“Guided Playdates” by Caitlin Reilly & Carole Deitchman

This week, we’re proud to partner with ASAT – Association for Science in Autism Treatment – to bring you this practical article on Guided Playdates. We will be periodically showcasing articles from our colleagues at the Association for Science in Autism Treatment (ASAT). To learn more about ASAT, please visit their website at www.asatonline.org. You can also sign up for ASAT’s free newsletter, Science in Autism Treatment, and like them on Facebook!  In this piece, authors Caitlin Reilly, MA and Carole Deitchman, MA, BCBA discuss the importance of play dates while offering accessible information on planning an effective play date and selecting peers, as well as on data collection.

My child with autism is doing well in his academic programming, but I’d like to help him develop social skills with peers. He participates in play dates, but I often worry that we are not making the most of these opportunities. How can I help him learn to play with a friend?

Answered by Caitlin Reilly, MA, BCBA and Carole Deitchman, MA, BCBA

The importance of play dates

Fostering the development of play and social skills should be an essential component of any educational or home program for children with autism. Possessing these skills not only improves a child’s overall quality of life and ability to sustain relationships, but also enhances his or her ability to learn from others. Many children with autism often need direct and systematic instruction to learn these skills.
Girls Holding Hands

Parent-guided play dates can provide the structure and practice needed to help a child improve peer social skills and make friends (Koegel, Werner, Vismara, & Koegel, 2005). Play dates may be a more effective and rewarding social activity for your child if the following foundation skills are already in the child’s repertoire or are being currently targeted:

  • knowing how to tolerate, attend to, and imitate other children;
  • being able to communicate his or her wants and needs;
  • understanding simple directions;
  • taking turns; and
  • playing with a few age-appropriate toys and one or two simple games (Smith, 2001).

As you think about the types of activities that may occur during the play dates, make a list of the skills that your child will need to successfully play with a friend. It is often very helpful to teach these important skills with adults first (Leaf & McEachin, 1999), as an adult is more likely to reliably and favorably respond to your child than a peer might be. Many of the above listed skills are likely ones that your child is also working on in school, and your addition of practice opportunities at home will help your child generalize learning to other people and situations.

Planning an effective play date

In addition to empowering your child with an array of foundational skills, it is important to guide his play dates using evidence-based methods. These methods incorporate techniques that have been repeatedly shown to be effective through controlled, scientific research. For your child’s play dates, such methods include the use of motivational systems, the strategic use of reinforcement, and the use of systematically faded prompts. While the first few play dates may require a close adult shadow and contrived reinforcement for desired behavior (e.g. chips or candy), the goal is to systematically fade the adult’s proximity and prompts and foster the child’s contact with naturally occurring reinforcement (e.g. the enjoyment of playing a game or talking to a peer). Evidence-based methods also call for the collection of objective data to monitor progress.

In order to increase motivation during the play date, use toys and activities that are especially enjoyable for your child and his friend (Koegel et al., 2005). Motivation is essential for keeping both children engaged, and for maximizing your child’s learning. Your child will be more likely to ask his friend to play a game if he enjoys that game. Similarly, the peer may be less likely to engage with your child if he does not enjoy the play date activity. Taking turns in selecting activities or using a choice schedule of activities may help in this regard.

It is also important to identify specific skills that you want to teach your child during his play dates. These may include such skills as greeting friends, initiating an activity, or asking questions. For example, the first several play dates may focus on saying “Hi” and “Bye” to the peer and playing catch. As with other types of skill instruction, consider pre-teaching these play and social skills with adults or at home with a sibling. Your child may require significant prompting initially, so think about how you can fade those prompts as your child’s skills improve and how to provide plenty of practice opportunities across settings, activities and individuals. Once your child greets his friend with ease and independence, focus on teaching him more complex play skills such as asking questions (e.g. “How are you?” and “Do you want to play?”) and making comments while interacting with the peer (e.g. “This is fun!” or “This is my favorite game.”). Start with teaching simpler skills, and then build on those your child has already accomplished.

If your child has difficult behavior, make a plan for how to manage it and follow through during play dates. Your plan may include “preventative” strategies, such as limiting the duration of the play date, using visual supports (e.g., activity board), providing a break, or minimizing activities that are a source of obsession or possible angst. Do not be concerned so much about embarrassing your child as giving him the support and repeated practice opportunities that he needs to be successful (e.g., repeating an interaction in which eye contact was not exhibited). Consistent consequences are essential in order to decrease disruptive behaviors and to help your child successfully relate to his peers (Maurice, Green, & Luce, 1996).

