliar tasks in a secure environment so that later learned familiarity will capture the individual’s attention in more challenging environments. For example, if science class is going to discuss the stars during class time, parents might observe a night sky with their son/daughter. This provides a familiar link to subsequent school experiences. This familiarization process is sometimes referred to as “teaching pivotal behaviors.” Learned behaviors become pivotal in motivating the individual to attend to tasks in a variety of situations.
  • Assign specific models for the individual to observe and imitate when in group activities such as circle time or group exercises. When in more fluid group situations, assign or help the individual to select a specific role which he or she can perform. Teach the individual how to perform selected roles.
  • Plan for successful outcomes that can be achieved “here and now” rather than at some more distant time. Rather than pushing for a perfect response, reinforce all goal-directed attempts.
  • Structure motivating event sequences in which the less familiar, less preferred activity is followed by the familiar, preferred experience (First _____, then _____.). Structure short, successful experiences with less preferred activities and longer, equilibrium restoring experiences with more preferred, easier-to-tolerate activities. This strategy works particularly well for very hesitant learners who have extremely restricted repertoires of interests.
  • For learners with broader repertoires of interests and skills, build motivational momentum by beginning with highly preferred, success- guaranteed tasks and alternating such tasks and activities with less preferred, more challenging tasks throughout the day. This strategy also works for individuals who are so highly aroused by anticipated preferred events that they can not focus on other tasks until the highly stimulating need has been addressed.
  • Focus on errorless learning. Teach (perhaps by modeling or having a peer model) the person to do the task right the first time.
  • Avoid having the learner undo or disassemble products which he or she perceives as finished. Erasing work or taking apart finished products often makes no sense to the learner and may result in a “Why do it?” response mode. Plan ways to correct or repeat work that do not involve undoing what has been done.
  • Offer attention-getting choices which stimulate personal involvement.
  • In general, accentuate the positive; disempower the negative.

Finally, remember that failure, sarcasm, ridicule, and apparent lack of confidence on the part of those who live and work with people with autism spectrum disorders decrease motivation and perpetuate cycles of learned helplessness. Increased motivation results from experiences which teach people how to interact with both social and physical environments in ways that result in positive outcomes. While always most secure with the familiar, resistance to the unfamiliar decreases and inclinations to try gradually increases as people with autism spectrum disorders learn that they will be okay and that they might even enjoy a new experience.

References and for further reading:

Butera, G., & Haywood, H.C. (1995). Cognitive education of young children with autism. In E. Schopler & G.B. Mesibov (Eds.), Learning and cognition in autism (pp. 269-292). New York, NY: Plenum Press.

Charlop, M.H., Kurtz, P.F., & Casey, F.G. (1990). Using abberant behaviors as reinforcers for autistic children. Journal of Applied Behavior Analysis, 23, 163-181.

Dyer, K., Dunlap, G., & Winterling, V. (1990). Effects of choice making on the serious problem behaviors of students with severe handicaps. Journal of Applied Behavior Analysis, 23, 515-524.

Frea, W.D. (1995). Social-communication skills in higher functioning children with autism.

In R.L. Koegel & L.K. Koegel (Eds.), Teaching children with autism: Strategies for initiating positive interactions and improving learning opportunities (pp. 53-66).Baltimore, MD: Paul H. Brookes Publishing Co.

Koegel, R.L., Koegel, L.K., Frea, W.D., & Smith, A.E. (1995). Emerging interventions for children with autism: Longitudinal and lifestyle implications. In R.L. Koegel & L.K. Koegel (Eds.), Teaching children with autism: Strategies for initiating positive interactions and improving learning opportunities (pp. 1- 15). Baltimore, MD: Paul H. Brookes Publishing Co.

Koegel, R.L., Koegel, L.K., & Parks, D.R. (1995). Teach the Individual: Model of Generalization. In R.L. Koegel & L.K. Koegel (Eds.), Teaching children with autism: Strategies for initiating positive interactions and improving learning opportunities (pp. 67-77). Baltimore, MD: Paul H. Brookes Publishing Co.

Moes, D. (1995). Parent education and parenting stress. In R.L. Koegel & L.K. Koegel (Eds.), Teaching children with autism: Strategies for initiating positive interactions and improving learning opportunities (pp. 79-93). Baltimore, MD:Paul H. Brookes Publishing Co.

Smith, M.D., Belcher, R.G., & Juhrs, P.D. (1995). A guide to successful employment for individuals with autism. Baltimore, MD: Paul H. Brookes Publishing Co.

