Low, Mid, or High-Tech Devices: Finding the Right Fit for Your Child

By Christine Sullivan, EdD

Consider the different types of technology we use in our everyday lives. For example, most individuals use cell phones and computers daily. But did you know that many technology features we commonly use were initially designed for individuals with disabilities? These are called mainstream derivatives of assistive technology (AT). Take your cell phone, for example. Texting was originally intended for people with hearing challenges, and screen enlargement was initially designed for those with vision problems. As the demand for technology has increased, many AT features have become standard for all users.  

Individuals with disabilities have the right to access environments that are available to all people. Accommodations are changes to conditions that provide access to the environment. AT devices are examples of accommodations that may be necessary for individuals with disabilities to allow them to overcome or circumvent barriers to their learning and living environments.

AT is defined by the Individuals with Disabilities Education Improvement Act (IDEA) in two parts: AT Technology and AT Devices. AT identifies the equipment that supports the individual in a specific area (e.g., communication, organization, activities of daily living). AT Services refer to the support or services needed to use the devices effectively. Both are integral parts of AT. For example, an individual cannot benefit from using a computer (AT device) if their caregivers and teachers have not taught them how to use it (AT Service).

The AT continuum consists of No-tech, Low-Tech, Mid-Tech, and High-Tech options designed to meet the needs of all learners:

• No-tech refers to unaided systems where an individual does not require anything beyond their body. Examples of No-Tech AT are vocalizations, verbalizations, eye gaze, or facial expressions.

• Low-Tech devices are generally comprised of materials that are easily obtainable, easy to use, low cost, and do not require a power source. Examples include graphic organizers, visual schedules, post-it notes, and manipulatives.

• Mid-tech devices, not used as often as low-tech or high-tech devices, generally require a power source. A simple switch, digital recorder, or adapted keyboard are examples of Mid-tech AT.

• High-Tech AT options are more complex, expensive to make or buy, and are usually programmable, such as a computer, iPad, AAC device, or electric wheelchair. Currently, much of AT is computerized and requires training to be used effectively.

Which type of AT is right for your child? Consider each level of AT to determine the best and most practical option for your child in their specific environment. The goal is always to foster independence. Ask, “Can your child perform the skill or task without AT?” If the answer is yes, then no AT is needed. If the answer is no, move through the continuum to find the technology that best supports their needs. Remember that high-tech devices are not necessarily superior to low and mid-tech devices. They tend to be costly and are not as easy to modify. A low-tech device is designed with simplicity and can provide users with flexibility and independence. For example, a student may benefit from using a low-tech pencil grip or a finger-spacing tool for writing rather than a high-tech mapping software or smartpen tool. Similarly, a student with organizational challenges and working memory issues may become overwhelmed with a high-tech application found on an iPad or tablet and benefit from a basic, teacher-constructed graphic organizer. In contrast, there are times when a high-tech device is the best AT choice for the learner. For example, a child may require an AAC device or application to communicate and access language.

When choosing a device, consider your child’s individual needs, the device’s practicality, and the user’s preferences and interests. Your child can benefit from using AT as it allows them to build strengths and address challenges. Remember that AT is most effective when learners are excited and motivated to incorporate its use into their learning repertoire.

Posted in ABA

Creative ways to tell your child “no” and avoid a power struggle

By Leanne Page, MEd, BCBA; originally posted on Parenting with ABA

No means no. But other things can mean no also.

Does your child have big reactions when you tell them no? Is the word no sometimes or often a trigger for your child leading to all kinds of problem behaviors?

We have to tell our kids no. No- do not run into traffic. No- do not touch a hot stove. And no- do not stray outside of the boundaries we have set as your parents. Take all the freedom you want within these boundaries, but no don’t stray.

But are there other ways to get your point across without the word no itself. If we can avoid the word that triggers the big reactions, maybe, just maybe we can avoid those meltdowns completely and spend our efforts focused on teaching and building up the good stuff.

What are some other ways to say no?

  • Not right now.
  • You can do (this) instead.
  • Maybe another time.
  • We have to do ____ right now.
  • Sure you can (do/have) that after you do (this) first.
  • Please do (this) instead.
  • I wish we could, but…
  • I’m afraid not.
  • I don’t think so.
  • Bummer! Not right now.
  • That’s not possible right now.
  • What a great idea, but not right now.

If you are telling your child to stop doing something or no, don’t do that action, try flipping your phrasing to what they CAN do instead.

From thisTo that
No running.Walk.
No jumping on the couch.Sit on the couch.
No candy before dinner.You can have candy at or after dinner.
No yelling.Use your inside voice.
No grabbing.Ask your sibling for a turn with the toy.

If the word no has been conditioned to cause an over the top reaction from your child, stop using the word no. Use other alternatives that get the same point across.

Whenever you find yourself about to say no, try to reframe it to tell your child what they can do or have instead. Give choices as much as possible.

Can I have some candy?

You can have some grapes or a banana.

Can we go to the park?

We can play trains or lego at home right now.

Child is running around the house.

You can walk in the house or run in the backyard.

No means no. But other wording also means no and is associated with a learning history of problem behavior. If something super simple like changing up our wording can help us move more quickly past the problem behavior- why not try it?! We want to spend our time and energy on teaching the more appropriate ways to communicate wants and needs instead of just dealing with problems.

Leanne Page, MEd, BCBA, is the author of Parenting with Science: Behavior Analysis Saves Mom’s Sanity. As a Behavior Analyst and a mom of two little girls, she wanted to share behavior analysis with a population who could really use it- parents!

Leanne has worked with children with disabilities for over 10 years. She earned both her Bachelor’s and Master’s degrees from Texas A&M University. She also completed ABA coursework through the University of North Texas before earning her BCBA certification in 2011. Leanne has worked as a special educator of both elementary and high school self-contained, inclusion, general education, and resource settings.

Leanne also has managed a center providing ABA services to children in 1:1 and small group settings. She has extensive experience in school and teacher training, therapist training, parent training, and providing direct services to children and families in a center-based or in-home therapy setting.

Leanne is now located in Dallas, Texas and is available for: distance BCBA and BCaBA supervision, parent training, speaking opportunities, and consultation. She can be reached via Facebook or at Lpagebcba@gmail.com.

Posted in ABA

Summer Activities for ASD Learners

By Ashleigh Evans, MS, BCBA

With the start of Summer comes endless possibilities of fun in the sun, from beach days to festivals and fireworks. But for many children with sensory challenges, some of these activities can be overstimulating. Instead, there are many fun and individualizable activities for your child to enjoy which meet their sensory needs. Let’s review a few activities that you and your family can try before Fall comes back around.

Water Tables

Water tables make for a fun way to explore different textures. There are many activities you can do with water tables to make them both fun and educational.

  • Place objects in the water table and give your child a net to “fish” them out. You could use letters, numbers, colored ducks, etc.
  • Fill it with dirt and rocks and dig or drive through it with toy trucks.
  • Fill the table with water beads, sand, shaving cream, or pom poms and explore the different textures.
  • If your water table is small enough, you could place the water table in your bathtub. Your child can enjoy water play in a structured way indoors on rainy days.

Scavenger Hunts

Scavenger hunts can be so exciting. They encourage physical activity, exploring, and learning about the environment. They also require problem-solving and creativity. There are countless ways to make these unique and enjoyable.

