Teaching Greetings to Children with Autism

In the past, I evaluated a 4-year-old boy named Bobby. When I said Hi Bobby, he replied Hi Bobby. My son, Lucas, had similar issues when he was younger, so I learned strategies to help him overcome this problem well before I became a Behavior Analyst. As a BCBA, I now run into greeting problems fairly frequently so I thought I’d share with you some strategies I often use to help with teaching greetings to children.

Why Is Teaching Greetings Important?

Children with autism have core deficits in language and social skills. Waving to greet people is one of the first social skills learned in infancy. Without direct teaching, many children with autism will not acquire this important skill. Children with autism might greet in an odd way, which can cause the child to seem more impaired than maybe they are. They may prefer objects over people or have poor eye contact and imitation skills, as well as a limited vocabulary to no vocabulary at all. Teaching greetings to children is a great place to start when working on social skills in children with autism.

Tips for Teaching Greetings to Children with Autism

Until you can build the component skills required for greetings, encourage parents, staff, and other students to eliminate the child’s name when saying “hi” and “bye.” This way you will prevent the error and the child will be more successful. If someone interacts with the child and does not know this strategy or if they forget and say Hi Bobby and get an echo, just have them drop back to “hi” and get a correct echo of “hi.”

Next, take pictures of all important people in the child’s life who he sees often (i.e. mom, dad, sister, grandma, cousin, friend) and make two sets of these pictures. You will need two copies of each picture. Start with matching picture to picture. Instead of saying “match the picture” just say “mom” or “mommy” as you hand the picture to the child and point to the identical picture of “mom” while you have him match. If the child is echoic, he might say “mom.” If he does say “mom” you might want to ask “who’s that?” and have him say “mom” as a tact.

Once the child can easily tact all the people he sees regularly without any prompts (both in pictures and when the real person is around) and he can also say “hi” and “bye” without prompts, you can try to put greetings together. If the child cannot fluently tact pictures of people who he sees often and/or if you don’t have good echoic control (child echoes “hi” when someone says “hi” or the child says “ball” when a therapist says “ball”), I think it is probably too early to put greetings together. In this case, just have all people say “hi” and “bye” without the child’s name until the prerequisites are met.

Teaching Greetings with Names

To work on putting the greeting with the name, you’ll need two people. One is the person walking in or out and greeting the child and the other person is used to prompt the child from the side or behind. For example, I’m next to Bobby when mom says Hi Bobby. Then I immediately prompt him to say, Hi Mommy. You will most likely need several prompted trials before systematically fading your prompts.

If the child is still having difficulty, you might also consider making a video of people ringing the doorbell and opening the door. Have each person who comes to the door say Hi Bobby. When viewing the video, an adult should sit and watch the video with the child. Prompt the child for each clip as each new person rings the doorbell and the door is opened. This was a key strategy for Lucas. After viewing the video only a few times with prompting, Lucas mastered this skill.

The video showed the doorbell ringing, me opening the door then therapist # 1 (Nina) would say Hi Lucas. I would prompt Hi Nina. On the video, she would ring the bell again, the door would open, Nina would again say Hi Lucas. This time, Lucas would say Hi Nina with a reduced prompt or without a prompt from me. Therapist # 2 (Eric) would then ring the bell for the same type of practice.

Getting Started

The two main things to remember when considering teaching greetings are:  Make sure the child has the pre-requisite skills for greetings: tacting of people’s names and good echoic control of 2-3 word utterances. Teach greetings errorlessly as many times as needed using two adults and/or a video.

For more information about teaching greetings, see page 99 of my book, The Verbal Behavior Approach.