What is Prompt Dependency in Children with Autism?

I remember when my son Lucas was little, some psychologists wrote in the report that he was very prompt dependent. Even back then before I was a behavior analyst, that comment, he’s prompt dependent, made me angry. Today’s I’m talking all about prompt dependency and whether we should blame the child or the adult on that issue.


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Lucas was about 3 years old I think, when I found out he was prompt dependent and it really made me angry because even back then before I was a behavioral analyst, I knew I had learned that prompt dependency was not the child’s fault.

The child was simply responding to the prompts and it was the adult’s fault because the adult didn’t understand how to feed that prompt to allow the child to be more independent. So what is prompt dependency? Prompt dependency is when a child cannot respond without a prompt. So if the child wants the phone and I hold it up and right away or maybe I wait a second and he doesn’t respond, this is one of the first signs. If I then give him a prompt like “ph” and he says phone and then I give him the phone, that child, because I gave him the prompt, a partial echoic prompt, it’s considered prompt dependent. If the child says phone, accepts that prompt, and I give him the phone, that child is going to become prompt dependent on me giving him a partial echoic prompt.

I remember way back, I was in a classroom and we had this older teacher and I pointed out that she was giving kids this partial, echoic prompt. Every time she’d hold up something she’d go “p” and the child would then say pen and she’d give her the pen and I said, you just gave that girl a partial echoic prompt. Stop saying “p” when you hold up the pen. So she goes “okay, okay,” and she holds it up and she gives them a little prompt of “p”. I’m like, what are you doing? It was so ingrained in her head that she just could not, stop giving a partial prompt. Now that’s an echoic prompt. We can also give kids imitation prompts, physical prompts and other types of prompts. But whatever prompt we put in we need to make a plan to take that prompt out to get the child more independent. Over the years I learned about transfer trials and transfer procedures to basically fade from prompted to unprompted. And in 2005, I published an article in the analysis of verbal behavior with my BCBA mentor, Doctor Rick Kubina called “Using Transfer Procedures to Teach Tacts to a Child with Autism.”

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That article was a study that we did with my son, Lucas, teaching him to name pictures of items that he didn’t know. We were able to use prompting procedures and transfer those prompts from a prompt such as a receptive prompt “touch the chalkboard” to “what is this called? chalkboard.” This way, we could eventually fade out the receptive touch prompt and get Lucas to just respond to what is it and he would say “chalkboard”.

So that article and that study was a very controlled way to show what I’m teaching you now. If you don’t know what a transfer trial is and you are in need of learning more,  you’re going to need a little bit longer of a tutorial and you can sign up for one of my free online workshops at marybarbera.com/workshop.

But in general we want to make a plan to program for a child based on their individualized assessment. We also want to make a plan to use transfer procedures to fade out our prompts so that the child is not prompt dependent. If you find yourself using a lot of prompts and you don’t know how to fade them, that’s when you really need to learn more. And it is a very important procedure for you to learn how to fade out your prompts through the use of transfer procedures.

I hope that you enjoyed this. I hope that you will learn more at marybarbera.com/workshop about prompt fading and getting your child to be as independent as possible. All in all, prompt dependency is not a child’s problem. The adults in the child’s life needs to learn more about how to fade their prompts. If you enjoyed this video/blog, give me a thumbs up, leave me a comment and share this with other parents and professionals who might benefit. And don’t forget to sign up for a free online workshop today and I’ll see you right here next week.

Want to get started on the right path and start making a difference for your child or client with autism?