  • Pick a theme of high interest for your child and curate the scavenger hunt around that theme. Examples: Dinosaurs, princesses, letters, etc.
  • Choose items to search for that your child is currently working on learning about. For example, if they’re working on identifying animals, the scavenger hunt may consist of animal toys, stuffed animals, animal puzzles, etc.
  • Take a walk around the neighborhood, searching for safety signs, items in nature, or other objects around your environment.

Obstacle Courses

For your highly active sensory seeker, obstacle courses are a unique way to burn energy and have fun. These may be used to work on balance, coordination, and motor planning as well. This is another great activity where creativity can shine.

  • Set up cones or other barriers to run or jump or hop around.
  • Place climbing blocks, stepping stones, or other uneven surfaces to walk on and climb through.
  • Move through the obstacle course like different animals-Bear crawl, hop like a bunny, etc.

Water Play

For children who enjoy water, but get overstimulated in large crowds like there are at waterparks or the beach, there are so many other fun ways to explore the water.

  • Sprinklers – The sprinkler level may need to be adjusted to fit your child’s comfort. For example, if your child does not like getting their face wet, but does like to run through the water, having the sprinkler level low would meet that desire.
  • Water balloons – While some children with hypersensitivity to stimuli may not enjoy a water balloon fight, they may find enjoyment in the actions of throwing water balloons and watching them splash when hit on surfaces.
  • Let them hose the car or bikes, fill up a bucket with water, or water the plants. So many options!

Fall is right around the corner. Before the cool air comes back around, try some of the activities suggested above to enjoy the weather in a sensory-friendly environment. Be sure to personalize each activity around your child’s interests, skillset, and needs.  

About the Author

Ashleigh Evans is a Board Certified Behavior Analyst who has worked in the field of behavior analysis since 2009. She recently went into private practice and freelance writing. When she’s not working with clients or writing, she can be found chasing her three boys around and exploring nature. 

Posted in ABA

The Picture Exchange Communication System: Is There Science Behind That?

By: Catherine L. McHugh, MA, BCBA, LBA and Thomas Zane, PhD, BCBA-D
Department of Applied Behavioral Science, University of Kansas

Historically, teaching a communicative repertoire to children or individuals with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) and intellectual and developmental disabilities (IDD) focused on vocal verbal speech and modeling a speech sound with the hopes of the individual being able to imitate that sound (Charlop-Christy et al., 2002). However, prompting vocal verbal behavior is limited in comparison to a physical motor movement. Unless the individual has the ability to imitate, teaching speech sounds may be difficult (Bondy & Frost, 2001). Sign language is one potentially excellent option for teaching an alternative modality for communication. However, it also requires the individual to be able to attend to and imitate, as well as discriminate, very fine motor movements (Shwartz et al., 1998). For individuals with ASD and IDD, this may be a skill deficit making it very difficult to learn complex language. Therefore, Andy Bondy and Lori Frost turned their attention to exploring different modalities of communication that may better lend themselves to prompting and therefore result in greater contact with reinforcers. At the time of the development of Picture Exchange Communication System (PECS; Bondy & Frost, 2001), picture pointing was emerging as a form of communication; however, the individual may point to and cover the picture (i.e., preventing the communication partner from being able to see the image selected). Or they may touch the picture when no one is attending to them and therefore miss an opportunity for reinforcement resulting in possible extinction of the behavior. Bondy and Frost (2001) wanted to focus more on the communication exchange that occurs in language, so they developed a communication modality that teaches the individual to select a picture, pick it up, and place it in the hand of the communicative partner. This allows the teacher or caregiver to use physical prompts for communication and reduce the number of required prerequisite skills of the learner.

According to the seminal article by Bondy and Frost (2001), there are six steps of teaching PECS. The first focuses on the physical exchange and how to communicate. It teaches the learner the basic exchange of communication (i.e., expressing an idea to another person via the exchange of a symbol). Once the individual masters the exchange, the second step is referred to as the distance and persistence phase. This phase tests the durability of the communicative response, focusing on increasing the distance and response effort of communication such that the learner may have to travel and recruit the attention of the partner in order to contact reinforcement, as well as travel in order to access the symbols themselves. The third phase focuses on discrimination between symbols such that as more pictures are added to their system, they are able to find and exchange the picture that corresponds to the item they want. The fourth phase involves increasing the mean length of utterance and using phrases such as “I want” or “I see”. This allows the learner to move from mands (i.e., requesting) to perhaps engaging in tacts (i.e., labeling) or intraverbals (i.e., responding to questions). Phase five teaches the learner how to use PECS to answer questions and finally, phase six teaches commenting. As mentioned, not all phases need to be taught or mastered. Phase one is the building block for the remaining phases, but teaching the fundamental phase 1 exchange can have major implications for communication and other areas of the individual’s life. There are articles and manuals on how to use and teach PECS (e.g., Charlop-Christy et al., 2002; Conklin & Mayer, 2011; Frost, 2002; Paden et al., 2012; Schwartz et al., 1998), but the question remains, is there science behind PECS?

The existing research literature on PECS is vast and focuses on different phases and aspects of the system across populations with various skill sets and goals. Fortunately, researchers have produced several meta-analyses and review papers, so they will be summarized here.

For example, Preston and Carter (2009) reviewed the literature on PECS and found studies that utilized both randomized control trials (RCT) and single subject designs. The authors noted that, at the time, there had been only three experiments using RCTs and concluded that the methodology and data were insufficient for drawing any conclusions on the efficacy of PECS and encouraged future researchers to conduct more research in this area. However, Preston and Carter also noted that there was supporting evidence for PECS provided across the experiments that incorporated single subject research design methodologies. In conclusion, they found preliminary support for PECS as a communication modality for children and adults with ASD and IDD who have little or no vocal verbal language.

Sulzer-Azaroff et al. (2009) reviewed 34 peer-reviewed publications on PECS. This review included children and adult participants working with caregivers, teachers, and parents. Sulzer-Azaroff and colleagues reported that the results suggested that PECS was effective in teaching individuals who previously had no or limited functional communication, how to communicate. Most of these individuals learned new requests and some learned the more advanced phases in which they learned to describe things. When they reviewed articles that compared PECS to another modality, Sulzer-Azaroff et al. (2009) noted that the participants performed the same or better with PECS (e.g., Adkins & Axelrod, 2002). Overall, the results of this literature review further supported the use of PECS for teaching communication to non-speaking individuals.

Hart and Banda (2010) conducted a meta-analysis of the single subject research design studies on PECS. They reviewed 13 published studies and found that teaching PECS increased functional communication for all but 1 participant. They also noted some reasons why it might have been so successful for this population. First, the basic PECS procedure incorporates motivating operations (MO; Poling, Lotfizadeh, & Edwards, 2017) for teaching requests. The use of MOs presumes to increase the value of the reinforcer thereby increasing the likelihood of the individual engaging in the exchange in order to access the items. This contingency is very salient and likely a major reason why so many are able to acquire phase one of PECS so quickly. Therefore, PECS has the ability to teach someone abstract concepts using more salient stimuli and behaviors.

Schreibman and Stahmer (2014) conducted a randomized control comparison of the effects of verbal and pictorial communication on spoken language for children with autism. This study included 19 randomly assigned 2.5-year old’s who had a diagnosis of ASD that had fewer than 10 spoken words at the onset of the intervention. Participants in this study acquired about 90 spoken words on average after 6 months and about 120 spoken words after 9 months following intervention, showing strong evidence of the effectiveness of PECS.