Stuart, R. (1996). Motivating students who have autism spectrum disorders. The Reporter, 1(3), 1-3. I would like to extend my thanks to Ms. Stewart and the IRCA for allowing us to share this excellent article.  This article can be viewed on the website of the Indiana Resource Center for Autism.

10 Pennies in Your Pocket . . . and autism?

autism, tagteach, ABA

Many autism parents, and I am among them, have beloved children who are severely challenged. Our kids often struggle with language, basic tasks, and difficult or disruptive behaviors. To make it worse, they do these behaviors all the time—they are not occasional events. What can you do?

The Challenge

Because these behaviors are so relentless, it can seem that our kids never do anything positive or productive. I used to go crazy at autism meetings with my big question, “How can I get my kid to stop Behavior X?” only to be told, “You have to reinforce other behaviors.” Inwardly I would fume, “My kid has no other behaviors!”

But … I was wrong. After a while, I noticed that my son occasionally had a flash of a clever or funny behavior. These were always short and almost never repeated, but they were there. It takes time and a persistent eye to spot these elusive moments, but it can be done. Here’s one way to spot them.

10 Pennies in Your Pocket

Put 10 pennies in your pocket, then go watch your child. Every time he or she does something–anything–that is positive, take a penny and throw it into a dish. You may see a flash of eye contact, a moment of connection, a careful glance at an item, or a clever action of some sort. If you can manage it, keep a notepad next to the dish and jot down what your child did. At the end of the day, count the pennies in the dish.

How many positive things did your child do today? The first day you may have only one penny, but the next day you many have two or even three in the dish. After a few days, you may have many more pennies in the dish. Congratulations! You are now a skilled observer of the potentially positive behaviors your child already has, plus, you are probably happier about what your child is doing.

What’s next – TAGteach!

If you look at your dish of pennies and the list of cute actions that your child did, you have the foundation for building up all kinds of new skills. With your trained eye, take a more comprehensive look at your child. On this blog is a Child Observation Chart. Fill it out and make notes of all the physical movements your child performs. Look carefully at the movements that can be the basis of functional skills (for example: eye contact, touching a toy, using a fork).

Select two or three of these movements, get a tagger and a handful of treats (reinforcers), and go back to watching your child. As soon as he performs one of these physical movements, press the tagger (“click”!) and hand over a treat. The tag (or “click”) is an “event marker.” It tells your child, “That movement you just made is great and you are going to get a treat.” Since you just reinforced this behavior, the child will perform it again. He will eventually perform it more often and for longer periods of time!

The Laws of Behavioral Science

Why does this happen? Because of the laws of behavioral science. Behavioral biologist Karen Pryor explains, “Behavior that is already occurring, no matter how sporadically, can always be intensified with positive reinforcement.” This is the wonderful law of behavioral science that enables us to increase positive physical movements, even if they are very rare. Don’t let those precious flashes go to waste — catch them and reinforce them!

autism, tagteach, ABAGrowth and Learning

Now you have the skills to help your child learn all kinds of helpful skills. What would you like your child to learn? You can use TAGteach to help your child with dressing, playing with toys, going out for walks, and feeling comfortable in new situations. Many people are using TAGteach in all kinds of applications and for all kinds of learners, from kids with autism to elite gymnasts to orthopedic surgeons.

Want more information? Go to the TAGteach website. Participate in the TAGteach listserve; ask questions and share information with both newcomers and experienced TAG users.

10 pennies in your pocket can be the beginning of an amazing and productive journey.

What is 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 see www.tagteach.com. TAGteach taggers are available here. See Martha’s book about TAGteach for Autism. Feel free to ask me a question.box clickers

 

A Click is Worth a Thousand Words: Part 3

Part 3: Precise Reinforcement and Success versus Random Reinforcement and Confusion

In Part 1 of this series, we discussed how the click, or “tag,” is ONE specific sound that relates to ONE specific physical movement. This precise information to the child, “Hey, taking two steps in the same direction is great!” tells him that taking two steps in the same direction is a good thing to do more often. In Part 2, we discussed how the precise timing of the click helps the parent/instructor think about planning the small steps that lead up to the bigger behavior. My goal was to teach Safe Walking, and my son worked up from taking Two Steps/Same Direction, to taking Three Steps/Same Direction, and eventually Walking Beside Me, and Stopping At Corners. For reference, please see the chart I’ve been running in this series of articles.