Selecting peers

Potential play date peers should include boys and girls of different ages (Smith, 2001). The best peers for play dates are often open and responsive. That is, they provide ample opportunity for your child to learn; they ask questions, they respond with enthusiasm, and they exhibit patience as your child practices socializing. From a behavior analytic standpoint, we might view a peer’s response as reinforcement for your child’s response. So, if his peer is unresponsive, your child may be less likely to initiate with that peer again during future opportunities. Ask your child’s teacher or other school staff for peer suggestions, or ask the parents of neighborhood children whom you know. Peers that your child naturally comes into contact with on a regular basis, such as family members, are ideal for practicing social skills (Oppenheim-Leaf et al., 2012). It is important that your child’s peer and his or her parents know about your child’s unique behaviors and needs (Baker, 2003). Prepare them for what to expect, and ask the other parent for permission to give rewards during or after the play date. For example, the peer might be rewarded for asking your child a question or waiting patiently while your child responds. Reinforcing the peer for interacting with your child will motivate him to interact with your child more in the future.

Data collection

Taking data on your child’s progress is essential to ensuring effective teaching strategies. This process will help you set goals, monitor changes objectively, and alter your teaching methods if progress has stalled or declined. For example, if your child is not learning to say, “Hi” to his or her peer, you may need to increase motivation to learn, increase your level of assistance (such as providing a verbal model of the greeting), or consult with a qualified therapist for other suggestions.

The following is an example of a basic data sheet that can be created to track your child’s progress during each play date. The skills that you teach and the data you collect will vary depending upon your child’s individual needs and abilities.

Tommy’s Play Date Data Sheet

Date: 10/25/12
Peer: Kyle

  1. Says “Hi” to peer when prompted +
  2. Initiates activity with peer using photo prompt in activity schedule. – / + / + / + / +
  3. Instances of problem behavior (tally): 1
Tommy’s Play Date Data Sheet

Date: 11/2/12
Peer: Kyle

  1. Says “Hi” to peer when prompted +
  2. Initiates activity with peer using photo prompt in activity schedule – / + / + / + / +
  3. Instances of problem behavior (tally): 0

Conducting an effective play date

Set aside favorite snacks to use as rewards for your child during his play dates (Leaf & McEachin, 1999). It is best to save these special snacks for play dates only, as this will make your child more eager to earn them. During the play date, “shadow” your child by positioning yourself behind him in order to prompt initiations with and responses to his peer (Krantz & McClannahan, 1993). When your child demonstrates target behaviors (e.g., making eye contact with his peer) or is successful in relating to his peer (e.g., making eye contact and saying “Hi, Kyle.”), praise him (e.g., “Great job saying ‘Hi’ to Kyle!”), and give him a small piece of his favorite snack. As your child’s learning progresses and he demonstrates these skills independently, you should fade use of this shadowing technique, including use of your prompts and instruction, as well as reducing the delivery of snacks and social praise as rewards. Ultimately, your child’s behavior will be rewarded by playing and talking with his friend, rather than your delivery of verbal and edible praise. It may also be necessary to reinforce the efforts of the peer, particularly if your child is not cooperating.

Many children with autism learn new things by using activity schedules (Krantz & McClannahan, 1998). Therefore, it may be worthwhile to make a “play date schedule” that your child and his friend can follow. This might include pictures of the activities and/or peer. As your child learns, you can gradually fade out the schedule so that the play date becomes more natural. You might also arrange materials so that the children must work together to complete an activity (Koegel et al., 2005). For example, if making cookies, have one child hold the measuring cup while the other pours the ingredients.

When starting out, keep the play dates short rather than stretching them out as long as the child seems comfortable or until something goes awry (Smith, 2001). A five-minute-long successful peer interaction is better than a 30-minute one that ends in a disruptive outburst. It may take several play dates for your child to become comfortable with his peer, and it will take time for him to learn new skills. It may be helpful for your child to have play dates with one particular child until he demonstrates mastery (i.e., independence) of specific skills; then try teaching those play skills with another child.

Since the pioneering work of Dr. Ivar Lovaas (1981), who demonstrated how parents could teach important skills to their children with autism, we have learned many effective ways to teach social and play skills (Leaf & McEachin, 1999; Lydon, Healy, & Leader, 2011; Koegel, Werner, Vismara, & Koegel, 2005; Smith, 2001; Krantz & McClannahan, 1993; Krantz & McClannahan, 1998; Maurice, Green, & Luce, 1996). Consulting with a qualified specialist may be helpful for planning and implementing effective play dates, but remember, you are your child’s first teacher. By using these techniques during guided play dates you are not only teaching your child essential social and play skills, you are teaching him how to have more fun!


Baker, J. E. (2003). Social skills training for children and adolescents with Asperger Syndrome and social communication problems. Shawnee, MI, Kansas: Asperger Publishing Company.

