Got autism? Want a happy car trip? Here’s how you can teach your child.

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autism, tagteach, ABA, positive reinforcement

Do you have a hard time taking your child places in the car?

Does your child make noises or flail about?

Do you feel nervous when you set out?

Would you like to concentrate on traffic instead of an agitated child?

Good car behavior is critical for the well-being of the family. Life is better when your child feels calm and happy in the car, and the family can go out and have a good time.

TAGteach is an excellent and easy way to build good car travel skills in small increments. With TAGteach, you “tag” a desired behavior of the child with an event marker signal (the “tagger”) and then “reinforce” (give a treat of the child’s liking). TAGteach allows the child to experience success for very small behaviors that eventually add up to a strong, complex behavior. Use the tag points below (and modify as necessary!) to teach your child to cooperate with getting into the car, and sitting calmly and quietly for the duration of the drive.

First small step: show that the car is a great place to be

Instead of taking an anxious child out in the car, start by showing the child that the car is just an object on the driveway. Park the car on the driveway and tag and reinforce the child every time she looks at or walks near the car. Here are some potential movements to tag:

  1. Child walks next to car, Tag and Reinforce.
  2. Child stands next to car, Tag and Reinforce.
  3. Child touches or opens car door, Tag and Reinforce.
  4. Child walks to another door, Tag and Reinforce.
  5. Child touches or opens another door, Tag and Reinforce.
  6. Child glances inside car, Tag and Reinforce.

Give the child as much time as she needs to become comfortable around the exterior of the car. Spend a few minutes several times a day working around the exterior of the car. Keep it up until your child is comfortable.

Second small step: child gets into car

Once the child is comfortable around the exterior of the car, work on making the child comfortable in the interior. Bring the child to the car and open the doors. Place toys and some lollipops on the seats. Wait to see if the child goes into the car. Tag and reinforce all physical movements related to getting into the car. Potential tag points are

  1. Hand(s) On Car
  2. Foot/Feet On Car Step
  3. Poking Head In Car
  4. Climbing Into Car
  5. Sitting in Car Seat

Let the child explore at her own pace and refrain from urging her to go into the car. Let her take her time. When it finally happens and the child gets in the car, tag and reinforce! This should earn a huge reinforcer! Keep practicing Child Gets In Car until she is comfortable. Continue observing the child and tag and reinforce every time she sits on the seat; this would earn another huge reinforcer! Keep practicing Child Sits In Seat and tag and reinforce her every time she does it. Offer toys or activity items to the child and tag and reinforce every time she touches an item; the tag point would be Touch Toy.

Third small step: child gets used to seat belt

When the child is comfortably sitting in the car, show her how to touch or pull the seat belt; tag and reinforce those behaviors. The tag points would be:

  1. Touch Seat Belt
  2. Pull Seat Belt.

Using a stuffed animal, show how the seat belt holds the stuffed animal in place. If the child can do it, ask her to belt in the stuffed animal. Tag and reinforce. The tag point would be:

  1. Buckle Stuffed Animal

Show how to unbuckle the stuffed animal, and tag and reinforce. The tag point would be

  1. Unbuckle Stuffed Animal

If your child cannot buckle the seat belt by herself, do it together or have her touch the clip that holds the belt. Let her practice with the stuffed animal until she is proficient at buckling and unbuckling her animal friend.

Fourth small step: child puts on seatbelt

When she has buckled in the stuffed animal, show her how she can pull or touch her own seat belt, and tag and reinforce. Tag points would be:

  1. Touch Seat belt
  2. Pull Seat belt

When she agrees to have the seat belt buckled, give a big reward! Continue tagging and reinforcing her for Sitting In Seatbelt. Then, work on extending the time she sits in the seat belt. Play counting games or ask, “Can you sit for 10 seconds? 20 seconds? A minute?” Tag and give huge reinforcers for each of these steps.

Fifth small step: child plays with toys in car

When your child is comfortably sitting in the car with the seat belt fastened, get in the car and hand her some toys, books or activity items, and tag and reinforce. Tag points would be

  1. Touch Toy
  2. Touch Item
  3. Touch Book

Sixth small step: turn on car in driveway

After she is comfortable sitting in the car with the seat belt on, and can touch a toy or the stuffed animal, turn the car on and let it run for a while in the driveway. Continue tagging and reinforcing her for sitting and touching a toy while the car is running. Look for other good behaviors to tag and reinforce such as

  1. Quiet Mouth
  2. Appropriate Vocalization
  3. Hands Still
  4. Feet Still

Seventh small step: go around the block

After she is comfortable sitting in the car in the driveway, drive the car up and down the driveway a few times, or go down the street a short distance. If possible, have a helper in the car to tag and reinforce her for:

  1. Quiet Mouth
  2. Appropriate Vocalization
  3. Touch Toy
  4. Touch Stuffed Animal
  5. Hands Still
  6. Feet Still

Eighth small step: a short trip

When she is safely seated in the car, go on a short trip to a favored destination. Make a picture page of the destination and include pictures of any applicable people, objects or activities that occur in that place. If possible, have someone else drive, or have a helper to tag and reinforce when she engages in any of the following behaviors:

  1. Quiet Mouth
  2. Appropriate Vocalization
  3. Hands Still
  4. Feet Still
  5. Touch Toy or Stuffed Animal
  6. Hold Picture Page.

At any point, if she  becomes agitated and wants to get out, let her get out or go home as soon as possible; giving her control will reduce agitation. Over time, she will be able to go on longer car trips. It may also be helpful to have a picture of the house available, so she knows she will always go home after riding in the car.

Last step: keep practicing, tagging and reinforcing

Continue tagging and reinforcing your child for the many good car behaviors she now has: Quiet Mouth, Appropriate Vocalization, Hands Still, Feet Still, Touch Toy, Touch Book, Hold Picture Page. Continuous practice will teach your child that the car is a nice place to be, plus she will end up in nice places like the playground, the ice cream shop, or grandma’s house. Best of all, the car will bring her home again.

With TAGteach, a parent can teach a child the behaviors necessary for family car trips in a gentle, positive way. The child experiences success at multiple steps in the process, and the parent experiences the thrill of teaching a new and critical skill to the child.

What 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” the 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 and quickly. 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 can learn many new skills with TAGteach — at their own pace.
autism, TAGteach, ABA, positive reinforcement

For more information see the TAGteach International website.

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

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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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