Marco Polo, Wandering and TAGteach

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Camels in Petra

Legend tells us that Marco Polo wandered across the deserts of Asia to reach the fabled cities of China. Our children with autism can be wanderers too, a source of worry to parents and caregivers. To compound the problem of wandering, many times our kids’ verbal abilities are limited so they cannot respond to shouts or hails. After one frightening episode, I used TAGteach to teach my son a verbal response so that he would be able to answer us if we were looking for him.

Years ago, my son disappeared from sight one afternoon when we were momentarily distracted. Instantly we and several neighbors fanned out looking for him. Nobody could find him. I finally went inside the house and thought to look around carefully. Luckily, I found him out of sight, but curled up in a big chair. Even though I had called out to him, he had not answered. We realized he had to be able to answer us verbally if we were looking for him.

Where is Douglas?

Initially, I sat down with him and taught him to respond to the question, “Where is Douglas?” by waving his arm and shouting “Here.” That worked fairly well, but a question like “Where is Douglas?” or “Where is Tommy?” may be an emotionally laden question for the child. Is he in trouble? Oh no, maybe he should stay quiet! My husband came up with the great idea of teaching him to respond to “Marco” with “Polo.” Everyone knows this phrase; it’s a common game that kids play in the pool during the summer.

Our severely nonverbal son was able to verbalize “Polo” in response to “Marco.” If Marco “Polo” doesn’t work for your child, there are other options. You can pick a title of a favorite book or poem and use that. Some simple examples: Hop on POP, Goodnight MOON, Twinkle, Twinkle, Little STAR. If your child cannot make an approximation of one of these words, pick a sound your child can emit, and teach him to make that sound in response to whatever word/phrase you choose.

Marco!…. Polo!

Fortunately, this skill is easy to teach with TAGteach, and you can work on it in both formal and informal settings. Mom or Dad says “Marco” and, if necessary, prompts the child to say “Polo.” The tag point is Say “Polo.”  As soon as the child makes the response “Polo,” you tag (make a click sound with the tagger) and hand over a treat (reinforcer). Practice this until it is a routine response for the child. Then practice this skill in other places: the car, the yard, the park or playground. It is particularly helpful to practice this outside in a real life setting, so you know that the child can perform it in a variety of locations.

Just a week ago, after one of the big snowstorms, I was outside clearing snow off the car. My son ran outside and I told him to go back inside the house. After a few moments, I became concerned. Did he go back in or did he run around the back?  I ran inside, raced up the stairs, shouted “Marco” and I heard him say “Polo.” What a relief.

When your child can reliably shout out POLO in response to MARCO (or whatever phrase you choose), he will have a good skill that will provide some reassurance in case he wanders out of sight. Please note: this skill will not prevent wandering in a child. In addition, families may wish to take advantage of the federal government’s announcement that it will fund free tracking devices for children with autism, or the new Big Red Safety Box initiative.

iclick circle

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 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 (says POLO in response to MARCO), the instructor immediately presses the tagger and hands over a treat (candy, treat, token, praise, social recognition, or money) as a reinforcer. With time and practice, any child can learn new skills with TAGteach.







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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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