Freeman, S., & Dake, L., (1997). Teach me language: A language manual for children with autism, Asperger’s syndrome and related disorders. Langley, BC: SKF Books.

Koegel, R. L., Werner, G. A., Vismara, L. A., & Koegel, L. K. (2005). The effectiveness of contextually supported play date interactions between children with autism and typically developing peers. Research & Practice with Severe Disabilities, 30, 93-102.

Krantz, P. J., & McClannahan, L. E. (1993). Teaching children with autism to initiate to peers: Effects of a script fading procedure. Journal of Applied Behavior Analysis, 26, 121-132.

Krantz, P. J., & McClannahan, L. E. (1998). Activity schedules for children: Teaching independent behavior. Bethesda, MD: Woodbine House.

Leaf, R., & McEachin, J. (1999). A work in progress: Behavior management strategies and a curriculum for intensive behavioral treatment of autism. New York: DRL Books.
Lovaas, O. I. (1981). Teaching developmentally disabled children: The me book. Austin, TX: Proed.

Lydon, H., Healy, O., & Leader, G. (2011). A comparison of video modeling and pivotal response training to teach pretend play skills to children with ASD. Research in Autism Spectrum Disorders, 5(2), 872-884.

Maurice, C. Green, G., & Luce, C. (1996). Behavioral intervention for young children with autism: A manual for parents and professionals. Austin, TX: Proed.

Oppenheim-Leaf, M. L., Leaf, J. B., Dozier, C., Sheldon, J. B., & Sherman, J. A. (2012). Teaching typically developing children to promote social play with their siblings with autism. Research in Autism Spectrum Disorders, 6(2), 777-791.

Smith, M. J. (2001). Teaching play skills to children with autism spectrum disorder: A practical guide. New York: DRL Books.


Reilly, C., & Deltchman, C. (2013). Guided play dates. Science in Autism Treatment, 10(2), 18-20.


Caitlin Reilly, MA, BCBA currently works as a behaviorist for the Summit Public School District, and is concurrently working toward her PsyD in School Psychology at Fairleigh Dickinson University. She also serves as the Sponsorship Coordinator and is a media watch contributor for the Association for Science in Autism Treatment.

Carole Deitchman, MA, BCBA consults for families and school districts to help children with autism. She is completing her PhD research in applied behavior analysis by teaching children with interfering rituals and routines to self-manage their behavior.

ABOUT the Association for Science in Autism Treatment

We promote safe, effective, science-based treatments for people with autism by disseminating accurate, timely, and scientifically sound information; advocating for the use of scientific methods to guide treatment; and combating unsubstantiated, inaccurate and false information about autism and its treatment. Since autism was first identified, there has been a long history of failed treatment fads, levied on vulnerable individuals and their families. Many of these treatments have been too hastily adopted by professionals, sensationalized by the media, and embraced by consumers before evidence existed for their effectiveness or safety. Visit our website at www.asatonline.org and subscribe to our free quarterly newsletter at www.asatonline.org/newsletter/. Follow us on Facebook at www.facebook.com/ASATonline and on Twitter at @asatonline.

Pick of the Week: Fidgets Kit – Smooshy, squishy, twisty, bouncy and more!

Created in conjunction with our behavioral consultant Stacy Asay, LMSW, our Fidgets Kit includes an array of items that can provide a variety of sensory experiences: stretchy, chewy, spiky, twisty, bumpy, twisty, clicky, bouncy and smooshy! This week, get the Fidgets Kit for 15% off* the normal price – just use our promo code FIDGETS at check-out!

Fidget toys can be a great and socially acceptable replacement for stereotypic or repetitive behavior in the classroom or community. Some students find the repetitive action of “fidgeting” to be calming and are then better able to focus on the task at hand. Additionally, some students who have a difficult time staying still are able to sustain sitting behavior for longer periods with less support or prompting when they are manipulating something repeatedly in their hands. We’ve included a variety of items that vary in texture or are manipulated in different ways so that they can be rotated regularly. The components have also been chosen so that they can be worn on the wrist, clipped to a belt, handheld or attached to a piece of clothing.

Use promo code FIDGETS at check-out to save 15%* on the Fidgets Kit this week and start helping your students focus better on their tasks!

*Offer is valid until 11:59pm EST on November 17th, 2015. Not compatible with any other offers. Be sure there are no spaces or dashes in your code at checkout!

Pick of the Week: Sensible Pencil – A Handwriting Program

Created by Linda C. Becht, Sensible Pencil is a step-by-step handwriting program developed for students with special needs. With 200 sequential worksheets, new writers will learn how to write quickly and efficiently. This week, you can save 15%* on Sensible Pencil with promo code PENCIL15 at check-out!

