Nonverbal Autism and TAGteach: How do kids know what they did to earn a tag if you can’t tell them?

This is one of the most frequently asked questions about TAGteach.

Many children with autism have low verbal skills. Not only may they be unable to speak, they may also be unable to endure the sounds of spoken language (like my son); even if they can manage to listen to language, they may be unable to understand and/or follow verbal directions.

These are challenging learners. TAGteach can reach them because the tag and reinforcer communicate where words cannot.

So… let’s say you’re using TAGteach for the first time with a nonverbal child who is flailing about and shrieking. In the midst of this maelstrom of activity, you spot a split second of a desired behavior (let’s say Quiet Mouth) that the child performed and you tag and reinforce that behavior.

How on earth does the child know, in the midst of the chaos, which behavior earned the tag?

The answer has four parts:

First: The sound means good news!

The child notices that the sound of the tag is followed by a nice treat, so the child becomes interested in the sound. Since the sound indicates that something nice (a desired reinforcer) is about to happen, the sound quickly acquires meaning and significance. This learning phase happens quickly. My son figured this out in 25 seconds. “Hmm, that sound is great!”

Second: The child realizes that he causes the tag to happen!

The child notices that his own actions are causing the tag and reward. The tag is not some random, inexplicable event in his environment. The tag is aligned precisely with something he has done, and it’s always followed by a nice treat. This is the big light bulb moment! “Hey, it’s because of something I did!”

Third: The child figures out which behavior resulted in a tag!

How does this child do this part? Since children with autism are hyper-sensitive to their environment, they perceive very quickly when timely information (the tag) and nice reinforcers (the treat) are entering their environment. They use the process of elimination to figure out exactly what they are doing that caused this.

Process of Elimination

“Hmm, I was jumping around and screaming, then I heard the tag and got a nice treat. Was it for jumping up and down? Let me try jumping again; I see: no tag, no treat, so no. Was it for swinging my arms around? Let me try that again: no tag, no treat, so no. Wait, I’m running out of air and want to scream, let me pause and take a breath. Hey, I heard the tag and got a treat. Was it for the pause? Let me try that again: Quiet Mouth, tag! Treat! Yes! It’s Quiet Mouth! Okay, I’ll do more Quiet Mouth! Wow, I’m smart!”

Our kids with autism are brilliant at this. They figure it out quickly, and it’s a thrill for them when they get that big lightbulb moment!

Fourth: The child wants more success and reinforcement, so he continues paying attention to the tag

Like us, kids with autism want success and reinforcement. Once they know how to get it, they will repeat the process, and get to the point where they are looking out for tags and reinforcement and responding quickly.

In a period of often less than fifteen minutes, a nonverbal child can learn that:

  • The tag means success
  • He performed a productive behavior
  • He knows what that behavior is
  • It’s worthwhile to perform that behavior again

At this point, the stage is set for teaching all kinds of functional behaviors. It’s also set for communicating and interacting with a child on a personal level. The child performs behaviors, the adults respond with tags and reinforcers, and the child experiences success. The child builds trust in his environment and starts trying out new behaviors; the adults respond patiently with more information (tags) and reinforcement.

The child is not the only one experiencing reinforcement; the adults wielding the tagger are also experiencing massive reinforcement and empowerment! The adults realize that they can do it! They can change the child’s behavior and can help that child learn useful skills. This is the powerful upward spiral of learning and reinforcement that TAGteach delivers.

The cycle of success builds and expands.

autism teaching ABAWhat is TAGteach?

TAGteach stands for Teaching with Acoustical Guidance. TAGteach is a teaching and communication method based on the scientific principles of Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA).

TAGteach enables extremely precise positive reinforcement of behavior by using an acoustical signal to “mark” a behavior – at the precise moment the child performs the behavior! The acoustical signal is a short, sharp sound made by a handheld device (the “tagger”). 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.

With TAGteach, it is easy to reinforce behaviors precisely, quickly, and intensively. The immediate, accurate feedback and positive reinforcement result in the child performing the correct action more often, and for longer periods of time. With immediate feedback and learning tasks broken down into small steps, children (and adults) can learn many new skills with TAGteach — at their own pace.

To learn more about this effective, low-cost method visit TAGteach International or Chaos to Calm

For research on TAGteach, please see the TAGteach Reference List

Join the free TAGteach for Learning, Behavior, and Autism Facebook group

TAGteach taggers available here and i-Clicks available here

See Martha’s book about TAGteach for Autism or feel free to ask me a question (with no obligation).

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Interview with a TAGteacher – Anne Wormald – TAGteach in the Autism Classroom

Interview with a TAGteacher

Have you wondered how to apply TAGteach in a classroom setting? Will it be too noisy for the learner to hear the tags? Will the learner be too distracted by everything else going on the room? Will you need to give too many food reinforcers? Can you use TAGteach to manage aggressive and dangerous behaviors? Is it OK to let the child use the tagger and be the teacher? Listen to this month’s interview with a TAGteacher and watch the accompanying videos to get answers to these and more questions.

This month’s interview is with Anne Wormald. Anne is one of the first TAGteachers and has extensive experience from both ends of the tagger, being the daughter of Joan Orr, one of the TAGteach cofounders. Anne is working on her BCBA and is a Level 2 TAGteacher. She has many years of experience working with special needs kids and at the moment is working in home and school settings with children with autism.

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Injury! TAGteach to the rescue — for crutches and a walking cast

The Injury

TAGteach is a great tool for dealing with those “pop-up” challenges that erupt when we least expect them.

