Autism: Turning liabilities into assets with TAGteach

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Family walking in the woodsHello. My name is Martha Gabler and I am the parent of a nonverbal teenage boy with autism. I would like to invite you to learn about a teaching approach known as “Teaching with Acoustical Guidance” (TAGteach), and how it turned the “liabilities” of autism into “assets” in our house. I will also give an example of how I used TAGteach to teach my son two useful behaviors that greatly improved our quality of life. I hope you will want to learn more, and if you do, I invite you to contact me with any questions.

The liabilities

If you ask, “Why is it so hard to teach a child with autism?” you will get a long list of “liabilities.” These include sensory issues, speech and language difficulties, and challenging behaviors, many of which are severe. Recent findings show how just a few of these problems can create confusion for a learner with autism. Research at the University of Rochester has demonstrated that children with autism perceive movement as occurring faster than it actually is. So, if you demonstrate something with objects or your hands, the child will perceive the movements as happening faster than they actually are. Combine this perception problem with research from SFARI which demonstrated that children with autism take longer to listen to and process speech. Now, imagine the confusion for the child: objects, people’s movements and activities are moving too fast, but language comprehension is going too slowly: everything is out of snyc. No wonder the child has a hard time with learning and becomes frustrated. These negative emotions can lead to anger, acting out and all those challenging, sometimes aggressive behaviors we hear about.

How does TAGteach change these liabilities into assets?

TAGteach changes all of this by starting the teaching process with only the behavior the child is already doing. TAGteach is based on the same scientific principles as Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA) and uses positive reinforcement to increase desired behaviors. What TAGteach adds—and this is the unique part–is an acoustical signal, a sound such as a tap, click or ping. The purpose of the acoustical signal is to “mark” a behavior that the child performs, at the exact moment the child performs the behavior. With TAGteach, the acoustical mark is called a tag. Demonstrations and long-winded explanations are replaced by a neutral sound that gives the child precise information that he has done something right. It’s a two-step procedure: tag the behavior when the child performs it, then hand over a treat or desired item (the reinforcer). The child gets precise information and a reinforcer. You can see how this would be pleasant for the child, and we all know that a behavior that is reinforced is a behavior that will occur more often.

A real life example

Here is how I used TAGteach (tags and positive reinforcement) to teach my son good car behavior. When my son was little he had difficult behaviors in the car: lots of ear-splitting shrieking and kicking the front seat. These behaviors interfered with my ability to watch traffic and drive safely. I could not explain to him that these behaviors were dangerous, nor could he control the behaviors. I desperately wanted him to be quiet and still in the car so we wouldn’t have an accident. After thinking about it, I decided that the two behaviors I wanted in the car were “Quiet Mouth” and “Feet Still.” We practiced with my husband driving and me tagging, every time my son had a split second of “Quiet Mouth” or “Feet Still,” I tagged the behavior by clicking with a little plastic box clicker and immediately giving him a little treat (the reinforcer). He learned fairly rapidly to lower his voice and keep his feet down. He has good car behavior now, so the whole family can get out and go places with no anxiety; even 7-8 hour trips are no problem.

With TAGteach I was able to change his behaviors from dangerous to safe. There was no punishment. There was no coercion. He liked it because he experienced positive reinforcement in the form of praise and candy. Plus, we ended up taking more car trips and going to interesting places, which he enjoys. At the beginning he could not connect the car trip with getting to go to somewhere fun and interesting. It was essential to have reinforcement along the way, until he began to realize that the car meant good things to come.

TAGteach blasts through the liabilities

TAGteach works so well because the sound (the click or ping) tells a child, “You did something right, now you are getting a treat.” The click indicates success to the child, and success is great! We all like success and kids with autism generally experience very little success. Despite the sensory issues and the language processing issues, the click rings loud and clear and tells the child that he did something right. Once the child realizes that his own behaviors result in helpful information and reinforcement, i.e., success, he looks for more opportunities to get more of these good things. From that point on, it is just a matter of observing the child, noting which behaviors are helpful or positive, then tagging and reinforcing those behaviors. When a child is successfully learning functional behaviors and is able to participate in more pleasant activities, his horizons expand and the difficult, angry behaviors decline.

The assets

TAGteach opened my eyes to other features of my child. I observed that he is extraordinarily attuned to positive reinforcement. He uses his sensory skills (as I call them now) to perceive what actions are bringing reinforcement to him, and he is very focused on what is happening in his environment. Please note that now I describe him in terms of being “attuned,” “perceiving” and “focused”, as opposed to sensorily challenged. He uses his remarkable sensory and perceptive abilities to figure out what he is doing that is right, and thus learns lots of great new behaviors. Plus, he is always proud of himself when he has mastered a new skill.

My son has learned to use his exceptional sensory abilities to tune in to and capitalize on positive reinforcement in his environment, in particular, the sound of the tag. Because anyone can observe his behavior and tag him to tell him he is on the right track, he can go places without me and learn new cooperative behaviors. For example, this summer he went to sleep away camp for a week and camp staff were able to keep him calm and happy by telling him with the tagger what was expected of him in this new environment. It is a huge relief to me to know that he can be content away from me and that the TAGteach approach I have used with him is transferable to others.

My son’s name is Douglas; his nicknames are “Doug” and, inevitably, “Doug-bug,” “Love bug,” “Hug-a-bug” and “Bug-alicious.” These nicknames raised up an image in my mind of a child with autism as having powerful sensory “antennae” that are sweeping about looking for positive reinforcement. Once the antennae “lock on” to the positive reinforcement trail, they will continue to follow it. All we have to do is provide the bread crumbs, cookie crumbs or treats at frequent, strategic intervals to lead him to the desired destination: functional skills, learning, and opportunities to go places.

You catch more flies with honey than vinegar.

This is how TAGteach turns LIABILITIES into ASSETS.

About Martha

3D_Book_Image_no BackgroundMartha Gabler is the mother of a non-verbal teenager with severe autism. She holds a Bachelor’s degree from Vassar College and a Master’s degree from the George Washington University Martha lives in Silver Spring, Maryland with her husband and two sons. Her older son is at university pursuing a degree in mathematics. Martha runs a tutoring company called Kids’ Learning Workshop LLC, and is the author of the book entitled Chaos to Calm: Discovering Solutions to the Everyday Problems of Living with Autism. Martha writes articles to help other autism parents solve or prevent behavior problems at her blog: Martha loves to hear from readers and to answer questions at her Facebook page.



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Martha Gabler

Autism parent. Director, Kids' Learning Workshop LLC. Author of Chaos to Calm: Discovering Solutions to the Everyday Problems of Living with Autism.

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