According to these and more recent work on PECS, it appears that there is science to support the use of PECS for teaching communication to individuals with ASD and IDD across the lifespan. What is also interesting about PECS is some of the affected collateral behaviors (i.e., behaviors that were not directly targeted in the intervention) that are noted in these and other studies. First, there are some reports of vocalizations emerging while teaching PECS (e.g., Greenberg et al., 2014; Hart & Banda, 2010; Sulzer-Azaroff et al., 2009). For example, Greenberg et al. (2013) studied the amount and pattern of their participants’ vocalizations before and after PECS training. In study 1, the experimenters measured spontaneous vocalizations during and after PECS training. They saw an increase in vocalizations when compared to baseline. In study 2, participants who demonstrated limited vocalizations after study 1 were exposed to a procedure that included a time-delay prompt (i.e., waiting 3 seconds after the picture exchange to deliver the item to see if they would emit a vocalization) and verbal prompting procedures. Results of study 2 suggest that spontaneous vocalizations increased and occurred with every exchange. These results were quite promising and addressed the concern that if caregivers teach an individual to use PECS, they might not learn to vocalize. This does not seem to be the case. The emergence of vocalizations may be due to a variety of factors and is an empirical question that researchers should continue to study.

Another possible benefit of teaching PECS was reported by Hart and Banda (2010), who noted that in the studies they reviewed, there was a decrease in problem behavior for the participants who learned PECS. This is likely due to the fact that the individuals are learning functional communication skills. Functional communication training (FCT) is a procedure that teaches individuals a more appropriate way to request (i.e., communication rather and problem behavior) access to their reinforcers (Tiger et al., 2008). FCT can include a variety of communication modalities, but picture exchange is commonly used in the literature (e.g., Tiger et al., 2008). During FCT, the individual receives access to their reinforcer for a communicative response and no longer receives it for problem behavior. Therefore, they are taught a new way to get the things they need and want without engaging in problem behavior. One can also look at this from a response effort perspective. Communication is much less effort than engaging in physical aggression. Therefore, once PECS is acquired, the child may prefer this response that requires less effort and results in their preferred items.

Conclusions and Future Research

Numerous literature reviews and individual research studies provided evidence to strongly suggest that PECS can be considered an evidenced-based procedure. So, parents and caregivers can confidently use PECS to establish and shape communication in their children, with confidence that improvements are likely to be made. Furthermore, there are manuals that are both clear and comprehensive to guide the implementation of each step of the system.

Given that, continued research to establish whether or not PECS works seems unnecessary. Instead, researchers involved in studying this communication system could extend what is known about PECS along different variables and dimensions. For example, more research could be done on the extent of generalization and maintenance of PECS acquisition. Another area to address would be the preference of communication modality – that is, studying what influences an individual to select different communication systems, such as PECS, signs, or speech. Although some small n studies have been done on this (e.g., Tincani, 2004), it remains a very fruitful avenue to explore. Finally, it would be helpful to develop a more comprehensive literature based on the issue of whether the acquisition of PECS is responsible for a reduction in behavior problems and a spontaneous increase in spontaneous vocalizations.

The experimental research shows that PECS is an evidenced-based procedure. When working with individuals with communication impairments, PECS can be used to establish foundational or complex communication. Since communication deficits are one of the common symptoms of ASD, this particular procedure is a very welcomed and needed intervention approach.

About the Authors

Catherine McHugh, M.A., BCBA, LBA-KS is a doctoral student in Dr. Claudia Dozier’s lab at the University of Kansas in the Applied Behavioral Science Department. She a Board-Certified Behavior Analyst and a Licensed Behavior Analyst in the state of Kansas. Catherine completed her Masters of Applied Disability Studies and then a Masters of Arts with a focus in Applied Behavior Analysis at Brock University, St. Catharines, Ontario, Canada. She is the Vice President of the Graduate Student Organization for the Applied Behavioral Science Department at the University of Kansas. Catherine has worked with individuals with intellectual and developmental disabilities across the lifespan from children to older adults who engage in severe problem behavior. 

Dr. Thomas Zane is a Professor of Practice and the Director of Online Programs in Behavior Analysis in the Department of Applied Behavioral Science at the University of Kansas. Dr. Zane earned his Bachelor’s and Master’s degree in psychology at Western Michigan University and his doctorate in Applied Behavior Analysis at West Virginia University. He has served as a Post-Doctorate Research Associate at the University of Massachusetts and as a Research Scientist at Johns Hopkins University Department of Psychiatry. Dr. Zane serves on the Executive Board of the Cambridge Center for Behavioral Studies, the international organization that represents the field of behavior analysis. He is also a member of the Scientific Council of the Organization of Autism Research, a group that funds innovative research in Autism Spectrum Disorders. Dr. Zane has been past President of the Ethics Special Interest Group of the International Association for Behavior Analysis. His research interests include online learning, evidenced-based practice in autism, and the philosophy of science and radical behaviorism. He is particularly interested in why some behavior analysts drift from the code and the importance of adhering to choosing scientifically-supported treatments in clinical and educational work.


​​​Adkins, T., & Axelrod, S. (2002). Topography-versus selection-based responding: Comparison of mand acquisition in each modality. The Behavior Analyst Today, 2(3), 259–266. http://dx.doi.org/10.1037/h0099941

Bondy, A., & Frost, L. (2001). The Picture Exchange Communication System. Behavior Modification, 25(5), 725-744. https://doi.org/10.1177/0145445501255004

Charlop-Christy, M. H., Carpenter, M., Le, L., LeBlanc, L. A., & Kellet, Kristen. (2002). Using   the Picture Exchange Communication System (PECS) with children with autism: Assessment of PECS acquisition, speech, social-communicative behavior, and problem behavior. Journal of Applied Behavior Analysis, 35(3), 213-231. https://doi.org/10.1901/jaba.2002.35-213

Conklin, C. G., & Mayer, G. R. (2011). Effects of implementing the Picture Exchange Communication System (PECS) with adults with developmental disabilities and severe communication deficits. Remedial and Special Education, 32(2), 155-166. https://doi.org/10.1177%2F0741932510361268

Frost, L., & Bondy, A. (2002). The Picture Exchange Communication System training manual. (2nd Ed.). Pyramid Educational Products.​

Greenberg, A. L., Tomaino, M. E., & Charlop, M. H. (2013). Adapting the Picture Exchange Communication System to elicit vocalizations in children. Journal of Developmental and Physical Disabilities, 26(1), 35-51. http://dx.doi.org/10.1007/s10882-013-9344-2

Hart, S. L., & Banda, D. (2010). Picture Exchange Communication Systems with individuals with developmental disabilities: A meta-analysis of single subject studies. Remedial and Special Education, 31(6), 476-488. https://doi.org/10.1177/0741932509338354

Paden, A. R., Kodak, T., Fisher, W. W., Gawley-Bullington, E. M., & Bouxsein. (2012). Teaching children with autism to engage in peer-directed mands using a Picture Exchange Communication System. Journal of Applied Behavior Analysis, 45(2), 425-429. https://doi.org/10.1901/jaba.2012.45-425

