Using ABA to Teach Functional Self-Help Skills to Children with Autism and Other Developmental Disorders

Many people are confused about how to use ABA to teach functional, multi-step skills such as putting on shoes, washing hands, or setting a table. Several years ago I was consulting in a classroom and we were working with a 14 year-old girl with Down Syndrome who was minimally vocal. We were focused on trying to teach her to mand for items when her teacher jumped in and asked if we could help the girl learn how to set a table since this was a goal on her IEP.

Following the teacher’s motivation, I switched gears and told her that we could use ABA to teach her student how to set a table. I went on to explain that a multi-step skill like setting the table is taught much differently than teaching a child to mand for or tact items. When the teacher pointed me toward the table setting supplies, I began asking questions such as “Should she set the table for 2 or 4 people?” and “Do you want her to carry the plates over with the silverware on top or should she carry just the plates over first?” The teacher said she didn’t know and that she just wanted her to set the table.

For chained skills, the first step is to create a task analysis. This involves writing down each step of the skill in order. If there is more than one adult working with a child on a skill, it is important that the task list be created with everyone’s input and this needs to be followed closely. For hand washing, for example, you’ll need to decide if adults are going to prompt the child to pump the soap 3, 4, or 5 times and for setting the table, it needs to be decided in advance how the child should proceed with each step. Once the task analysis is created, the key to teaching these skills is that, in most cases, adults should use gentle physical prompts from behind and NO vocal prompting.

Chapter 11 of my book (The Verbal Behavior Approach) covers the basics of teaching chained skills using hand washing as the example.

There is another book which I would also recommend reading to learn how to teach these skills called Self Help Skills for People with Autism.

One other resource that is excellent is a self-care checklist developed by Dr. Mark Sundberg available as a supplement to the VB-MAPP. This will help you assess your child’s self-help skills and assist you with prioritizing which skills should be taught first.

Once you assess your child’s self-help abilities, I recommend you start with easy-to-prompt skills such as putting on shoes or hand washing so you can practice your skills by getting behind your child. For hand washing, I suggest you stand directly behind the child with your arms around the child gently prompting his hands. As the child turns on the water and pumps the soap dispenser three times, for instance, you can feel how much physical prompting is needed and guide his hands from behind. You should also be able to feel when prompting for each step can be faded.

Avoid vocal language during the teaching of chained tasks. This is not the time to be asking the child to tact “soap” or to be questioning “what step is next?” During multi-step self-care, leisure and/or vocational tasks, you should remain silent and provide as much gentle physical guidance from behind as is needed for the child to be successful with each step of the task.

Consistent prompting and prompt fading will be most effective when the adults working with the child take data and make decisions based on the data. Don’t forget about reinforcement too since teaching these tasks can involve high demands.

If the child you are working with seems uninterested or avoidant of the task, your goal may not be to teach the whole task. Instead you may need to start with the last step of the task first followed by high reinforcement and then fade in the other steps gradually and systematically.

I go over this and so much more in my workshops, so take a look to see if it is right for you.