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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Citation for this article:

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

Adapting Swim Lessons for ASD Learners

By Jen Knott, BS Recreation Therapy

Swimming is a whole-body skill and oftentimes challenging for individuals with autism to master. It requires the use of your arms, legs, core, breathing, spatial awareness, sensory regulation, as well as strength, endurance, motor planning and coordination.

When designing swim lessons for swimmers with autism, working on all the skills listed above via structured activities allows the swimmer to enhance their brain/body connection in many different movements. This approach assists in skill mastery at a faster rate. Specifically, it allows the individual to practice motor planning and strengthening skills such as crossing midline, coordinating arms and legs at the same time, and using arms in a reciprocal motion.

The more individualized, creative, and motivating you can make the activity, the better! Below are some specific actions that can be taken to help acclimate your autistic learner to the basics of swimming!

For example, floating in supine position (on your back) is an essential safety skill that all swimmers should learn. There are many creative ideas to work on this skill, and some can even be done at home! Laying on your back can be an unpreferred skill at home and while sleeping due to the changes in the position in the inner ear. Floating can feel very different to swimmers with autism and they often demonstrate a resistance to the position. Taking small steps in a variety of settings to introduce this skill is key.

  • Laying on your back on the bed, floor, or couch provides a similar feeling to floating with support.
  • Having a child’s head slightly off the couch or bed can also provide the feeling of floating and locating their body in space.
  • In the bathtub you can work on this skill by having swimmers lay on their backs while putting their head back in the water or looking up at the ceiling. This can be done while seated or lying down, any progress is a step in the right direction.
  • Placing one ear at a time in the water can be helpful to slowly introduce the feeling of the water.  We often use songs like Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star, Humpty Dumpty, and counting to assist in distraction from the water in ears and also provide a clear ending to the skill when the song ends or counting reaches 10.
  • You can also place items on the swimmer’s stomach for postural and tactile support that provides input and focus for the swimmer on something other than the feeling of the water in their ears.  
  • In the pool, start with laying in a zero depth entry pool at the entrance, move to looking up in a seated position, and then transitioning to a supine position over time can help ease into it. Often having a hard, grounding surface beneath them can provide the feedback needed, to make the position more comfortable.  
  • Mats, noodles, floatation devices, and neck floats are a few examples of equipment that can be used to assist in floating in the supine position.  
  • Swimmers can also hold onto the side of the pool and work on looking up at the ceiling or preferred object. Allowing the swimmer to control the speed and amount of water they place their head in can give a sense of control and comfort.
  • This can then be shaped into leaning back to place their head on parents or instructors shoulder, providing support at the lower back, shoulders, and head. Fading support is important when the swimmer is ready, providing support just at shoulders and head, then just the head, then independently floating!

These techniques can also be used for submerging under water and floating in prone (on your stomach) position, taking it slow, using motivating items to look for under the water, slowly introducing water to body parts, singing songs or counting, providing tactile support and fading it out when the swimmer is ready. Other activity ideas to complete in the water to develop and practice planning and strengthening skills would be jumping jacks, toe touches, jumping and splashing at same time, swinging a tennis racket or barbell across midline under water, reaching across body or reciprocally overhead for items, and pushing barbells reciprocally. Providing adaptations, creativity, and flexibility is key in all swim sessions for success. Using motivating items, playing games, providing a picture schedule, video modeling, accommodating for any sensory needs, and making the skills fun can help your swimmer succeed with even the most challenging swim skills! 

Jen Knott, CTRS (Certified Therapeutic Recreation Specialist)

Jennifer is a graduate of Kent State University with a degree in Leisure Studies, with a concentration in Recreation Therapy and a minor in Psychology. Jennifer began Rec2Connect in 2009 with 2 clients. She launched the Rec2Connect Foundation in 2014. Her previous experience includes: Classroom Behavior Therapist at Cleveland Clinic Center for Autism, Job coach at Goodwill Industries, Volunteer in Aquatic Therapy at Hattie Larlham in the Physical Therapy Department and Recreation Therapist at the Cleveland Clinic.