Poling, A., Lotfizadeh, A., & Edwards, T. L. (2017) Predicting reinforcement: Utility of the motivating operations concept. Behavior Analyst, 40(1), 49-56. http://dx.doi.org/10.1007/s40614-017-0091-z

Preston, D., & Carter, M. (2009). A review of the efficacy of the Picture Exchange Communication System intervention. Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders, 39(10), 1471-1486 . http://dx.doi.org/10.1007/s10803-009-0763-y

Tiger, J. H., Hanley, G. P., & Bruzek, J. (2008). Functional communication training: A review and practical guide. Behavior Analysis and Practice, 1(1), 16-23. https://doi.org/10.1007/BF03391716

Tincani, M. (2004). Comparing the Picture Exchange Communication System and sign language training for children with autism. Focus on Autism and Other Developmental Disabilities19(3), 152-163. http://dx.doi.org/10.1177/10883576040190030301

Schreibman, L., & Stahmer, A. C. (2014). A randomized trial comparison of the effects of verbal and pictorial naturalistic communication strategies on spoken language for young children with autism. Journal of Autism and Developmental Disabilities, 44(5). 1244-1251.  http://doi.org/10.1007/s10803-013-1972-y

Schwartz, I. S., Garfinkle, A. N., & Bauer, J. (1998). The Picture Exchange Communication System: Communicative outcomes for young children with disabilities. Topics in Early Childhood Special Education, 18(3), 144-159. http://dx.doi.org/10.1177/027112149801800305

Sulzer-Azaroff, B., Hoffman, A. O., Horton, C. B., Bondy, A., & Frost, L. (2009). The Picture Exchange Communication System what do the data say?” Focus on Autism and Other Developmental Disabilities, 24(2), 89-103. https://doi.org/10.1177/1088357609332743

Citation for this article:

McHugh, C. L., & Zane, T. (2022). Picture Exchange Communication System: Is there science behind that? Science in Autism Treatment, 19(5).​

Posted in ABA

5 Tips for Creating a Summer Therapy Home Program

By: Katie McKenna, MS, OTR/L (originally posted on The Autism Helper)

It is so hard to believe that summer is upon us!  Summer can bring about many different experiences and emotions.  On one hand, it can be exciting to take a break from the intense schedule of the school year.  However, on the other hand, summer often brings less structure and routine, which can be hard for our learners.  As I wrap up the school year, I like to provide my families with some therapeutic activity ideas that not only maintain or build skills throughout the summer but also are fun and easy to implement.  Here are some of my tips for putting together a summer therapy home program!

1. Embrace the Outdoors

Summer is the best time to truly embrace outdoor activities.  Kids NEED to be active.  Check out my blog post here about why outdoor play is so vital.  Additionally, many summer activities that families naturally do may include amazing outdoor motor and sensory experiences, such as swimming, going to the beach, hiking and bike riding.  Even just playing at the playground can be so beneficial – check out this post for more!  When recommending summer activities for families, I always include outdoor play ideas as they tend to be easy to setup and free or low cost, but full of amazing opportunities for students.  

2. Encourage Hands On Activities

Early in my career, I used to send home a lot of paper packets that contained prewriting and drawing practice worksheets.  I have since stopped.  Why?  So much learning comes from experiences that do not involve pencil and paper and summer is the perfect time to explore that!  Kids NEED to experience more hands-on activities and play in order to have strong muscles for pencil and paper tasks.  Instead of completing writing worksheets, try suggesting students use sidewalk chalk or draw shapes and letters in the sand.  You can also recommend families try some of these easy gross and fine motor activities using household items!

3. Focus on Life Skills

Summer is the perfect time to work on various household tasks and life skills, such as cooking, cleaning, and even community outings.  For sensory sensitive kids, some of these tasks can be very overwhelming.  One of the pros of a slower summer schedule is there may be more time and flexibility to gradually build confidence and skills to be able to engage in some of these tasks.    

4. Make it Routine

Routines and themes help me stay on track during the school year, and I like to suggest the same to my families for the summer.  Depending on your student, you may recommend a few activities for families to focus on consistently in daily or weekly routines.  Some years, I have recommended daily ‘themes’ and corresponding activity ideas such as Movement Monday, Fine Motor Tuesday, Sensory Wednesday, Cooking Thursday, Community Outing Friday.  Families can choose one activity per day based on the daily theme.  Or, you could collaborate with a family to choose 1 or 2 daily routines to target and recommend a therapeutic spin on it.  For example, when reading books at bedtime, have the student lay on his tummy.  During the morning routine, try to encourage decreased verbal prompts.   This way, activities don’t feel like ‘extra’ work because they are already embedded into activities that happen in the family on a daily basis!

5. Keep it Simple

This is probably the most important tip of all.  Let’s face it.  It has been a long school year!  While some families may be looking for very detailed activity plans, others may be looking for a few practical ideas.  In general, I like to recommend simple, actionable ideas that can be easily implemented and don’t require a lot of preparation and planning.   Like everything, touch base with your families and see where they may be looking for support and you can tweak your plan from there.  I recommend starting simple and adjusting as needed to meet individual needs.

About the Author:

Katie McKenna, MS, OTR/L is an occupational therapist working with students in the school setting. Katie has worked with students of all ages, from early childhood up to high school transition. Before she was an OT, Katie worked as an in-home respite worker as well as an inclusion aide. Katie earned an undergraduate degree in Communication Sciences and Disorders from Saint Louis University, and a Masters degree in Occupational Therapy from the University of Illinois at Chicago. 

Posted in ABA

Play Skills Development

By: Rosemarie Griffin, SLP, BCBA, originally posted on ABASpeech.org

Play is this fascinating tool that allows children to absorb information, learn, engage, socialize, and communicate. Play is vital to children’s development. Play is a natural way to bring children into an exciting new adventure each day. When discussing play skills development, caregivers and providers often need a refresher on what play skills are appropriate for various ages. Play can give children a sense of closeness when playing, build social skills, problem solving skills, and of course learn language. Understanding the stages of play skills development can help with knowing what play is appropriate and when! 

Milestones of Play

6-12 months- In this baby stage, play is simple, but so rewarding for the child and parent! Imitation is a huge deal at this age and children love to imitate anyone they are playing with. Think of games like “so big” or simply waving. Playing peek-a-boo is so much fun and a great way to engage in play with little ones. Songs with silly words are wonderful at this age also. Remember communication and play starts well before language, so nonverbal play is hugely important too!

18 months- Here comes the pretend play! Toy kitchens are all the rage for our blooming toddlers because pretend play is blossoming and imaginations are growing. Our toddlers begin to use tools like hammers or spoons to imitate real life actions in their pretend play. Feeding our baby dolls is another big one at this stage! Often this age group engages in solitary play and will build blocks alone or complete a puzzle by themselves. They often don’t even notice if other children are around them!

2 year olds- Now that our children are a bit bigger, they are ready to engage in even more developed pretend play. Now children may imitate household chores like pretending to sweep or wash the dishes. This would be the perfect time to play house and use their world in their pretend world! 

Onlooker Play- When children are preschool age, they may begin to watch other children play and this is called onlooker play. Onlooker play is when children watch other children play! During this time, children are building their social and emotional skills and also learning how to engage in situations. They are even learning from other children and boosting attention and memory!

Parallel Play-This is another play development around ages 2-3 when children are playing next to each other, maybe with the same toys, but not engaging with one another. The children influence each other and may even copy each other! Think of this as a precursor to learning how to truly play together! 