A few days ago my teenage son (non-verbal, severe autism) stumbled in the evening when going up the stairs. The next morning he was unable to put weight on his left foot, so he hopped bravely around the house on his right foot.

We made an appointment for him right away and pulled out some old crutches for him to use.

Autism parent help TAGteachFirst Problem — Crutches

Although my son has seen people use crutches, he has never used them himself. So, I had the task of immediately, on the spot, teaching him to use crutches.

Luckily, he understood right away to place them under his arms, grip the handles, and lean on them. The part that was confusing for him was swinging them forward.

Immediately, I had my tag point: Swing crutches forward. (What you want, One thing, Observable, Five words or less). I showed him how, and after a few tags he was able to swing them forward quite well.

We hobbled off to the doctor and, after an exam and x-rays, walked out, not with crutches but with a removable padded walking cast. (Luckily, nothing was broken, only sore.)

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Got autism? Want your child to exercise and have fun outside? Use TAGteach to increase gross motor skills.


This article focuses on gross motor skills, and how to use the always helpful and easy TAGteach method (Teaching with Acoustical Guidance) to encourage your child to get out, move his body, and have fun outside.

Physical activity and exercise offer many benefits to children with autism, including improved muscle tone, improved social skills, and stronger attention skills. Exercise and outdoor activities are important for the health of adult individuals with autism. We can increase our children’s physical skills and their comfort in exploring new physical environments with the right tools and facts.

FACT 1: “Behavior” is “movement”

Here’s the rule about behavior:

Behavior is movement, physical movement of the body. (1)

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TAGteach: What is a “tag point”?

TAG Point Criteria

Have you ever asked, “What’s the point?”

In TAGteach, we ask, “What’s the tag point?”

In TAGteach, the “tag point” is the absolute part of a behavior that, when performed, will receive the audible mark (tag). It is a specific physical movement that we want a learner to do.

For example, if a child is learning to climb up the stairs, we might set a tag point, “Foot On Step.” When teaching a child to write the letter V, the first tag point might be “Pencil on Top Line.” The tag point is the specific physical movement that will be tagged by an audible marker and that will result in reinforcement for the learner.

The child will hear the tag sound, know that he did the behavior correctly and will try to do it again correctly the next time.

autism, tagteach, ABA, positive reinforcementThe tag point is what we look for and reinforce

The tag point is the crucial component of TAGteach. TAGteach stands for Teaching with Acoustical Guidance. TAGteach is a teaching and communication method based on the scientific principles of Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA).

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TAGteach: Task Analysis and Tag Points

Task Analysis hand washingTAGteach is an excellent method for teaching children, especially those with autism, because of the precise positive reinforcement of desired behaviors.

In addition to timely and effective reinforcement, it is also important to think about the details of a task, and how to set tag points. This post will address both of these issues.

Task Analysis

A task analysis describes the many small steps that go into performing a single activity. For example, we often tell children to “wash your hands” when they come home from school. It seems simple to us. For a child with autism, it can be a complex task. The child has to:

  • take off a coat
  • hang it up
  • walk to the bathroom
  • open the door
  • go to the sink
  • stand still
  • turn on the faucet
  • grasp a bar of soap (or hold one hand under the nozzle of a soap dispenser while pushing down on the pump with the other hand)
  • place hands under the water flow
  • rub the slippery soap over his hands
  • continue holding his hands under the water flow until the soap is rinsed off
  • turn off the faucet (with wet hands)
  • reach for and grasp a towel
  • rub the towel over his hands
  • replace the towel on the towel rod
  • walk out of the bathroom

This everyday task has at least sixteen steps involving the legs, torso, arms and hands! There could be many more steps if you were to break it down even further.

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Great TAGteach ideas for the classroom from Italy!

TAGteach, tag point, teaching, positive reinforcementTAGteach goes international

Around the world people are using TAGteach to help children and adults learn new skills.

This article comes from Luca Canever, an educator and Level 3 TAGteacher from Verona, Italy. He shares his knowledge, dedication and love of positive reinforcement techniques at his website, TAGteach Italia.

Luca tells how he came up with great reinforcement ideas for his entire class (group reinforcement!), and how he used TAGteach to help students with specific problem areas. Here is his story.

TAGteach at school: Reinforcing the group

Managing the reinforcement for a group of people is one of the major difficulties that we may encounter. Especially if the people in question are 20 kids, 11 years old, with interests and personalities different from each other.

For the last two months I’ve been working in a school as a teacher. For the first time, I have the chance to use the marker with a large group — a group with no particular desire to be at school! How can we reinforce them? Some of the kids enjoy candies, some others like beads or extra time for recess. There are (they exist!) students who find study itself reinforcing, but, they are very, very, very rare.

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Learning to swim with TAGteach

Here is an example of TAGteach at work. This child is diagnosed with Asperger Syndrome. His verbal skills are good so we can tell him what the tag point is (that is what exactly he needs to do to get a tag (click sound) and a candy. A non-verbal child would learn just as fast once he understood the game.

This child is easily distracted and does not like to be asked or told do something. But he loves games!

Note that there is no talking other than to tell him the tag point. He chooses to do it or not to do it. There is no begging, cajoling, coaxing or other coercive action on the part of the coach.

This was the one and only time that we needed to tag him to go into the pool. By the end of the session he was going in and paddling around on his own. This short session of TAGteach had created a positive association with swimming and built confidence so that the activity became self-reinforcing. It took about 10 minutes and 1 small package of Skittles.


TAGteach is great for teaching kids with autism, but it started with elite level gymnastics coaching, and sport coaches for people of all ages and abilities can benefit.

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