Posted in ABA

One Autistic BCBA’s Perspective on ABA

By: Michelle Zeman, MA, BCBA

Board Certified Behavior Analysts (BCBAs) often work with the Autistic community. However, you may not often run into an Autistic BCBA. There are Autistic BCBAs who support and have a career in Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA), and as one I would like to share my perspective.

This field gets a bad reputation for many reasons. It’s claimed that ABA “masks Autistic behaviors” as well as “teaches children to be robots”. I hate the reputation that proceeds today’s ABA; however, if you look back at how ABA was conducted in the 1960s, there’s enough rationale to support.  We must condemn the actions of rigid and uncompromising ABA while changing current stands, as I attempt to do in my practice. Therefore, my perception of ABA is taken into 3 points: (1) using a trauma-informed lens, (2) actively listening and validating our clients, (3) individualizing care.

  1. When we use a trauma-informed lens, it means that we are not just looking at behaviors from the 4 functions. Rather, we look at behaviors that happened because of traumatic experiences. In my own life, I got into a car accident when I was 16 years old. I was already semi-emotional, and I was driving in the rain (it was sprinkling). I was turning left at a green light and overcorrected, thus hitting another car. I was so traumatized by the experience that I couldn’t stand the thought of going behind the wheel for 4 years. What motivated me to get behind the wheel again was the fact that I was sick and tired of my mom and my friends having to drive me around. If anyone would have forced me to comply by making me drive from place to place, there’s a not insignificant  chance that another car accident would take place. Likewise, when we force clients to attempt things they are not ready for, we risk traumatizing them.
  2. Active listening and validating our clients, as well as their caregivers, is vital in this field. Practitioners are not always right (even Autistic ones!), and we must approach in situation with humility and compassion. RBTs implement ABA therapy at their full ABA therapy hours. BCBAs go out anywhere between 5 and 20% of an RBT’s direct therapy hours per month. Then, we have our caregivers, who are with the client when we are not. When emphasizing compliance over collaboration, active listening and validation is thrown to the wayside. We have many elements that we must consider when implementing services, such as trauma, culture, environment, and feasibility of interventions. If we run into issues, we accommodate while doing our due diligence.
  3. Perhaps the third point is the most important – individualizing care. When I was a Clinical Director, I was strict when report reviews. However, I was strict because I wanted to make my analysts place themselves in their client’s shoes. For instance, I have seen vocal and motor stereotypy in several reports with a function of automatic reinforcement. Granted, each of these behaviors are different across each client we work with, but I still ask for rationale for how these behaviors are socially significant to reduce. If I notice the rationale does not fit the criteria, I will say “remove this behavior as it is not socially significant, does not impede the client’s ability to access contingencies, and it is not harmful to themselves or others”. I’ve also had clients ask me to write in specific goals they want to work on in their treatment plans too – for instance, I had a client who told me “Michelle, I want to work on becoming organized.” I wrote in a goal that fit the medical necessity model, but also targeted what the client wanted to work on.

These 3 areas have shaped me into the BCBA that I strive to be. Though I am one Autistic human being, I strive to ensure that I can be a compassionate practitioner. That’s what our clients deserve.

About the Author:

Michelle Zeman, MA, BCBA is an Autistic Board Certified Behavior Analyst based out of Orlando, FL. She has been in the field since 2013, and a BCBA since 2016. She has worked with Autistic clients between ages 2-17, providing client-centered, trauma-informed, and compassionate care to all families. Michelle has worked in-home, in school, in center, and in the community with clients to help achieve her clients’ goals. In her free time, Michelle likes to spend time with her two pugs (Milo and George), ride rollercoasters, go to drag shows, and binge watch RuPaul’s Drag Race.

Posted in ABA

Crafting Connections

By: Tameika Meadows, BCBA from I Love ABA

Impairments in social communication are a key deficit of Autism, and can be seen across the varying range of the spectrum.