Associative Play- Between 3-4 children begin to play together by using the same materials and doing similar activities, but they are still a bit independent. Think two children sharing crayons, but drawing sepapare pictures. The children like the company of the others, but aren’t ready to actually make a game together yet. 

Cooperative Play- Lastly, between 4-5 children start to interact with one another and play together! They want the interaction and they want to do the activity together. This is where pretend play really takes off and children pretend to be the mom and dad and take care of a baby or serve each other dinner at the pretend restaurant! 

Play and Therapy

The most important idea to remember when it comes to play in therapy is that it is all about the mindset. Don’t be afraid to get silly. Loosen up! Make silly faces, use silly sounds, and make those genuine connections. Toys aren’t as important as human connections, so don’t worry about all the toys and just be you! If you are looking for a few toys though, bubbles, balls and markers are great ideas! Puppets can be a ton of fun too! Stay away from anything that needs batteries because that takes the play away from the child. The toy does all the work! The more content that is introduced while playing, the more the child will remember and absorb from you!

When it comes to play skills development, it is so important to understand the age of the child and the impact play will have on them. It is also so important to know what to expect in terms of play from a child at different age groups. Play is such a huge stepping stone in learning, engagement, social skills, and communication. Play skills development is a great topic to delve into if you are a parent or a SLP! 

Rosemarie Griffin, SLP, BCBA is dedicated to helping SLPs and other professionals provide systematic language instruction with ease. Working with students with autism and other complex communication disorders can be challenging. Rose has dedicated herself to helping by providing professional development and real life examples of what she does in her daily practice. See her podcast, blog, and collaboration opportunities at www.abaspeech.org

Posted in ABA

Using Contingency Contracts in the Classroom

By: Sam Blanco, PhD, LBA, BCBA

As adults, we’re fairly accustomed to contracts for car loans, new employment, or updates to our smartphones. But contracts can also be beneficial in the classroom setting. A contingency contract is defined as “a mutually agreed-upon document between parties (e.g., parent and child) that specifies a contingent relationship between the completion of specified behavior(s) and access to specified reinforcer(s)” (Cooper, Heron, & Heward, 2007). There are several studies that indicate using a contingency classroom can be beneficial in the classroom setting.

Cantrell, Cantrell, Huddleston, & Wooldridge (1969) identified steps in creating contingency contracts:

Interview the parent or guardian of the student.

This allows you to work together to identify problem behaviors to be addressed, identify the contingencies currently maintaining these behaviors, determine the child’s current reinforcers, and establish what reinforcement or punishment procedures will be used.

Use this information to create a clear, complete, and simple contract.

The authors provide examples of how these contracts might look. You can vary the contract based upon the behaviors you are addressing with your student and the student’s ability to comprehend such contracts.

Build data collection into the contract itself.

You can see an example from the article below. For this example, it is clear how points are earned and how the child can utilize those points, and the contract itself is a record of both the points and the child’s behaviors.

An example of a classroom contingency contract from Cantrell, Cantrell, Huddleston, & Wooldridge (1969)

There are clear benefits to utilizing such contingency contracting: building relationships across different environments in which the student lives and works, addressing one or more challenging behaviors simultaneously, and providing opportunities for students to come into contact with reinforcement. You can read the entire article here:

Cantrell, R. P., Cantrell, M. L., Huddleston, C. M., & Wooldridge, R. L. (1969). Contingency contracting with school problems. Journal of Applied Behavior Analysis, 2(3), 215-220.

And much more has been written about contingency contracting. If you’d like to learn more, we suggest taking a look at one or more of the following:

Bailey, J. S., Wolf, M. M., & Phillips, E. L. (1970). Home-based reinforcement and the modification of pre-delinquent’s classroom behavior. Journal of Applied Behavior Analysis, 3(3), 223-233.

Barth, R. (1979). Home-based reinforcement of school behavior: A review and analysis. Review of Educational Research, 49(3), 436-458.

Broughton, S. F., Barton, E. S., & Owen, P. R. (1981). Home based contingency systems for school problems. School Psychology Review, 10(1), 26-36.

Miller, D. L., & Kelley, M. L. (1991). Interventions for improving homework performance: A critical review. School Psychology Quarterly, 6(3), 174.

About the Author:

Sam Blanco, PhD, LBA, BCBA is an ABA provider for students ages 3-15 in NYC. Working in education for twelve years with students with Autism Spectrum Disorders and other developmental delays, Sam utilizes strategies for achieving a multitude of academic, behavior, and social goals. She is also an assistant professor in the ABA program at The Sage Colleges. You can read more of Sam’s posts for Different Roads To Learning by clicking here!

Posted in ABA

Considerations for effective playdates amidst the COVID-19 pandemic

By: Caitlin Reilly Lostan, PsyD, BCBA, NCSP (Breakthrough Learning Group) and Marcia Questel, MSEd, BCBA (Association for Science in Autism Treatment)

(The following is an excerpt from Lostan, C., & Questel, M.’s “How can I structure playdates for success?” featured in Science in Autism Treatment. The full article can be found here.)

Given the circumstances surrounding the COVID-19 pandemic, many families may still be limited to distanced interactions with others. Generally, the guidelines reviewed thus far can be used as a blueprint for both distanced and in-person social skills sessions or playdates; however, the following summary addresses accommodations that may be necessary to maintain health and safety. Families and professionals may also consider these recommendations during the flu season or whenever they deem necessary.

1. Consider your comfort level. Now that infection rates are relatively low and restrictions are lifting across the United States and across the globe, many families feel comfortable socializing in nearly pre-pandemic fashion. However, during previous waves of the pandemic, when infection rates were high, some families created “pods” with neighbors, family members, or close friends, where all individuals within a household quarantined/safely social distanced so that typical social interaction could take place when the individuals gathered. Note that, for that to have been possible, families would have already agreed that socialization was an important part of their lives. To be sure that you are paired up with families that your child socializes with successfully, consider proactively getting involved when infection rates are low. In contrast, if risk factors are very high, you may only be comfortable holding socially distanced sessions in the form of video conferences to eliminate all risks related to COVID-19. While telehealth has been proven effective, there is a learning curve to working with this technology in meaningful ways. More on this option can be found below. The increase in vaccines being offered to children may also offer some assurance of safety, although many families are wary of vaccination in general and specifically with the latest COVID-19 vaccines. This is a personal choice, but rest assured that no matter which format you are comfortable with, your child can continue to develop their social skills with peers!

2. Teach your child to wear a mask and/or face shield. It may be necessary to include “tolerating a mask” in your list of prerequisite teaching targets. Tolerating a mask will likely open more playdate and social activity options for your child. If your child will be hindered by the inability to view another person’s face, consider investing in a face mask with a clear plastic mouth cutout, or a face shield.

3. Plan for teaching socially distanced peer interaction skills. Social distancing does not have to get in the way of teaching social and play skills. Socially distanced activities that may be incorporated into social skills sessions include arts and crafts (potential teaching targets might include giving and receiving compliments, asking and answering questions, showing and describing art), baking/cooking with separate materials, playing video games online, or playing other games that do not involve physical social interaction (e.g., charades).

