Scientific methods for educating a child with autism

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I have been working with my son, who has severe autism and is profoundly non-verbal, since he was 4 years old (he is now a young adult). I started off knowing virtually nothing, but having heard vaguely of something called “ABA” (Applied Behavior Analysis). Had I known then what I know now about the behaviorally-based methods, therapies and curricula available, our journey would have been much smoother and faster.

This article describes the topics that I had to educate myself about: teaching methods, curriculum, how to make adaptations to help a child with autism learn, and increasing desired behaviors with positive reinforcement. At the end of this post is a list of methods that have worked well for us, plus my personal recommendations for books to read if you are fairly new to the task of teaching a child with autism.

Check out what reputable research organizations have to say

I recommend that autism parents begin by reviewing the websites of two reputable autism research organizations: the Organization for Autism Research (OAR), and the Association for Science in Autism Treatment (ASAT). Both provide information about successful methods for working with children with autism. ASAT has extensive information about methods that have scientific validity and methods that are much-promoted, but do not have scientific validity in the treatment of autism.

The National Autism Center has produced a guide for parents entitled: A Parent’s Guide to Evidence-Based Practice and Autism.

Applied Behavior Analysis is best for children with autism

The educational approaches that work best for children with autism are all based on the science of Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA). As it is a daunting task to educate a child with autism, and it takes a lot of work and technical knowledge to set up a good program, autism parents may also wish to consider hiring a Board Certified Behavior Analyst (BCBA) to advise them. You can locate a BCBA at the website of the Behavior Analysis Certification Board. Many states now require health insurance companies to cover ABA services; families will have to check this out with their health insurance companies.

Use scientific educational methods

If you are teaching a special needs child, I recommend highly the teaching methods, curricula and measurement practices used in the field of Applied Behavioral Analysis. The following list of methods and curricula all fall under the Behavior Analysis umbrella. Extensive information about Behavior Analysis and all these methods is available on the internet.

Verbal Behavior Therapy (VB) is a behaviorally-based, therapeutic approach for teaching children with autism and other developmental disabilities. VB teaches the functional units of language: receptive, expressive, mimetic/echoics, mands (requests), tacts (labels) and intraverbals. A VB program teaches the child across all units of language using Discrete Trial Training (DTT), Natural Environment Teaching (NET), and errorless teaching techniques. Children who are nonverbal are taught to use sign language. There are many websites devoted to Verbal Behavior therapy.

TAGteach (Teaching with Acoustical Guidance) For children and adults. TAGteach is a superior yet simple method for improving behaviors and teaching skills of all types. It is easy to learn, easy to implement and inexpensive. TAGteach combines an event marker signal with positive reinforcement. It has many features which make it particularly helpful in teaching children with autism. Look under the category “TAGteach” for more information and examples of my approach to teaching my child.

The categories TAGteach and Tag points in this blog have articles with specific information about using TAGteach to teach a child with autism

Direct Instruction (DI): Direct Instruction is a set of programs for teaching Reading, Writing, Arithmetic, Spelling and Language. Direct Instruction Curricula are outstanding for teaching academic skills. For more information see the National Institute for Direct Instruction (NIFDI). Direct Instruction curricula are available from McGraw-Hill Education. DI programs are superb curricula based on scientific principles of human learning. They have a 40+ year research record of providing superior learning outcomes.

For detailed information about research validation of the effectiveness of Direct Instruction, see NIFDI ‘s research section. NIFDI also has links to videos with excellent information and demonstrations of DI lessons. Please note that while DI curricula are designed for typically-developing children, they are so effective and so carefully structured that children with autism or other special needs can also learn; a child with special needs may need more supports, and such supports should be provided as indicated by the child’s performance.

For an inexpensive introduction to a Direct Instruction reading program, see the book Teach Your Child to Read in 100 Easy Lessons by Dr. Siegfried Engelmann, readily available at bookstores and online. Children who are nonverbal can be taught important introductory skills with a pre-program called Visual Phonics.

Precision Teaching For children and adults. A scientifically based method of pinpointing, measuring and charting human behavior and performance using the Standard Celeration Chart. This is an excellent tool for improving behavior and learning. See, and

Recommended reading

1) Educating Children with Learning and Behavior Problems, by Dr. Martin Alan Kozloff. This book is invaluable. This book explains exactly and precisely how to use the principles of Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA) to teach a child with learning and behavior problems. It has a Behavior Evaluation Scale for assessing exactly what your child’s skill level is, and a learning program for improving the child’s skills. It explains exactly how to organize your teaching materials, how to teach, what to teach, and what to do next.

Ironically, this book is now out of print, but you can easily find a copy in the used book market. I paid $2.17 for my copy, and it is worth one thousand times that much money. Upon reading this book I was stunned to realize that the methods and the knowledge base for teaching a child with autism have been around since the 1960s, but they are still not implemented in many places. This book is 448 pages and will take any reader some time to get through, however, if you cannot afford private consultants and therapists, this book will provide you with almost all the information you will need to get going on your own and do a very good job with your child.

2) Don’t Shoot The Dog, by Karen Pryor.

This book is an excellent way to learn about behavioral principles and how to apply them. It is well-written and easy to understand, and despite the title, is not a book about dog training!



3) Chaos to Calm: Discovering Solutions to the Everyday Problems of Living with Autism, by Martha Gabler.

This book describes how I used TAGteach (Teaching with Acoustical Guidance), a method mentioned above, to increase functional behaviors in my son with autism. The book describes how to use positive reinforcement and an event marker signal to build behaviors from small movements into functional skills.


4) Introduction to Direct Instruction, by Nancy E. Marchand-Martella, Timothy A. Slocum, Ronald D. Martella.

The assumption of the Direct Instruction approach is that all children can learn if they are taught effectively.


5) The Precision Teaching Book, by Dr. Richard M. Kubina and Kirsten K. L. Yurich.

The Precision Teaching Book has six major parts containing chapters geared towards explaining why, and how to use, Precision Teaching (PT) with individual learners or an entire school system. The methods described in The Precision Teaching Book follow in the footsteps of two great natural scientists, B. F. Skinner and Ogden R. Lindsley. The application of PT has produced an expansive database spanning the late 60s to the present day.

6) The Verbal Behavior Approach: How to Teach Children with Autism and Related Disorders, by Mary Barbera and Tracy Rasmussen.

This step-by-step guide provides an abundance of information about how to help children develop better language and speaking skills, and also explains how to teach non-vocal children to use sign language. An entire chapter focuses on ways to reduce problem behavior, and there is also useful information on teaching toileting and other important self-help skills, that would benefit any child.


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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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