 

Chart for Click 1000 words correctedBenefits of Precise Reinforcement

Part 3 of this series discusses how the precise reinforcement delivers success to the child, and avoids the problems of random reinforcement and confusion. The quick click of the tagger, followed up by a treat (strips of fruit roll-up), gave extraordinarily precise information to my son. The click marked the precise moment his second or third footstep hit the ground in the same direction. If he bolted or spun around, no click and no treat. Being a smart kid who likes fruit roll-ups, he quickly figured out he would get more by taking steps in the same direction.

autism, tagteach, applied behavior analysisProblems of Random Reinforcement

Because of the precise, consistent sound of the click and consistent reinforcement for that one targeted behavior, my son knew what to do. There was no confusion because there was no delay in information and reinforcement. Contrast this to what often happens when a child is being urged to walk in a straight line or stay with a group: “Hey Billy, come back here, stay with the group. We’re walking to the playground. Yes, that’s it. You can swing at the playground. No, come this way, we’re going to the left not the right. Just go straight ahead to the swings.” This verbal barrage provides lots of confusing sounds, some instructions, a reprimand, a small amount of praise, and lots of non-pertinent information. Billy experiences too many words, too much emotion, and a lot of confusion and failure. This experience does not build a foundation for continued learning.

autism, tagteach, applied behavior analysis, ABALet’s try it with TAGteach

What if the instructor had a tagger and a pocket of small treats and watched Billy’s feet? Billy would experience the following: when he takes Two Steps/Same Direction: he hears a click and gets a tic-tac. Wow! That was easy and he got a nice treat. He takes Two Steps/Same Direction again, and experiences more success and reinforcement. Now he’s got it, he continues taking Two Steps/Same Direction, and before he knows it, he’s standing in front of his favorite swing. Billy experiences success and reinforcement, and really knows to listen for that click—because it means good things are coming. Now the foundation is set for more learning. He’s ready to learn to take Three Steps/Same Direction, then Four Steps/Same Direction, then Walk With Group.

What’s the bottom line?

Precise reinforcement delivers success to the student: he learned something, he did something correctly, and he will do that good thing again. Success breeds success, confidence and attentiveness. Random reinforcement mixed in with confusing instructions, corrections and reprimands delivers confusion and failure to the student. Which do you think Billy would rather feel?

What is 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 he or 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 see www.tagteach.com. TAGteach taggers are available here. To see Martha’s book about TAGteach for Autism, see hereiclick circle

TAGteach Tale:  From Sensory Avoidance to Self-Feeding – Tink’s journey to success

Tink is a beautiful little girl in the U.K. She had trouble touching things, a common form of sensory defensiveness, that led to problems with touching food and feeding herself. Her dad, Seany, found a gentle, incremental way to increase her ability to touch things, so that she can now feed herself. Please note (1) the importance to Tink of having a “choice” as to what to do and when, and (2) that her dad used reinforcers that were pleasing to her. Also note: For American readers, “biscuit” means “cookie” and “crisps” means “potato chips.”  “Capturing” a behavior means “marking” a behavior with a tagger at the exact moment the child performs the behavior, and following up with a reinforcer; it does not mean “abducting” the child! Here is their story:

autism, tagteach, applied behavior analysis, ABA“Tink has gone from touching and stroking eyebrows to touching food and feeding herself. When professionals tried to teach her this, Tink stopped touching things and didn’t want to be touched. She had built up a negative association with this, as well as with other things, because of the hand-over-hand techniques that were used. Hand-over-hand techniques took away her choice. Building up behaviors by using choice is really important with my daughter. From simply teaching her to touch I had a behavior to build on.

Tink liked her dad’s eyebrows, so that’s where they started

By teaching one small touch I built up to the behavior chain of Tink feeding herself.  When I started off with the eyebrows, I simply captured it by sitting next to her and tagging her every time she touched my eyebrows.  I used her drink for reinforcement at first: so, every time she touched them, I tagged and gave her a bit of her drink. When she started to touch my eyebrows consistently, I introduced a cue for “touch” by adding the cue as soon as she touched; then I tagged and reinforced her again with her drink. I did this a number of times. Then I asked her to  touch, and she did exactly that and touched my eyebrows.  I reinforced this over the period of about two days where I would just sit next to her and ask her to touch.

From touching eyebrows to touching hand – in small steps

Then I started to ask her to touch my hand by placing my hand over my eyebrows. As soon as she touched my hand I tagged and reinforced; I used a stroke on her arm with a soft toy for the reward, as she likes the feel of something soft brushing against her arm or face. Every time I asked her to touch I moved my hand further and further from my face until, eventually, I was holding my hand up in front of her and she was consistently touching my hand. I carried on asking her and tagging her for touching my hand over a number of days, so wherever I moved my hand she would touch it.