Social communication is a big word that can include many difficulties, such as making friends, maintaining friendships, being appropriate near peers, sharing or turntaking, empathy or perspective taking, initiating peer play, joining ongoing peer play, responding to peers, self-advocacy, conflict-resolution, getting AND keeping a job, etc. 
When clinicians throw around the term “social skills”, we are really talking about a lottttt of skills!

Some people have the mistaken belief that ABA therapy only focuses on 1:1 instruction, and therefore isn’t appropriate to target peer social interaction. Nope, not true.
ABA therapy can absolutely include targeted social skills instruction. Depending on the age of the learner and their specific social deficits, that will impact how social goals are assessed and selected. 

Parents of very young children usually want to work on: sharing, playing with peers instead of isolating, playing with toys instead of hoarding toys, reducing aggression towards peers, etc.

Parents of teens or young adults usually want to work on: initiating conversation, increasing MLU (jargon translation= you want your child to use more than 1-2 words to make a statement or answer a question), buying items in the community, talking to community helpers (e.g. a police officer), going on job interviews, assertiveness, dating, etc.

There are also many ABA programs that offer formal social skill groups to families, where learners are grouped together based on interests, abilities, age, or other factors, to participate in games and activities as a group. But the games are far more than just “games”, they are actually carefully designed to target specific social skill deficits. If you are already receiving ABA therapy services, ask if your child can participate in a social group with other clients.

Behavior Analysis has many empirically validated strategies to add to the social skills conversation, and also (depending on the funding source) the ABA provider can target social skills in a group format, at school, or out in the community, to ensure proper generalization. For example:

  • Reinforcement for the win! Social skills training should include reinforcement individualized to the learner, and also should work to pair (transfer) reinforcement to peers, as pre-intervention the learner may not find interacting with peers to be all that fun ;-(
  • Data collection. If no one is collecting data, reviewing that data, and evaluating that data to make treatment decisions then what is happening is not ABA.
  • Generalization. Also known as, “real life”. Learning social skills in the ABA clinic, or at school, or on the playground, will not necessarily generalize to other settings and other kids. Intentional generalization into real-world, real life scenarios is a must.
  • Structure. This may sound weird, but it does NOT mean that the learner must do the same thing, in the same order, for each peer interaction. It means that the learner should be able to predict what will happen in social group today, they know the rules of social group, and they understand what rewards they contact during social group. These things should be somewhat predictable, from the perspective of the learner.
  • Break down concepts visually or tangibly. Help learners understand abstract concepts through video modeling, games, visuals, or manipulatives, that they can touch, see, etc.
  • Follow an evidence based curriculum…..just not too closely. While it is important to have a tool to create the lesson plan for social instruction, I’d also recommend individualizing the curriculum as much as possible across learners. Modifying the curriculum to make the content more relevant to the learner will go a long way to helping social instruction gains “stick”, and be salient for the individual receiving intervention.
  • Behavior management. So obviously, challenging or disruptive behaviors will interfere with learning during social interaction time. These behaviors can also frighten, intimidate, or confuse other peers present, which works against the goal of interacting with peers. This is why ABA providers are a qualified to implement these kinds of interventions, because we already have the tools to decrease inappropriate behaviors and increase appropriate behaviors, and keep the social interaction on track.


Mission Cognition
Crafting Connections (I love this book!)
Social Skills Training for Youth with Autism Spectrum Disorders, Otero, Tiffany L. et al. Child and Adolescent Psychiatric Clinics, Volume 24, Issue 1, 99 – 115
A Review of Peer-Mediated Social Interaction Interventions for Students with Autism in Inclusive Settings, Watkins, L., O’Reilly, M., Kuhn, M. et al. J Autism Dev Disord (2015) 45: 1070
Making & Keeping Friends
Baker, J.E. (2004). Social Skills Training: For Children and Adolescents with Asperger Syndrome and Social-Communication Problems. Shawnee Mission, KS: Autism Asperger Publishing Co.


