How is Naturalistic Teaching Used in ABA?

Naturalistic teaching methods have arrived in the last few decades as a popular set of strategies for individuals experiencing some form of Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD).

These methods have proven particularly effective when it comes to issues of socialization and communication – perhaps the most important skills for people with ASD to develop in order to participate and be engaged in all the things that make for a happy, healthy life.

Naturalistic teaching has emerged as an exciting method used in applied behavior analysis that works to complement traditional ABA practices.

Of course, there are clear and proven benefits to conventional ABA therapy in the conventional settings, but it has one notable flaw: therapy sessions often take place at a clinic or office, removed from all the day to day interactions and activity that kids need to learn to deal with.

What makes naturalistic teaching such a breakthrough is that it offers kids on the spectrum an opportunity to learn socially appropriate behaviors within the context of the social environments they find themselves in everyday – school, the playground, the lunchroom, at home, at the grocery store…

What is Naturalistic Teaching?

While naturalistic teaching is rooted in many of the same principles as ABA, it focuses more on the unique experiences of the individual child. It’s a very personalized approach, where the individual child’s actual daily activities and routines dictate how and where the therapist works with that child. This allows therapists to focus on very specific target behaviors associated with the things that contribute to those behaviors.

Maybe the child struggles to communicate simple needs and desires, like if they’re hungry or if they want a certain type of food when they come home from school. In this instance, the time of day and where the child is located play a big role in the fact that they’re hungry and want something specific that mom often keeps stocked in the fridge.

It would be nearly impossible to teach a child to effectively communicate this need for food and desire for a particular type of food at a certain time of day if they were back at the therapist’s office. Chances are it would never come up, or even if it did, the therapy would essentially be stuck in the abstract by trying to mimic the situation in the wrong environment and at the wrong time of day. Clearly, this isn’t the best way to teach behaviors that need to translate to real life situations.

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One of the ideas behind enforcing desired behavior in the natural environment of home, school, or out and about in the community, is that the therapist can engage the child while they are playing and going through daily routines. This means that kids get to be kids and go about their daily interactions, learning new skills as they go rather than being isolated in a therapy session for a couple of hours a week – something some kids with ASD may come to dread.

It also increases kids’ exposure to therapy, as therapy can continue beyond what might happen in a single session at an office. Parents, teachers, and other adults in a kid’s life can also perform naturalistic teaching methods, making it a team effort – and an ongoing effort that doesn’t stop as soon as the therapist is gone.

Naturalistic teaching also gives kids control over the toys and activities they choose – they would simply go for their favorite toys and play the games they normally play everyday, whether they’re having a therapy session or not. Since they’re in their own environment doing their own thing, they also effectively set their own pace during therapy.

Sessions are loosely structured around a target behavior, like taking turns or communicating feelings instead of succumbing to emotional outbursts, and therapists remain flexible when it comes to what might be interesting to the child in that moment or what might be motivating their behavior. If they want to stop playing with Hot Wheels and get a game of Connect-Four going instead, that’s fine. The therapist simply takes this opportunity to help the child communicate this desire, encourages the child to include them in the game, and addresses the need to take turns.

In this way, the therapist simply uses the toys and activities the child has already selected as reinforcement, making the skills applicable and functional to the environment around them.

Naturalistic Teaching Methods

According to the National Professional Development Center on Autism Spectrum Disorders, there are some 27 evidence-based practices identified for naturalistic intervention and teaching methods. Here’s an outline of a few of the most commonly used practices:

Incidental Teaching

The goal of incidental teaching is to increase a child’s motivation to speak. This method is often used with kids who have some language abilities already.

A therapist prompts a child to say something about a toy or some item they might be playing with or a game or activity they might be playing. In this instance, the child will have already shown interest in something by choosing a toy or game for themselves. The therapist only tries to encourage conversation from there by using anything from gestures or sign language, to pictures or spoken words.

The therapist might take away the toy or end the game for a short time as a way to prompt a response.

Pivotal Response Training

Pivotal response training focuses less on select behaviors like getting a child to communicate, and takes a broader approach by looking at the things that are “pivotal” to the child’s behavior – what motivates their behavior, how they respond (or don’t respond) to social interaction, how they manage (or don’t manage) their own feelings and behaviors. The idea is to address the cause of behaviors rather than just the individual behaviors themselves.

Of course, the end result is to bring about change in problem behaviors like aggression or self-injury, or poor conversational skills, but without making those problem behaviors the actual focus of the therapy.

Pivotal response training allows for greater variation in the types of tasks a child might complete and focuses a great deal on rewarding any attempt the child makes to self-regulate behavior.

Natural Language Paradigm

Natural language paradigm is ideal for youngsters who are mostly non-verbal. Here, the therapist and the child might sit face to face and the therapist will offer the child a choice of three toys, games, or activities. The child gets to pick an item.

The therapist then models the correct play and how to say words that identify or describe the item the child selected. The child is given the chance to play with the item and then the item is removed. The therapist then prompts the child to repeat the word and the item is returned. A classic reward system that gives the child a real reason to make an effort to communicate.

It’s All About Balance

ABA is certainly effective in helping to increase adaptive behaviors that help people with ASD function in their daily lives. However, some critics worry that the skills that individuals gain from conventional ABA in the office or clinical setting itself can be difficult to translate into the everyday world. Critics also worry that ABA alone isn’t always the best method for helping children develop language and communication skills.

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Using the traditional methods of ABA alongside naturalistic teaching creates more opportunities for generalized learning, where children can apply their newly acquired skills to their daily routines. Naturalistic teaching methods also afford therapeutic opportunities throughout the day and will help children with ASD make great strides in their adaptive growth.