From touching hand to touching objects – in small steps

Then I started to hold up objects in front of her face and asked her to touch them. The first couple of times she tried to touch my hand, so I didn’t tag her and just waited, all the while holding up the object (a plastic coin). Eventually she reached out and touched it, so I tagged and reinforced — this time with a little bit of a biscuit. I carried on asking her to touch objects held in front of her for quite some time over probably a couple of weeks. It helped just capturing her actions of touching other things by observing and tagging her when she was about to touch a toy or something on the floor.

From touching objects to holding objects – in small steps

The next time I sat down and did some work with her, my object was to get her to hold the plastic coin. I started off by asking her to touch the coin, which we did a number of times. I tagged each touch, then reinforced with a bit of biscuit. After a short time, I observed that she started to place her finger around the coin, which I thought was a good thing to use to my advantage. So, next time I tagged her a little later than just the touch, and waited until her hands were around the coin. I did this a few more times.  Then, as well as asking for “touch” I added a cue to “hold” as soon as she had her hand around the coin.  Within about 3 goes of this, she was successfully holding the coin herself. For a while I did the same as before, and just through observing her I captured her picking things up, and continued reinforcing the behavior and pairing with the “hold” cue.

Cute little girl is eating carrotFrom touching objects to touching food

Then one day I was giving her a biscuit, and she wanted me to put it in her mouth; so, instead I held out the biscuit and simply said “touch.”  She did exactly that, reached out her hand for the biscuit and placed her hand around it! I tagged her when her hand was on it and broke a bit of the biscuit off and rewarded her.  I went to repeat it and asked for a hold, but this time she reached out her hand, grabbed the biscuit and put it straight in her mouth! She’s quick and it caught me by surprise.  I just had time to tag her as the biscuit went into her mouth, so had to give a verbal reward of “Yes, good girl.”

 

From touching food to eating food

I tried this again and put a biscuit on a plate on the floor and asked for touch again; she did exactly the same as the last time, and then did the same again a number of times.  Now she eats quite well using her hands. Right after that I simply put food on a plate so she could pick it up and she would automatically feed herself.  She’s successfully feeding herself from hand to mouth for quite some time now and will even take your crisps or fries if you’re not careful (lol!). She had been able to do this before, but as soon as the professional workers started to use hand-over-hand guiding techniques she reacted negatively and stopped doing it.  This is how I built it up again.”

Review of Tag Points for Each Stage

Touch eyebrows

Touch hand

Touch hand (held in different positions)

Touch coin

Touch toys

Hold coin

Touch biscuit (cookie)

Hold biscuit (cookie)

Eat biscuit

Eat biscuit/food from plate

Helps herself to food from her parents’ plates

Brilliant Example of Shaping A Behavior

This TAGteach tale is a textbook example of brilliant behavior shaping. Tink’s dad started at the “point of success,” i.e., a behavior that she was already doing. He looked at an action that might not seem very productive (Tink’s touching eyebrows) and reinforced it. Then he gently reinforced similar touching behaviors, expanded the range of those behaviors (from face to hand to toys to food) and reached his goal of Tink feeding herself. Tink experienced success and reinforcement at every step, and experienced no coercion. This shaping process gave her the choice of what, when and how long to touch different items. Also, I was interested to see that the early stages took some time, but by respecting Tink’s progress, the last part of the procedure went very quickly! Tink surprised her dad by grabbing the biscuit and feeding herself. Outstanding work by Tink’s dad, and a great step forward for Tink! Thank you for sharing.

What is 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 the TAGteach website click here. To join the TAGteach listserve, click here.  TAGteach taggers are available here. See Martha’s book about TAGteach for Autism. Feel free to ask me a question.    taggers

A click is worth a thousand words: Part 2

Part 2: Precise timing and planning versus sloppy timing and planning

Part 1 of this series described the benefits of using One Sound for One Movement to teach a skill to a child with autism, versus a babble of sounds for many movements.  Part 2 will focus on the all-important issues of timing and planning, and how they relate to teaching Safe Walking. See the table below for reference.

Chart for Click 1000 words corrected

Why is timing important?