Sensible Pencil is presented in notebook format and contains 200 reproducible worksheets, a progress chart, and a manual. With this handwriting program, the student can start with simple horizontal and vertical lines presented in fun ways, and then go on to other basic lines needed for handwriting skills.

Don’t forget to use promo code PENCIL15 when you check out online to take 15% off* your order of Sensible Pencil: A Handwriting Program!

*Offer is valid until 11:59pm EST on November 10th, 2015. Not compatible with any other offers. Be sure there are no spaces or dashes in your code at checkout!

Tip of the Week: Differential Reinforcement of Incompatible Behavior

In a recent post, I talked about Skinner’s emphasis on differential reinforcement. Today, we are going to take a closer look at Differential Reinforcement of Incompatible behavior (DRI). DRI is defined as “a procedure for decreasing problem behavior in which reinforcement is delivered for a behavior that is topographically incompatible with the behavior targeted for reduction and withheld following instances of the problem behavior (e.g., sitting in seat is incompatible with walking around the room) (Cooper, Heron, & Heward, 2007).

Let’s look at a few examples of DRI in action:

  • Mrs. Clark is teaching a classroom with six students with autism. One of her students has recently begun to pinch his arms. She takes data on the behavior and discovers that it functions for attention. (When he pinches his arms, she or a teacher’s aid comes over and tells him “no pinching.”) She decided to implement an intervention that utilizes DRI. She teaches him how to sit with his hands intertwined on his desk. This is an incompatible behavior with pinching because he is not able to pinch while his hands are intertwined. She and the teacher’s aid reinforce him for intertwining his hands (come over and tell him, “great job” or “I like how you’re sitting”) and do not provide attention when he engages in arm pinching.
  • Carly has a 9-year-old daughter. When her daughter wants a break from doing homework, she reaches over and hits Carly’s arm. Carly typically says, “Do you need a break now?” Then, she allows her to take a five-minute break. Carly recognized that her daughter’s intensity with hitting seemed to be increasing, and she was worried she might get hurt. She decided to implement an intervention that utilized DRI. She put a timer on the table within her daughter’s reach, and taught her daughter to touch the timer when she wanted a break. This is an incompatible behavior because her daughter cannot simultaneously touch the timer and hit Carly. When Carly’s daughter touched the timer, she immediately received a break. When she hit Carly, she did not receive a break. This was an especially useful intervention because, over time, Carly taught her daughter to set the timer on her own and become more independent with managing break times.
  • Mr. Holley teaches a preschool class. During circle time, many of his students become very excited and can be quite loud. Sometimes it seems as though all of his students are yelling at the same time. Once they become too loud, it is very challenging to regain their attention. He decides to implement an intervention utilizing DRI. He uses a decibel meter on his tablet (such as the app Too Noisy). He teaches the students that when the noise level is below a certain number or threshold they all earn stickers. This is differential reinforcement of an incompatible behavior because the children cannot possibly speak loudly and softly simultaneously.

DRI is not always the best option. For example, it may be very challenging to come up with an incompatible behavior. Or, in the case of self-injurious or aggressive behavior, it may be dangerous to use such an intervention.

If you do use DRI, you may consider explicitly telling your learner(s) that you are implementing this new plan, such as Mr. Holley did in the third example above. And remember, this is only one form of differential reinforcement. If DRI is not appropriate for your situation, there are definitely still options for reinforcing appropriate behavior in an effective and efficient manner.


Cooper, J.O., Heron, T.E., & Heward, W.L. (2007). Applied Behavior Analysis – 2nd ed. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall.


Sam is an ABA provider for students ages 3-12 in NYC. Working in education for ten years with students with Autism Spectrum Disorders and other developmental delays, Sam has developed strategies for achieving a multitude of academic, behavior, and social goals. Sam is currently pursuing her PhD in Applied Behavior Analysis at Endicott College.

Pick of the Week: Auditory Memory for Short Stories

Listen to short, silly stories like “Aunt Pat’s Hat,” “Hannah’s Bananas,” or “Ollie the Octopus,” and then answer questions about each story. These 51 illustrated cards provide a novel and engaging approach to improving your students’ auditory memory skills. This week, save 15%* when you order Auditory Memory for Short Stories by applying our promo code STORIES at checkout!

One side of each card shows an illustration and title, while the reverse presents the story along with three questions. The deck also includes game ideas and 5 open-ended “Wh” topic picture cards to help learners make up their own stories and questions. Cards measure 2½” x 3½” and come in a sturdy tin.

Don’t forget to use our promo code STORIES at check-out this week to save 15%* on Auditory Memory for Short Stories!