4. Hold social skills sessions outside. Outdoor playdates may be a helpful strategy to allow your child to continue learning social and play skills. Scavenger hunts, playing organized sports games, or going to an activity such as the zoo are suggestions that may be useful for an outdoor playdate. Do keep in mind safety precautions when considering outdoor playdates (e.g., proactive plans for children who tend to wander, elope, or don’t recognize/respond to their name, etc.).

5. Hold virtual playdates. Using Zoom or Facetime to help your child practice peer social skills may be appropriate for some children and their families. It eliminates any COVID-19 risk, is a low investment, and allows each child to remain in the comfort of their own environment. Tele-playdates may be especially helpful if your child can only tolerate short periods of social play demands (based on his increased comfort and confidence, the length of the session can be gradually extended). Tele-social skills sessions can be especially helpful for working on fundamental conversational skills. For example, the peer could work on helping your child learn to imitate, follow simple directions, or engage in various types of conversations. Because driving is eliminated, these sessions often go uninterrupted by harsh weather (storms, snow, etc.), and can be done from virtually anywhere.

6. Educate your child on COVID-19. If appropriate, explaining the safety measures for interacting with peers may be helpful. Your child may be more willing to wear a mask, keep a safe social distance, and tolerate other safety measures if they understand why they are necessary.

While the COVID-19 pandemic may require some creative planning and execution, it does not have to prevent your child from continuing to develop their peer social and play skills.You will find a mock example of a progress monitoring sheet below that can track your child’s progress. Should constructing a social skills program feel daunting, consulting with a BCBA or another suitable professional may be helpful for planning and implementing effective playdates. However, remember, you are your child’s first teacher! Equipping yourself with the instructional skills to help your child develop social skills will bring long-term payoffs for you both. In addition, your child will be afforded opportunities to enjoy new friendships and play activities!

Example: Social Skills Progress Monitoring                                                                           (Lostan, 2022)
Social Skills GoalStart DateGoal Met DateStart DateGoal Met Date
Looking in response to name being called
Maintaining eye contact during a verbal exchange
Following one-step directions
Imitating another person’s actions
Identifying “What am I pointing to?” (perspective taking)
Identifying, “What am I looking at?” (perspective taking)
Calling a person on Facetime and saying, “Hi”
Playing Cornhole
Playing 1 board game: “Guess Who”
Remaining on topic for 2 exchanges

About the Authors:

Caitlin Reilly Lostan, PsyD, BCBA, NCSP is a NJ licensed psychologist, board certified behavior analyst, and NJ-licensed/nationally certified school psychologist. Dr. Lostan obtained her MA in psychology in education from Columbia University, and her PsyD in school psychology at Fairleigh Dickinson University. Dr. Lostan’s dissertation focused on the components that contribute to autism awareness. She is the founder and director of Breakthrough Learning Group, a pediatric therapy practice providing ABA and psychological services for young children.   

Marcia Questel is a BCBA with a Master’s degree in Special Education (Concentration – Autism) and Graduate Certificate in Applied Behavior Analysis from Long Island University. She obtained her Bachelor’s degree in Developmental Psychology with a focus on autism and other developmental disorders, where her passion for researching executive functioning (EF) and Theory of Mind  (ToM) began. Her journey in this field started 20 years ago while volunteering in an early intervention center. It was at that time that autism became a part of her and her family’s lives, with a family member’s diagnosis. Since then, 3 other members of her extended family have received diagnoses of autism, and she has remained dedicated to the autism community. Previously, Marcia provided 1:1 instruction, managed an autism center in New York, and taught piano to children with autism and their siblings. Marcia is currently working in private practice, providing consultation to families and school faculty, and is a Content Editor for ASAT’s monthly publication, Science in Autism Treatment. She is also the Externship Co-Coordinator for ASAT. In response to the current climate, she is conducting research regarding access to telehealth during the COVID-19 pandemic, engaging in telehealth and in-person services through ABAskills, LLC, and is creating supportive content for parents and professionals. Marcia is also a research assistant at the Affect Regulation and Cognition (ARC) Lab at Yale University. 

Citation for full article:

Lostan, C., & Questel, M. (2022). Clinical Corner: How can I structure playdates for success? Science in Autism Treatment, 19(5).

Posted in ABA

Ten tips for success: A roadmap for a parent-led social skills program

By: Caitlin Reilly Lostan, PsyD, BCBA, NCSP (Breakthrough Learning Group) and Marcia Questel, MSEd, BCBA (Association for Science in Autism Treatment)

The following is an excerpt from Lostan, C., & Questel, M.’s “How can I structure playdates for success?” featured in Science in Autism Treatment. The full article can be found here.)

For many children with autism, exhibiting appropriate, functional social and play skills with peers is hard. To set your child up for success during social skills teaching, here are 10 tips to help you plan accordingly. While this roadmap is applicable to any social skills program, it was written for playdates organized within the home; and individual differences will exist within programs based on your child’s strengths and needs, as well as any restrictions necessary due to the COVID-19 pandemic (which is addressed more later in this article).

1.Identify target social skills. The best way to identify what to teach is to collect “baseline” information: observe your child’s social behavior with adults, peers, and toys/games under typical conditions (e.g., outside with a peer, using Facetime with a peer, playing at home with a sibling, participating in an organized community activity, etc.). What activities will your child enjoy most during a playdate? Can you think of very small next goals for them? For example, if they can say “Hi,” and often do respond to that opening greeting, can they add “Let’s play” while beginning a game on their iPad? If they hand over the iPad when someone says, “My turn,” can they wait while the person plays? For how long? Can they learn “My turn” before taking the game back? Be sure that you understand what is developmentally appropriate and that you have individualized expectations for your child (Chang & Shire, 2019).

Create a list of things that your child often does on their own, followed by a potential list of “target skills” for teaching, such that simpler skills are to be taught first (e.g., greetings, staying near peers, passing a ball back and forth a small number of times). Then, once simpler social skills are mastered, more complex social skills (Barton et al., 2019) can be addressed (e.g., turn-taking, adding more social phrases, engaging in loosely structured play, playing a game). Additionally, taking note of activities that your child will enjoy most during a playdate will help create motivation and a positive attitude toward peer play. To develop strategies to teach these smaller steps and build momentum, consult with your BCBA if possible. Again, this person can be found through the BACB website, or there may be certified professionals available to provide ABA parent training through your school district.

At this point, your focus is on identifying a professional who can provide you with teaching strategies of your own (parent training), recognizing the strengths and preferences of your child, and taking small steps towards increasing their practice of skills close to what they can already do. Your BCBA, or professional consultant, can help you to identify which targets are developmentally appropriate, what prerequisite skills are needed for the target skills you hope to teach, and strategies for teaching those skills.

2. Teach skills with an adult first. Ensure that your child has opportunities to gain experience with target social skills before playdates to set everyone up for success. It is often beneficial to teach a skill first with an adult, as an adult is more likely to respond to your child reliably and favorably when they are displaying target responses that a peer might otherwise miss. An informed adult is acutely aware of what the child is working towards, and what behaviors to reinforce. For example, if one parent is teaching a child to play a game with the other parent, one adult acts as the facilitator and the other as the peer. The “teaching” parent will provide prompts and reinforcement, and the “peer” parent will behave as a child ideally would. Further, you can help your child to maintain and generalize learned skills by having him practice the skills with other people. Helping your child become fluent in these foundational social skills will help him feel more comfortable and confident, minimize frustration, and will allow you to focus on teaching advanced social and play skills more efficiently during live social skills sessions with peers. It also increases the likelihood that a successful playdate with be a reinforcing event for your child and may lead to their increased desire to play with peers.