About The Author: Tameika Meadows, BCBA

“I’ve been providing ABA therapy services to young children with Autism since early 2003. My career in ABA began when I stumbled upon a flyer on my college campus for what I assumed was a babysitting job. The job turned out to be an entry level ABA therapy position working with an adorable little boy with Autism. This would prove to be the unplanned beginning of a passionate career for me.

From those early days in the field, I am now an author, blogger, Consultant/Supervisor, and I regularly lead intensive training sessions for ABA staff and parents. If you are interested in my consultation services, or just have questions about the blog: contact me here.”

This piece originally appeared at www.iloveaba.com

Posted in ABA

Self Care for Moms

By Leanne Page; originally posted on Parenting with ABA

When you hear the words “self-care”, what is your reaction? A sigh of relief? Rolling your eyes as it feels like just ONE. MORE. THING.?

As a busy mom, we’ve all heard the expression to put your own oxygen mask on first. But when are we supposed to do that?

Self-care doesn’t have to mean bubble baths and beverages. It doesn’t have to mean shopping or pedicures. So what the heck does it mean then?

The World Health Organization defines self-care as “the ability of individuals, families and communities to promote health, prevent disease, maintain health, and to cope with illness and disability with or without the support of a healthcare provider”.

And the American Psychological Association says “Self-care has been defined as providing adequate attention to one’s own physical and psychological wellness. Beyond being an aspirational goal, engaging in self-care has been described as an “ethical imperative”.”

Self care means paying attention to your own wellness- emotional, physical, and psychological. How are YOU doing right now? And the question you’ve heard me encourage you to use before- 6 little magic word: What do you need right now?

Quick and easy ways to improve your physical self-care:

  • Drink more water. Make this easier by using habit stacking. This means take an existing habit and add the step of drinking a glass of water on top of it. In ABA speak, the existing habit becomes the SD for drinking water. When I turn on my coffee maker in the morning, I drink a big glass of water while the coffee machine heats up.
  • Sleep hygiene. Turn off screens earlier in the evening. Go to bed earlier. Remove distractions. Journal before bed. Whatever works for you to promote good sleep!
  • Eat healthy. Instead of focusing on removing certain foods from your diet, just add in one healthy thing a day- like a fruit or vegetable. Habit stack by adding a piece of fruit to your afternoon cup of coffee, tea, or water.

Quick and easy ways to work on your emotional & psychological self-care:

  • Gratitude practice. There is SO much research on the benefits of gratitude practice for your mental health. This doesn’t have to be time consuming or involved. Habit stack by thinking about one thing you are grateful for every time you brush your teeth. Or ask every member of your family what they are grateful for each day (or call it a happy thing or a good thing) every time you all sit down at the kitchen table together.
  • Insert a pause. Just a simple pause throughout your day can help! When you are starting to feel emotionally heightened, pause and take some deep breaths. Insert this pause before you react to your kids or something else. Just giving yourself that moment to breathe and collect your thoughts can be wonderful for your self-care!
  • Schedule alone time. Work with your partner or support system to have a standing date with yourself on the calendar. It may be 20 minutes to sit on the back porch or an hour on the weekend to go to a yoga class. Whatever works for you! Put it on your calendar and treat it like an important appointment. It is important!

If you like bubble baths and wine- feel free to use it for your self-care. But that’s not all that matters! What matters is that you find a way to give yourself a little breather from the mental load of motherhood.

Prioritize yourself- even just in small increments. Learn something new, try a new hobby, read a book, exercise. Find what works for YOU and schedule time for it. Guard that time as an important appointment because you are worth it.

What small ways can you incorporate more self care into your days this week?? Try something and let me know how it goes!

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.