*Offer is valid until 11:59pm EST on September 29th, 2015. Not compatible with any other offers. Be sure there are no spaces or dashes in your code at checkout!

Pick of the Week: I Can Do It! My Daily Checklist

Daily planners are an effective way to help kids stay organized as they become more responsible and self-reliant. The I Can Do It! My Daily Checklist helps children with their daily routine by providing structure and reinforcement. This week, take 15% off* your order of the I Can Do It! My Daily Checklist with promo code ICANDOIT at check-out!

My Daily Checklist includes 18 sturdy reusable plastic stars and 35 interchangeable task squares with behaviors and chores. On the back of the chart are magnetic strips for securing to any metal surface. The chart measures 15.5 inches tall and 11 inches wide.

Don’t forget! Save 15%* this week only on the I Can Do It! My Daily Checklist by using promo code ICANDOIT at check-out!

*Offer is valid until 11:59pm EST on September 22nd, 2015. Not compatible with any other offers. Be sure there are no spaces or dashes in your code at checkout!

Pick of the Week: Save on the VB-MAPP Guide and Protocol

The Verbal Behavior Milestones Assessment and Placement Program (VB-MAPP) offers a new generation of the application of B.F. Skinner’s analysis of verbal behavior to language assessment for children with autism or other developmental disabilities. Developed by Mark Sundberg, PhD, BCBA, the VB-MAPP is an assessment tool, curriculum guide, and skill tracking system that is also based on established developmental milestones, and research from the field of behavior analysis. This week, to help you gear up for the start of the schoolyear, we’re offering 15%* off all orders of the VB-MAPP Set. Just use our promo code VBMAPP at check-out to redeem these savings!

The VB-MAPP has been field-tested with children with autism, children with other developmental disabilities, and typically developing children.

The VB-MAPP provides a clear and accurate picture of an individual child’s abilities, as well as potential language and learning barriers that may be hindering progress. The overall program contains:

  • The Skills Assessment – Assesses 170 language and social milestones across 3 developmental levels. The milestones are quantifiable and measurable and can be used to document learning, or used for outcome research.
  • The Barriers Assessment – An assessment of 24 language and learning barriers that may prevent a child from making progress. The Barriers Assessment can be used for intervention planning and to track progress.
  • The Skills Task Analysis and Tracking System – Contains over 1000 skills that support the milestones, and can be used to record and track progress.
  • The Placement and IEP Guide – Suggests direction for the intervention program based on the child’s profiled strengths and weaknesses.
  • The Transition Assessment – Identifies the skills needed for successful transition to less restrictive learning environments.

This set contains 1 Protocol to score the student’s progress and 1 Instructor’s Manual and Placement Guide.

Don’t forget to use promo code VBMAPP at check-out this week to take 15%* off your order of the VB-MAPP Set!

*Offer is valid until 11:59pm EST on September 15th, 2015. Not compatible with any other offers. Be sure there are no spaces or dashes in your code at checkout!

Tip of the Week: Why Differential Reinforcement is Preferred to Punishment

In B.F. Skinner’s phenomenal book The Technology of Teaching, he briefly discusses problems with punishment. He explains that the use of punishment (defined as adding or subtracting something from the environment in order to reduce the occurrence of a behavior), is not as clear-cut as we might imagine.  When we attempt to punish a behavior, it’s quite likely that we will unintentionally suppress a broader range of behaviors than we intended.

Skinner gives the example of a child who has touched a candle flame and been burned. The child has probably been taught not to touch the flame, but Skinner argues that it’s quite possible that “in the presence of a candle flame he will not be likely to explore any part of the environment, to reach for or grasp objects of any kind” (Skinner, 1968, p. 186). This is an important consideration, especially when we consider the classroom.  We have to ask ourselves, when we punish certain behaviors, are we unintentionally suppressing other, desirable behaviors?  And in punishing the undesirable behavior, are we clearly communicating to the child what the desirable behavior is?

Skinner then moves on to discuss alternatives to punishment. What he describes is known today as differential reinforcement.  Since Skinner wrote The Technology of Teaching, a great deal of research has been completed on differential reinforcement, which “consists of reinforcing particular behavior(s) of a given class (or form, pattern or topography) while placing those same behaviors on extinction and/or punishing them when they fail to match performance standards or when they occur under inappropriate stimulus conditions” (Mayer, Sulzer-Azaroff, & Wallace, 2014).  Put simply, we reinforce the desired behavior and do not reinforce the undesired behavior.

Today we have categories for many different types of differential reinforcement to better describe strategies for implementation.