3. Select peers carefully. Identifying a peer for social skills sessions is paramount to the success of your social skills program. Effective social skills peers are enthusiastic, responsive, and understanding. That is, they initiate opportunities for your child to respond, they reliably respond to your child in a favorable way, and they exhibit patience as your child practices socializing. A peer’s response should serve as reinforcement for your child’s response, so it is important that they reliably respond to help your child learn the positive consequences of social interaction.

To find suitable peers, ask your child’s teacher or other school staff for children that your child gets along with; ask the parents of other neighborhood children; or search among a support group online. You may be surprised to find parents looking for peers right in your neighborhood through Facebook groups! Make your needs specific and clear (e.g., playdates will be a few times per week/ month, the peer will need to read from a script, etc.), particularly if health concerns are in play at the time (e.g., both children will wear masks, sessions will be via Skype from time to time, etc.). Some considerations you may have are finding peers with similar interests; finding peers who have exceptional social/empathic skills (they can wait patiently, don’t mind compromising, etc.); and those who have parents who understand and accept neurodiversity.

Set a schedule to ensure consistent opportunities for learning. For younger children, it may be more appropriate to refer to these sessions as playdates (as we have throughout), but be clear and honest to the peer about his or her responsibilities (e.g., that they must follow the playdate activity list; that they must wait for their peer to respond to any social initiations as it might take a little longer; that their job is to help a friend practice talking; or that they get to earn a prize at the end for helping their friend practice). Remember that the structure for social skills sessions will look quite different across both learners and peers depending on the unique abilities, needs, personalities, and preferences of both participants. Some children may need more practice to learn to play the games that your child is already good at; others may start off seeming apprehensive; or some may not feel sure of what they are expected to do. Try to be patient and provide several opportunities for the peer to warm up, feel comfortable, and practice the expected responses before moving on to someone new. While this may take time, remember that this peer may grow to become a wonderful part of your home-based efforts.

4. Use evidence-based methods. Once you have identified teaching targets and potential peers for playdates, it is time to really get started! As exciting as this is, it is important to guide these social skills sessions by using evidence-based methods, choosing and measuring appropriate goals, individualizing those goals, and learning to teach them. Depending on the structure of your session and your child’s needs, these methods may take different forms, but generally should include the use of motivational systems (like token boards) and the use of systematically faded prompts to foster independence (e.g., removing your verbal prompt of “Hi” when your child sees his peer, as he is reliably saying “Hi” each time you use this prompt). Evidence-based methods also call for the collection of objective data to monitor progress (more on that below). If any of this sounds confusing or overwhelming, consult with your BCBA as you plan; ask for help from school staff; or find videos (such as Playdates: Real Life Tips for Kids with Autism or How to Plan a Successful Playdate for Your Child with Autism) of others using these techniques to bolster your skill set and help increase the effectiveness of your playdate program. Additional resources have been provided at the end of this article to support your program development

5. Ease into demands. Take care to ensure the social skills session is a positive experience; neither you, the peer, nor your child should feel overwhelmed with the plan. Working on a few goals effectively is better than attempting to conquer an overwhelming list of too many targets. When starting out, keep sessions very short and consider prompting more heavily for their success, so that your child gains confidence and comfort with his peers. Keep the rate of reinforcement very high in the beginning, and as your child and the peer demonstrate increased comfort and success, you can stretch out the requirements necessary for earning those intermittent rewards. Make every effort to end the session on a high note (e.g., a highly preferred activity for both the peer and your child, a video game, a make-your-own sundae activity).

6. Maximize motivation through preferred activities. 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 it. Taking turns in selecting activities or using a choice schedule of activities may help keep both children motivated to participate. If motivation is lacking, think of ways you might increase it by modifying session activities or implementing a reward system. Remember: have fun! It is important that joy is evident (smiles, laughter, silliness, or that the children are calm and engaged). If it is not, something should change. Stick to your plans and schedule but take opportunities to change things up if something is not working. If you planned a game of tag that is not working out, feel free to say “You know what? This isn’t super fun, is it? Let’s move on to the next thing in the schedule.” If the children agree, move on. But beware, you do not want to overdo this as it will degrade the worth of having the schedule in the first place. Instead of skipping an activity, try making it shorter, finding a silly way to get to the end faster, or pairing it with something fun or even a tasty treat alongside it.

7. Try using a reward system. Reward systems can take on many different forms (token boards, sticker charts, points), so consider what has motivated your child in the past. You might use small pieces of a favorite snack alongside tokens; provide access to a favorite toy; or use a token board where your child is given stickers for desired behavior. You may even have a group reward system where both children earn rewards for social interactions and prosocial behaviors, such as sharing, turn-taking, complimenting, waiting, etc. It is best to save these special snacks or other rewards for playdates only, as this will likely make your child more eager to earn them. Children do not always have to earn a specific thing; they could just earn a break. Locating a place to take a break on their own, or doing an isolated activity for a few moments, decompressing, breathing, etc., may be helpful. In the early stages, the effort needed to learn new skills may not be inherently rewarding, so the hope is that a reward system will maximize motivation and cooperation for your child and their play partner.

8. Provide effective prompting and support for ultimate independence: Prompt fading, reducing rewards, and considering using schedules. You and your BCBA, consulting professional, or certified school staff may decide that your child may require significant prompting initially, so think about how you can fade that assistance as your child’s skills improve. When your child demonstrates a target skill, provide a reward and praise for what was done correctly. As your child demonstrates these skills reliably with a certain level of help, you should fade your assistance until the child is ultimately independent. Similarly, as the child exhibits a skill with more ease, decrease how often that skill results in a reward. Eventually, the goal is for your child’s behavior to be rewarded by playing and talking with his friend, rather than your delivery of contrived rewards and praise.

Structure will help a social skills session move along efficiently and successfully. It also helps both children anticipate what will be happening and when, in what order. Therefore, it may be worthwhile to make a picture or textual schedule of activities to follow (Hampshire & Hourcade, 2014). You may also embed textual prompts for verbal exchanges in this schedule of activities or create a full script for your child to practice interacting with a peer. As your child learns, you can gradually fade out the schedule so that the social interactions become more natural.

9. Develop a plan for managing problematic behavior. If your child exhibits behaviors that may interfere with a successful social skills session, plan for how to manage these moments and be sure to follow through. This plan may be one that you are carrying over from what school staff do during the school day (a Behavior Intervention Plan, or BIP). It is important that this is discussed with your team, consultant, your spouse or partner, and any other members of your family that may take part. Your plan may include preventative strategies, such as limiting the duration of the playdate, using visual supports (e.g., the schedules described above), providing breaks, providing frequent rewards, or minimizing activities that are a source of frustration. Consistent consequences are essential to decrease disruptive behaviors and to help your child successfully relate to his peers

10. Collect data to monitor progress. Taking data on your child’s target skills (those identified earlier in this process) during social skills sessions is essential to monitoring progress (Barton & Pavilanis, 2012). 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 saying “Hi” to his peer after teaching this during several playdates, you may need to increase motivation; increase your level of assistance (such as providing a verbal model of the greeting); or consult with a BCBA for other suggestions.