Special Needs Registries to Inform First Responders

By: Cassie Hauschildt

When a child is diagnosed with autism, there are a number of resources, therapies, and programs recommended  to parents. They are told all about ABA, ST, OT, PT, and FT, among others, receiving an alphabet soup of therapies. We explain the importance of early intervention. For parents of older children or teens, they learn how to navigate the school system with BIPs, IEPs, ARDs, and more. They begin to understand the behaviors of their children in a new light, and may even gain a few new fears from behaviors of other children. They learn the proper term for eloping and steps to take to help prevent sensory overload. And while many behaviors are explained, it also becomes obvious that there is not an immediate fix for many of them.

One service that professionals may not tell parents  about at the time of diagnosis is their local police department’s registry program for individuals on the Autism Spectrum (along with other disorders or special needs). However, if this is a service is available to them, it could help alleviate many of the concerns that come along with an autism diagnosis. This free and essential service is often not openly advertised to the public, but rather, lives on a corner of their local webpage. Some don’t even have an obvious link on the homepage, requiring citizens to use the search function in order to get their child included on the list. This service can have a variety of names, including but not limited to: “Safe Return Program,” “[Autism and] Special Needs Registry,” “C.A.R.E.S,” and “Voluntary Registry Program for Vulnerable Populations.”

Registering your ASD Child for this program will create a note associated with your home address in the local police’s internal system. This can help participants in multiple ways. First, if there is ever an officer dispatched to your home, they will be alerted that an ASD individual lives in the home and be prepared to accommodate that person’s needs. Additionally, if a child was to elope, many programs have the option to upload a recent photo. This will make it easier for law enforcement to distribute the child’s picture quickly. For some cities, , this information could also be shared with the any firefighters or paramedics sent to the home by the dispatch team.

The method for finding if your local police department offers this program will differ depending on your city. The best start is to try searching “[CITY NAME] Special Needs Registry” on a search engine such as Google. If this doesn’t work, you may have to do some detective work on the local police website. When trying to find this program locally, I had to find the “Community Programs” tab on the menu bar of the police website.

Each program will require different information to register. At a base, caregivers should expect to provide name, address, diagnosis, and physical description of the registrant as well as the contact information for all caregivers. If the registrant is able to drive, information about their primary vehicle will also be required. Any additional required information will vary depending on the local program. Some require a doctor’s letter proving diagnosis, others ask for a recent picture, and other ask for communication methods and support items.

If you find that your local police department doesn’t have a program, consider approaching them about implementing one. With the updated CDC estimate of 1 in 44 children getting diagnosed with autism, it is almost guaranteed that this program will be useful to more than just you. Additionally, these programs can be utilized for individuals with Alzheimer’s, Dementia, Down Syndrome, and many other special needs. BCBAs and Educators are the perfect individuals to partner with  police on  program parameters. Additionally, it’s a great opportunity to broach your local police department  about training for interacting with ASD individuals.

Cassie Hauschildt received her autism diagnosis at 32 years of age and is the mother of an ASD son, who was diagnosed at 20 months old. Since his diagnosis, she has become an advocate for ASD children. She dedicates her time to mentoring parents of ASD kids through the tough first few months post-diagnosis. She also is trying to get rid of the negativity surrounding ABA therapy. She does this through humor, while using real talk, on her TikTok @AnotherAutismMom. She also runs the “Dino and Nuggets Corner” Facebook Group.

Getting Pronouns off the Ground

By Alan Schnee, Ph.D, BCBA-D.

Roughly 34% of the 50 most common words used in English are pronouns. Yet, with few exceptions, children on the spectrum struggle to use them.

Why is it so difficult for children to learn? One likely reason is that the use of pronouns is contextually determined. Learning to use them requires vigilant tracking across shifting speakers and listeners (you, I, they, he, she, Ralph, etc.), and shifting events. It is a complex process requiring acute attention to who is in possession of what, changes in possession, attention to who did or said what,  and who did or said what to whom, etc. If our goal is to assist in teaching children to use and respond appropriately to pronouns, where should we begin?