Types of differential reinforcement include:

  • Differential Reinforcement of Alternative Behavior (DRA)
  • Differential Reinforcement of Other Behavior (DRO)
  • Differential Reinforcement of Incompatible Behavior (DRI)
  • Differential Reinforcement of High Rates of Behavior (DRH)
  • Differential Reinforcement of Low Rates of Behavior (DRL)

Differential reinforcement is an incredibly useful tool for teachers and parents.  So we will devote several Tips of the Week over the upcoming months to how to use it effectively, taking a closer look at each of the types listed above.


Mayer, G. Roy, Sulzer-Azaroff-B. & Wallace, M. (2013). Behavior analysis for lasting change (3rd ed.). Cornwall-on-Hudson, NY: Sloan Publishing.

Skinner, B. F. (1968). The technology of teaching. New York: Appleton-Century-Crofts.


Sam is an ABA provider for students ages 3-12 in NYC. Working in education for ten years with students with Autism Spectrum Disorders and other developmental delays, Sam has developed strategies for achieving a multitude of academic, behavior, and social goals. Sam is currently pursuing her PhD in Applied Behavior Analysis at Endicott College.

Tip of the Week: Clearing Up the Misconceptions About Reinforcement

ABA often gets a bad rap due to misunderstandings about reinforcement. In my career alone, I’ve had people tell me that people are not like rats and pigeons, that reinforcement harms intrinsic motivation, and that when I do produce behavior change, it has nothing to do with ABA but with my abilities as a teacher. Today, I’d like to clear up some misconceptions about reinforcement.

Reinforcement is not equivalent to rewards. Reinforcement is anything that occurs immediately following a behavior that increases the future likelihood of that behavior. For instance, I am more likely to say hello to my neighbor down the street because in the past he has responded by saying “hello” back to me. However, I do not say hello to my next door neighbor because she has never responded to my greeting. My history of reinforcement with the neighbor down the street increases the likelihood that I will greet him upon seeing him.

Flowers GrassReinforcement occurs in the natural environment all the time, whether we are conscious of it or not. We are reinforced by paychecks for going to work, by our favorite dessert for visiting a restaurant 30 minutes out of our way, by compliments when we get a new haircut, and more. ABA utilizes reinforcement when an individual is not acquiring skills in order to help them learn. And when ABA is implemented correctly, reinforcement should be as close to naturally occurring reinforcers as possible and should be reduced systematically over time to levels that would naturally occur in their environment.

Reinforcement works for dogs and for humans. The previous two points illustrate that humans do respond to reinforcement, and decades of scientific research back that up. Comparing the work behavior analysts do with humans to the work behavior analysts do with other animals is not far off base. What is off base is using such a comparison to imply that behavior analysts treat people with disabilities like dogs. As with other professionals who work with individuals with disabilities, (such as speech therapists, physical therapists, nurses, etc.) most behavior analysts are professionals who put a lot of time, care, and love into their work.

Child Blowing BubblesReinforcement is individualized. Everything we do in ABA is individualized, because human beings are wonderfully complex creatures that cannot be characterized by statistics, averages, or norms. One of my students may find stickers reinforcing; another may show no interest. One student may find listening to music reinforcing; another may cover his ears and ask me to turn it off. In ABA, we seek to find the items and activities that are motivating for individuals; then use those as tools not only for reinforcement, but for increasing skills and broadening interests and opportunities. In an ideal ABA session, my students spend a lot of time engaging with items and activities that they enjoy while also learning and growing.

It’s easy to fall prey to misconceptions about reinforcement, but such misconceptions can make it impossible for us to understand how to alter the environment in order to provide the best possible outcomes for our students. As Skinner put it, “The ideal of behaviorism is to eliminate coercion: to apply controls by changing the environment in such a way as to reinforce the kind of behavior that benefits everyone.”

Over the next few weeks, we will be publishing a series on Differential Reinforcement procedures that will help you become more skilled in using reinforcement to affect behavior change.


Sam is an ABA provider for students ages 3-12 in NYC. Working in education for ten years with students with Autism Spectrum Disorders and other developmental delays, Sam has developed strategies for achieving a multitude of academic, behavior, and social goals. Sam is currently pursuing her PhD in Applied Behavior Analysis at Endicott College.

Interview with Lisa Carling, Director of the Theatre Development Fund’s Accessibility Programs

Lisa Carling is the Director of the Theatre Development Fund’s Accessibility Programs in New York City. Recently, she sat down to speak with BCBA Sam Blanco about their Autism Theatre Initiative. TDF’s next autism-friendly performance will be The Lion King on Sunday, September 27, 2015 at 1PM. The Lion King was the first autism-friendly performance TDF organized back in October 2011, and has been so popular that it is now an annual event each fall at the end of September. Read on for Lisa Carling’s inside scoop on the Autism Theatre Initiative!