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

   Leo’s Playdate Data Sheet                                                                         (Lostan, 2022)
Date: 1/25/20                  Peer: Carter
Greeting a peer: Leo will say, “Hi [peer’s name]” within 5 seconds of seeing the peer enter. + 1/1 = 100%
Responds to peer when name is called: Leo will turn and look at the peer within 5 seconds of the peer calling his name.
+ – – + – 2/5 = 40%
Takes turns with peer on iPad: Leo will set a timer for 2 minutes; engage with an iPad activity until the timer sounds; say, “Your turn” while delivering the iPad to the peer; sit and wait during the peer’s 2-minute turn without interruption; say, “My turn” when the timer sounds; and wait for the peer to hand over the iPad.
1. Sets timer +
2. Plays on iPad +
3. Stops timer +
4. “Your turn” – 5.
Delivers iPad to peer within 5 seconds –
6. Waits during peer’s turn +
7. “My turn” +
8. Waits for peer to give back iPad +
6/8 = 75%
Plays “Guess Who” with a peer using a visual guide/schedule: Leo will pick a card representing familiar characters and place it on his board without revealing the identity. He will then take turns asking questions and eliminating potential characters based on the peer’s response. When one character is left, he will ask, “Is your person [name]?”
1. Selects character +
2. Places on board without revealing identity +
3. Asks question –
4. Accurately knocks down eliminated characters +
5. Answers peer’s question accurately +
6. If one character remains, ask, “Is your person [name]?” +
5/6 = 83%
Participates in a 20-minute interaction in the absence of tantrum behavior (crying with no pain/injury or throwing items on the floor).
+ + + + + + + + + + – – – – – + + + + + 15/20 minutes = 75%

About the Authors:

Caitlin Reilly Lostan, PsyD, BCBA, NCSP is a NJ licensed psychologist, board certified behavior analyst, and NJ-licensed/nationally certified school psychologist. Dr. Lostan obtained her MA in psychology in education from Columbia University, and her PsyD in school psychology at Fairleigh Dickinson University. Dr. Lostan’s dissertation focused on the components that contribute to autism awareness. She is the founder and director of Breakthrough Learning Group, a pediatric therapy practice providing ABA and psychological services for young children.   

Marcia Questel is a BCBA with a Master’s degree in Special Education (Concentration – Autism) and Graduate Certificate in Applied Behavior Analysis from Long Island University. She obtained her Bachelor’s degree in Developmental Psychology with a focus on autism and other developmental disorders, where her passion for researching executive functioning (EF) and Theory of Mind  (ToM) began. Her journey in this field started 20 years ago while volunteering in an early intervention center. It was at that time that autism became a part of her and her family’s lives, with a family member’s diagnosis. Since then, 3 other members of her extended family have received diagnoses of autism, and she has remained dedicated to the autism community. Previously, Marcia provided 1:1 instruction, managed an autism center in New York, and taught piano to children with autism and their siblings. Marcia is currently working in private practice, providing consultation to families and school faculty, and is a Content Editor for ASAT’s monthly publication, Science in Autism Treatment. She is also the Externship Co-Coordinator for ASAT. In response to the current climate, she is conducting research regarding access to telehealth during the COVID-19 pandemic, engaging in telehealth and in-person services through ABAskills, LLC, and is creating supportive content for parents and professionals. Marcia is also a research assistant at the Affect Regulation and Cognition (ARC) Lab at Yale University. 


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Lostan, C., & Questel, M. (2022). Clinical Corner: How can I structure playdates for success? Science in Autism Treatment, 19(5).

Posted in ABA

Ideas for Interactive Play for Learning

By Sam Blanco, PhD, LBA, BCBA

Creating opportunities for interactions is key when working with any child, but it is especially important when working with children with autism. ABA often gets a bad rap for being staid or leaving a kid stuck at a table doing discrete trials for hours on end. In reality, it should be neither! While I do discrete trials in my practice, my biggest priority is always focused on increasing learning opportunities by taking advantage of the child’s natural motivations. This typically means leaving the table, so I alternate between discrete trials and lots of teaching through games and activities. Here are a few of my favorites:

Toss & Talk

For this activity, I usually use a large ball, a soft ring, or something else the child can toss. I name a category, and we take turns tossing the ball (or other item) and naming an item from that category. The game can be easily modified for whatever you’re working on: counting, skip counting, or even vocal imitation. I like the game because it’s simple, it provide a back-and-forth that is similar to a conversation, and it can easily be modified to include peers, siblings, or parents. This is particularly great if your learner likes throwing balls, but I’ve also modified it to push a train back and forth or take turns hopping towards one another.

Play Dough Snake

This game is one I saw a preschool teacher use years ago and have had great success with. In this game, I simply create a snake out of play dough. I make a large opening for the snake’s mouth, then roll up little balls of dough that will be “food.” I tell the child that we are going to pretend the play dough is food. I have a silly snake voice, and I tell the child “I’m so hungry. Do you have something I can eat?” The child picks up a piece of the rolled-up play dough, tells me what kind of food it is, and then feeds it to the snake. I pretend to love it, and the little ball of play dough becomes incorporated into the snake’s play dough body (which is great, because the more “food” the snake eats the bigger it gets.)

I can expand the game to have the snake dislike certain foods or tell the child he is too full. On several occasions, the learner has asked if they can be the snake, which is fantastic! This is another great game for peer play, sibling play, and modeling.

Pete’s A Pizza/You’re A Pizza

One of my favorite books for young learners is Pete’s A Pizza by William Steig. In this book, it’s a rainy day and Pete’s parents entertain him by pretending they are making him into a pizza: they roll up the “dough,” toss him in the air, add toppings, etc.

This is another game I saw a preschool teacher using during play time, and one I’ve used with many, many students. Sometimes I read the book beforehand, but if my learner’s level of comprehension or attention span is not appropriate for the book, I can just introduce it as a standalone game. I say, “It’s time to make a pizza!” Then, we get into the fun part of rolling the learner around, tossing him on a couch or mat, etc. This can generate a lot of language, work on sequencing, and provide a lot of opportunity for requesting activities.

Anything with a Parachute

My parachute is one of my best purchases of all time. I use it often and it allows me to play a wide range of games. Besides just having the learner lay on the floor and have the parachute float down onto his/her body, it is a highly motivating toy for a range of activities. Many of my learners love just pulling that large item out of its small bag. I’ve already written about three games I frequently play with the parachute. You can see that here.


Repeating rhymes and songs with motions that your learner loves can provide anticipation of an activity that may increase eye contact and manding. One of my favorites is shown in a video here. While this video is shown with toddlers, I’ve used it with kids up to 6 or 7 years old. Similar activities might include Going on a Bear Hunt; Heads, Shoulders, Knees, and Toes; and Animal Action.

It’s important to note that none of these activities is beloved by every learner I encounter. The idea is to have a range of possible activities to learn which ones are motivating to your learner, then use those to create opportunities for language and interaction.

About the Author: Sam Blanco, PhD, LBA, BCBA is an ABA provider for students ages 3-15 in NYC. Working in education for sixteen years with students with Autism Spectrum Disorders and other developmental delays, Sam utilizes strategies for achieving a multitude of academic, behavior, and social goals. She is also an assistant professor in the ABA program at The Sage Colleges, and she is the Senior Clinical Strategist at Chorus Software Solutions.

Posted in ABA