While many people know that a positive consequence following a behavior will result in that behavior occurring more often, fewer people appreciate the importance of timing. A precisely timed reinforcer that is presented exactly at the actual moment the child is doing the desired movement, or immediately after the desired movement, will result in the child learning the behavior much faster. Why? Because the experience of success and reinforcement is so closely tied to the desired behavior. It’s easy for the child to figure out, “Hey, that thing I just did is really great, because I keep experiencing nice rewards.”

Kids with autism live in real time, the “now”

Our kids with autism live in the moment, not the past and not the future. To work effectively with our kids, we have to live in the moment, be in the moment with them and observe them closely. The split second the child does the desired action, press the tagger and hand over a treat. Also, our kids with autism often move very fast. My son can easily do several movements in the course of a second or two. I have to be quick and precise to mark exactly which movement that I would like to see him do more often.

autism, tagteach, ABA, applied behavior analysisNext Steps In Teaching Safe Walking

Because my son’s movements outside were erratic, the first goal of his Safe Walking program was for him to take Two Steps/Same Direction. This meant that if he started off with his right foot, he would next move his left foot to complete the first step, and then move his right foot again for the second step.  If his next right foot movement was in the same direction, I tagged and treated. So, I had to watch: Right Foot, Left Foot, Right Foot (is it in the same direction?). If yes, I tagged and treated, if not I watched and waited for the next step. With the tagger, I could mark the split second his second Right Foot hit the ground in the same direction. If he started off with his Left Foot, I watched Left Foot, Right Foot, second Left Foot (is it in the same direction?).  If yes, I tagged; if not, I waited for the next footsteps.

Precise Timing is Superior to Slow, Sloppy Timing

For my son, this was incredibly precise information, and he learned quickly to take Two Steps/Same Direction. You cannot “mark” a specific behavior so quickly and precisely with any other method. Try it and see for yourself. Compare the tagger with using words or directly handing over a treat when your child has done something nice. Recently I tried to use words to praise my son for something he had done. It took me four seconds to get over to him, praise him for what he had done and hand him a treat: four long, late seconds. In those four seconds, he performed at least five or six subsequent physical movements. How could he possibly know which of those many movements was the right one? Words are slow and sloppy. For this kind of teaching, a click is definitely worth more than a thousand words.

autism, tagteach, ABA, applied behavior analysisPrecise Planning and Precise Timing go Hand In Hand

As you can see from the description above, I had a precise plan of action in mind to teach Safe Walking. The first goal was to teach my son to take Two Steps/Same Direction. Once he achieved that, we moved on to Three Steps/Same Direction. To tag and treat this behavior, once again, I watched his feet. Now I looked for what happened at the time of the third step. His movements were: Right Foot, Left Foot, Right Foot, Left Foot, Right Foot (in same direction as previous two steps?). If yes, I tagged and treated, if not, I watched and waited. He achieved the goal of taking Three Steps/Same Direction fairly quickly, and we moved on to Four Steps/Same Direction, Five Steps/Same Direction, and so forth until we got to Ten Steps/Same Direction. At this point he was walking nicely in the same direction, so I changed my reinforcement plan: I intermittently tagged and treated for Three Steps/Same Direction, Five Steps/Same Direction and so forth.

Each Step  - Part of a Behavior Chain

In other words, I had a specific behavior plan all laid out. My next steps, which are laid out in great detail in the book Chaos to Calm, were to teach Walk Beside Me, Feet on Ground, and Wait. The goal was that my son would walk beside me, stop at corners, wait for the WALK signal, and cross streets safely. Each of these actions was a precise physical movement that I could tag and treat, and eventually build into a behavior chain. In five months, my son changed from being a chaotic bolter to going with me, safely and pleasantly, on five mile hikes in the woods. He also was able to go on family shopping trips and walk nicely with us through the stores and wait in the check-out line with no agitation. He achieved this, literally and figuratively, one step at a time. Randomly taking my son out for walks and urging him to stay with me or be quiet and calm in the store would not have achieved this goal. Because TAGteach allows us to be so precise and to break tasks down into such small steps, it is easy to understand what comes next and how to break that next step down into achievable increments. The click, or “tag”, requires us to think about what our child needs to learn, to break those goals down into very small steps, and to reinforce those tiny little movements that will lead to the big outcome.The click is worth more than a thousand words. The precise timing and planning which you can do with TAGteach becomes self-evident to parents after a few tries.

Next Post

The next post on this Topic, Part 3, will address how the precise reinforcement offered to the child via TAGteach, and the powerful experience of success this provides, helps the child learn new skills readily and joyfully.

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 see www.tagteach.com.

clicker wrist

 

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