First, we need to clear up some confusion Pronouns are words that stand in for nouns. Though it is commonly said that we ‘tact pronouns’, saying this lacks sense. Pronouns are not objects or events or properties of an object or event. They are simply words. They exist in language and are used within a normative linguistic practice. There are no pronouns in the world and thus it makes no sense to say we “tact” them.

When it comes to learning pronouns, children need to learn the complicated things we do when we use them; under which circumstances we use which one(s) and the ‘linguistic acrobatics’ required for fluent use. So, for example, when a child is told to, “Go tell Mommy that you need her keys, they need to be able to formulate the response,  “Mommy, I want your keys”.

Teaching pronouns needs to be taken slowly and requires considerable practice (repetition). It requires getting rudiments in place before tackling more complex arrangements and objectives.

Early pronoun exercises quickly become far more complex as ‘transformations’ are required. For example, a standard “My/Your program”, (teacher says, “Touch my nose or touch your nose”) requires learning a straightforward discrimination. However, once a follow-up question such as “Whose nose is this?”, is presented, things become very difficult for children since they need to switch their response such that what was just “my” becomes “your” and visa versa. Instruction in the use of pronouns requires meticulous execution of discrete trials. Additionally, echoic prompting is contra-indicated. Children will need to learn to respond to a “say” instruction. The exercise below, taken from Lund and Schnee (2018) illustrates just how complicated teaching use of pronouns can be.

Nominal Pronouns (4): Shifting speakers

(This sample exercise follows more basic ‘pronoun’ exercises.)


To teach the child to use nominative pronouns “I” and “You”, combined with proper names

Set Up

Three or more persons required

Have the child hold an object (e.g. cup)  and you and an assistant each hold different objects. You and the assistant   rotate asking.


Step one: You and assistant rotate asking, “Who has the  “X” (e.g. cup) vs “Who has “Y” (e.g. ball), “Who has “Z” (e.g. spoon). When you ask questions regarding the assistant, the child refers to her by name.  When you are the spectator and the assistant is asking questions ,the child will refer to you by your proper name and the assistant as “you”.  Of course the child always refers to themselves as “I” and when you are asking, the child refers to “you” as “you”.

Step two: You or assistant ask the child “What do you have” , “What do I have”, “What does (person/proper name have?)”.

Prompt correct responses according to who is in possession of each object, i.e, I have the X or You have Y, ‘Proper name’ (Sally) has Z . This is more difficult than step one because if requires transforming the pronoun. Make sure to change what each of you is holding so that the child will not memorize responses.

– This exercise is not only matter of answering questions. It entails personal deixis; the right answer depends on who is asking. The primary goal is to teach the child to say “you” when the speaker asks the child what the speaker is holding, to say “I” when the speakers asks about what the child is holding and to use a proper name when the child is asked about what any other person is holding (if that person is not the speaker). This discrimination requires considerable practice.

If the child struggles with these arrangements, segment instruction into smaller ‘switched’ sequences as described in step 3 of Assigning Pronouns to Pictures of Persons 1.

Alan Schnee, Ph.D, BCBA-D. offers consultations to families, schools, and other organizations wishing to enhance their programs so that their children derive maximum benefit from services. His unique approach increases learning efficiencies, broadens the scope, depth, and breadth of your program, provides clarity for children and teachers and imparts sensible purpose and directions to teams and parents.

Posted in ABA

Autism Early Intervention and Joint Attention

By: Rose Griffin, SLP, BCBA

There is a strong bond between joint attention and both receptive and expressive language skills. When we work on joint attention, we are showing that our learners’ communication is powerful! I am sharing a few tips and ideas that I use to build connection before communication while working on joint attention goals.

These activities involve shared activities through playing with toys, singing songs, and reading books. It is okay if your student isn’t ready to fully engage when you introduce these activities, note their baseline data and move forward with goals. You will be amazed to see the transformation and excitement over these simple activities.


