This is a fair question. On the surface, Teaching with Acoustical Guidance (TAGteach), a method where you use an audible event marker signal (a click) and a reinforcer to teach a human a behavior, sounds very similar to the popular and effective clicker training method used with dogs, dolphins, killer whales and other animals. From a scientific and technical standpoint, the methods are similar.
Both methods are based on the scientific, research-validated fact that a behavior that is reinforced will occur more often. TAGteach has been used successfully in many teaching and training applications with humans, including elite level gymnastics, orthopedic surgeons, fishing boats in the Bering Sea, speech therapy, professional golf instruction, main stream classrooms and special education classrooms, among others. Turns out, TAGteach is also a wonderful way to teach kids with autism.
The TAGteach work with orthopedic surgeons was featured in the Scientific American blog and published in a major orthopedic surgery journal. In other published studies TAGteach was found to be effective for teaching adult golf, high school football players and children with autism.
TAGteach is recommended by many leading experts as an effective and science-based approach for teaching children with autism. TAGteach research results have been presented at the Association for Behavior Analysis conferences 48 times between 2004-2016.
Parents of typically developing children can teach their children with verbal instructions and modeling: “Put your socks on first, then your shoes,” “This is how you slice a sandwich.” These children watch, listen, copy and learn. They understand language, they speak, and they respond to verbal praise. It’s wonderful and magical to see how much they can learn at an early age.
Kids with autism
Our kids with autism are different. They have language, communication, and sensory problems, to name a few. Even those children who can speak, often do not comprehend instructions, or they cannot respond appropriately to the instructions.
Communication problems in autism
Recent research demonstrates the communication problems of children with autism. A study by the Simmons Foundation Autism Research Institute noted that, “. . . Understanding language requires more effort for people with autism. . . . Children with autism activate more brain regions than controls do when listening to tonal inflections in speech that convey meaning. The results suggest that understanding language is less automatic and requires more effort for individuals with autism than it does for controls, the researchers say.” Read this article.
And not only does it take more effort for kids with autism to listen to language, it may actually be unpleasant for them. Stanford University researchers report that, “The human voice appears to trigger pleasure circuits in the brains of typical kids, but not children with autism . . . The finding could explain why many children with autism seem indifferent to spoken words. Connections between voice areas and areas involved in emotion-related learning also were weaker . . . the weaker the connections, the more trouble a child had communicating.” Read this article.
My son was a textbook example of both of these findings. Not only was he unable to speak any words, he could not endure listening to human speech. The quickest way to make him run off was to start talking to him. He would bolt out of the room, shrieking, with his fingers plugging his ears. How do you communicate with a child like that? What do you do when words are worthless?
Science to the rescue
Luckily, I learned about TAGteach, and with that I found out about a wonderful communication and teaching method. I found out that I could teach my son without the burden of unpleasant, stressful words. The click, the event marker, told my son that he had done something right and that he was getting a treat (reinforcer). I could communicate with him in a very precise way. With the clicker, I was able to mark and reinforce all kinds of productive physical movements — movements that were the building blocks of functional behaviors. Granted, these movements were fleeting, but over time they occurred more often and lasted longer. My son learned all kinds of good, functional behaviors: going for a walk, waiting in line at the grocery story, sitting quietly in the car. He changed. He used to be a chaotic, extremely difficult to manage child. Now he is a cheerful, well-behaved teenager who loves life and loves to go out; he is even developing some nice language skills.
Doing the impossible
So, yes, I tag (click) and reinforce my son for performing desired behaviors. It is similar to the successful animal training methods now used around the world. That’s the beauty of science. After years of experiment, research and study with both human and animal subjects, a body of knowledge has emerged that makes it possible to do the almost impossible: help individuals with autism learn all kinds of useful, functional behaviors in a positive, humane way. I never think about whether I am treating my child like a dog. I am too busy watching new skills unfold and enjoying life with this charming, sincere teenager.
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, 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.
For more information visit the TAGteach website.
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Free Q&A With Martha
Join Martha and Anne Wormald BCBA to get your questions answered about TAGteach for autism. This will be recorded (on Jun 4, 2020) so if that date has passed you can still register if you want to learn more.