SAM BLANCO: Tell me a little bit about how the Autism Theatre Initiative came about.

LISA CARLING: It came about because we had a very successful program for students in the District 75 schools who had hearing loss and vision loss. We would schedule Wednesday matinee performances of Broadway shows, and bring these kids with their teachers to see Broadway performances. We were hearing more and more from special ed teachers, “This is great, but what can you do for all the kids in the District 75 schools that are on the autism spectrum.” We didn’t know, because the more we talked to parents, educators, therapists, the more we realized that this population would probably benefit more from a designated performance, being able to come to a show and be themselves. It wouldn’t be fair to mix them with typical audiences that may not understand atypical behavior. We also realized from talking with parents that they’re very few opportunities for families to do something together if you have a child or adult on the spectrum, what can you do together with siblings, grandparents, aunts and uncles. So we wanted to create an opportunity for families to come to the theatre together and have a terrific time in a judgment-free, welcoming environment where the children or adults on the spectrum could just be themselves, and the parents and siblings would not have to explain a thing. Anything goes. No judgments.

SB: Do you feel that judgment-free aspect is what has really drawn people in?

LC: I do. We’re very careful with the material, what productions we choose. We go after what most families want to see, family-friendly productions, big musicals, easy storylines, colorful costumes, dancing and singing, what everyone loves. And then we will ask the production if they are able to make slight modifications in sound and lighting. We rely on specialists in the autism community who can come and take a look at a production and then say, here are maybe a dozen places where it would really be beneficial if the sound could be turned down a level, we usually say not above 90 decibels, or the lighting is just too intense. We always stress when we talk to a show that these are suggestions and if they can make them that would be great. If not, we will warn the parents ahead of time at point-of-purchase. And we always emphasize we want it to be the same great show, the same terrific Broadway musical that families all over the country want to see when they come to New York.

We tried something different in December by doing a play for the first time, The Curious Incident of the Dog in the NightTime. We were very leery of that. We didn’t know what it would be like for families to come and see a serious drama, albeit with very funny moments in it, about situations that they may live with 24/7. But it was an opportunity to stretch our expectations and to offer something newer to the autism community, to identify older people in the community, college-aged students on the spectrum, older adults.

SB: What was the response to that?

LC: It was unbelievable. It was very moving to all of us. The cast, every cast member, had tears in his eyes at the curtain call. And there was a very moving moment at the end of the play, where Christopher, after he’s told his teacher all the things he’s accomplished: he found his mother, he wrote a book, he solved the mystery of who murdered Wellington, and he says something to the effect, he asks her, “This means I can do anything, can’t I?” And he asks her three times, and that question just hangs there unanswered by the teacher. But for our autism-friendly performance, there was a teenager who shouted right back at him, “yes, you can!” And it was such an affirmation of the impact of that show on this audience.

There was a time when we would have shied away from offering a performance where there was strong language in it, or violence. There’s a scene where the father strikes his son. The show worked with us on that and it was choreographed in a different way. It was more suggestive and not as startling. But we did it. And we’re not afraid anymore to just put opportunities out there. Parents know their kids the best, and if they think their child or adult can’t handle something then they’ll let us know or they won’t buy tickets.

SB: Are you involved with other theatres who are putting on autism-friendly performances?

LC: This year’s National Autism Theatre Initiative advisory partnerships varied in scope from Stages St. Louis’s 235 seat Playhouse at Westport Plaza in Chesterfield, MO that offered a sensory-friendly performance of The Aristocats in June for groups of school children on the spectrum in the St. Louis area; to The Big Apple Circus in Brooklyn, NY which presented a total eight autism-friendly performances of Metamorphosis throughout the year in up to 1,700 seat tents in Manhattan and Queens, NY; Boston, MA; and Bridgewater, NJ. The impact on attendees with autism or with other developmental or cognitive disabilities was immeasurable. From a mother at Stages St. Louis, “My daughter is in this show. Until today, her younger brother had never seen her perform because he is autistic and needs to get up and walk around every now and then and can be loud when he’s excited. Today, he not only saw his sister perform but he felt he was in a safe space, and he gave her a standing ovation every time she walked on stage.”

SB: With the partnerships, what resources do you provide?

LC: Conference calls. We help them in the planning. We recommend give yourself first time six months to a year to plan for this. We show them examples of the social narrative, character guides, video of what it’s like to walk inside the theatre, various supports day-of, what works out the best for us in terms of the koosh balls and stress stars. Just essentially, share our play book, what worked well for us and we always emphasize adapting for your community. And that goes for what you call the performance as well. In New York, we use the term autism-friendly because our community wants that and because in the initial planning they wanted to own that word and raise the awareness. Other parts of the country might use the term sensory-friendly, in the U.K. they like relaxed performances. But it doesn’t matter. The thought process is the same, you’re welcoming people on the autism spectrum as well as individuals with other developmental or cognitive disabilities and making slight adjustments that make the experience more comfortable.