Playing with toys in therapy is all about creating an interaction in a semi-structured environment. Remember to use simple language and allow for natural curiosity and play and not bombard with questions. 

Examples of toys I love to use:

  • Car and car track
  • Mini Objects
  • Farm Set


Build excitement around the book, use books with repetition, and if your kids like it try an animated voice which can be really fun.

A few books I love to keep in my therapy bag that are a great success for joint attention are, Pete the Cat and his White Shoes, Brown Bear, The Very Hungry Caterpillar, and Chicka Chicka Boom Boom.


Students love songs, they are familiar, and create engagement. I also love to use visuals that can be just laminated pictures or little toys that match the activity of the song. It can also be engaging to sing songs that have motions for the words.

Songs I love:

  • Old Macdonald
  • Wheels on the Bus
  • Head, Shoulders, Knees, and Toes

It can be difficult to keep data and set goals around these abstract ideas, be sure to check out my goal bank on ABA speech. I hope you love these ideas and get use out of them in your next therapy session! 

Rose 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

Spotlight: Responsible & Responsive Parenting in Autism: Between Now and Dreams

By: Shahla Ala’i-Rosales and Peggy Heinkel-Wolfe

At one time there were very few avenues available to the increasing number of families receiving autism diagnoses for their children. In the 1960s experimental psychologists took a new direction to improve the quality of life for people on the autism spectrum and their families.  Their work in behavior intervention began as a treatment for people society had neglected.  Little did they know that it created a market.

Their success resulted in a new way of approaching autism that can bring lasting change when services are delivered with intention, skill, effort, and love. Today, autism services are widely available. These services have also become a multi-billion-dollar industry, where a child’s disability risks becoming a business opportunity.

But we can minimize that risk. First, we can ground ourselves in ethical principles and the science of learning. Then, we can remember the power that families have had all along: love. Responsible and Responsive Parenting in Autism: Between Now and Dreams offers timeless guidance as it answers three essential questions: What do you need to know? Who will help you? How can love be your compass?

Prior to the publication of this book, the authors have been friends, colleagues, and allies for 30 years. Shahla’s expertise as an applied behavior analyst and years of clinical work inform this book. Peggy is the author of See Sam Run: a mother’s memoir of autism, winner of a Mayborn Nonfiction Prize.

Together, they have collected meaningful stories from their own experiences and from others on the journey. The stories focus on how family members can understand the scientific principles behind autism services, how parents and professionals can best help and respond to their child and each other, and how they can bring meaning to all of their interactions.

All parents have a responsibility to raise their children with autism as best they can. Parents cannot sidestep this journey. This work is part of how we all develop as humans—nurturing children in ways that honor their humanity and invite full, rich lives. Between Now and Dreams provides the roadmap for a joyful and sustainable journey. The essence of this journey relies on three powers; learning, connecting, and loving. Each power informs the other. Each amplifies the other. And each power is essential for meaningful and courageous parenting.

Shahla Ala’i-Rosales is an Associate Professor int he Department of Behavior Analysis at the University of North Texas. She has taught courses on ethics, early autism intervention, parent training, behavioral systems, applied research methods, technology transfer, and behavior change techniques. She has served on several boards and disciplinary committees and has published and presented research on social justice, ethics in early intervention, play and social skills, family harmony, and supervision and mentoring. Shahla has more than four decades of experience working with families and has trained hundreds of behavior analysts. She has received awards for her teaching, her work with families, and for her work in the community.

Peggy Heinkel-Wofle‘s first book, See Sam Run, a mother’s story of autism, was originally published in 2008 by the University of North Texas Press. The book’s manuscript won the Mayborn Prize for Literacy Nonfiction in 2005. For more than a decade, she has been exploring themes in autism parenting and self-determination on her blog, peggyheinkelwolfe.com. An award-winning writer and journalist, Peggy holds a master’s degree in journalism from the University of North Texas and a master’s degree in music performance from the Eastman School of Music.

Posted in ABA