SB: What advice do you have for theaters or other organizations who want to create autism-friendly events?

LC: Jump in and do it. Don’t be afraid because you will learn every time you do it; you’re going to do it better. Opening up accessibility for people on the spectrum as well as for other individuals with cognitive and developmental disabilities is where the need is right now. All theaters get it about providing captioning and audio description, but they are neglecting a huge audience in their communities. So, make the effort. Reach out there, you will not regret it.

I would advise choosing the first production (or productions) that are going to be successful. Particularly the first one. Make sure it’s a positive experience because this is a new audience. So look for a show that would be engaging to all families. Please do a weekend matinee. Scheduling this on a weekday. About 90% of the people on our surveys say they want a Saturday or Sunday matinee. They cannot come during the week. Again, this is geared for families. If you’re working with school groups, that might be different. Oh, an advisory group. Three is a good number. Make sure you get some outside input, someone who’s looking at the production you’re considering with an autism eye. Because what an artistic director might think is a good choice is not necessarily what someone who works with people on the spectrum, or someone on the spectrum. Don’t discount the value of having someone on the spectrum as one of your advisors.

SB: Can you describe some of the feedback you have received from participants?

LC: The overwhelming feedback we’ve received again and again is how wonderful it is to be in a judgment-free environment, where parents and siblings can just relax. They don’t have to worry about explaining behavior, they don’t have to feel that they’re being stared at. One very telling comment came from a mother last April after our Disney Junior show, who said, “Here I am, sitting in a theater with 2,000 strangers, and yet I feel we’re all part of the same family.” She’s right. They all understand each other. So a child who’s stimming or needs to get up, is singing along, it’s wonderful. There’s no difference. It’s not bothering anyone.

SB: Are you always able to offer the tickets at 40-50% off or is that the goal?

LC: That’s the goal. We hit that most of the time. If you have a family of four that you want to bring to a Broadway show, and you’ve got parking involved and public transportation, it’s important to keep the cost low. And then you get into all the additional expenses parents have: medical expenses, schooling, one-on-one therapists.

SB: Can you tell me anything about future direction of ATI?

LC: We are interested in working with off-off Broadway companies and consultancies where we will help them provide autism-friendly performances during the summer which is a hard time for us to book an autism-friendly Broadway show so we have our summers to help smaller theaters that might be willing to open their shows to the community.

SB: Is there anything I left out?

LC: I want to cite National Theater America Office with Curious Incident. They recognized that they wanted to make the show as affordable to the autism community as possible, so they went out and sought funding to underwrite the cost. So all of our Curious Incident tickets we were able to sell for $25. Orchestra to balcony, $25 thanks to the National Theater’s funding to help underwrite the cost. I wish more producers thought in terms of providing these affordable opportunities. It’s in the nature of the commercial theater that it’s very expensive to do shows, but if occasional opportunities could come along like this, we could reach so many more people. I remember getting e-mails from parents who were saying, “This is the first time I’ve ever been able to sit in the orchestra.”


Lisa CarlingLisa Carling is Director of TDF Accessibility Programs (TAP) at Theatre Development Fund where she runs a department of services for people with physical disabilities as well as individuals on the autism spectrum or with other developmental or cognitive disabilities. She has spoken on accessibility panels for the Broadway League Education Forums, Association of Performing Arts Presenters, Americans for the Arts and the Kennedy Center’s Leadership Exchange in Arts and Disabilities (LEAD) conferences. Lisa received a “Distinguished Leadership in Hearing Accommodation Award” from the Hearing Loss Association of America New York City Chapter in 2015 and a “Community Hero Award” from Best Buddies New York in 2014. TDF has won seven accessibility awards honoring her department achievements, including the “Excellence in Accessibility Leadership Award” at the 2006 LEAD conference. Her credits include: launching the “Autism Theatre Initiative” (2011) which makes theatre accessible to children and adults on the spectrum and their families; designing TDF’s “National Open Captioning Initiative” (2004) that partners with regional theatres across the country to expand audiences of people with hearing loss; and establishing TDF’s open captioning on Broadway program (1997). Lisa created “Access for Young Audiences” (1995), a service that provides sign language interpreting, open captioning (added, 1998) and audio description (added, 2008) for students with hearing and vision loss who attend specially scheduled Wednesday matinee performances on Broadway. Lisa holds an MFA from Yale School of Drama.