ABA Teaching Methods for Children with Autism

Children with autism are a diverse and complex group. Each individual child has unique and specific needs and skills. Given the variety of strengths and deficits, it would be foolish of special educators to think that any one teaching method would be appropriate for every child or every skill to be taught.

However, diligent basic and applied behavior analytic researchers have provided the field of special education with a wealth of ABA-based teaching strategies and methods. It is the job of the special educator to be competent in a variety of research-based teaching strategies so that she or he can use these tools to best serve the many facets of need that each individual student with autism presents.

ABA-Based Teaching Methods: The following teaching methods can be employed from a behavior analytic foundation that focuses on useful data collection and analysis, implementation of ABA principles (e.g., positive reinforcement, extinction, etc.), and focusing on incremental skills until a child demonstrates mastery (e.g., reliably demonstrates the skill following the prescribed SD, generalizes skill to other/novel people, places, materials, and maintains the skill over time).


  • What is DTT? Discrete Trial Teaching, in its original form, is a teaching format used by Ivar Lovaas to teach young children with autism. Lovaas carried out a research project and later published the treatment protocol in the book, Teaching Developmentally Disabled Children: The Me Book (Lovaas, Akerman, Alexander, Firestone, Perkins, Young, Carr, & Newsom, 1981 & 2003). DTT is a scripted teaching method with several key components that break skills into small components. DTT relies heavily on data collection and analysis in making programming decisions.
  • While many opponents argue that DTT produces rigid behavior and is only implemented in very contrived and unnatural settings, this is not true. DTT has been the focus of countless research projects revealing it to be an essential and effective method for increasing skills in children with autism. DTT is primarily implemented in structured settings, but a good ABA-based program will take into account the inherent drawbacks of highly structured DTT and adapt or supplement as necessary to produce lasting and useful results.


What is AVB? AVB is a variation on DTT and is based on the principles of behavior analysis. In fact, AVB uses almost all of the same techniques and strategies, including some drill-type instruction, as in DTT. The primary difference is that AVB is based on a behavioral analysis of language and the classification system provided by B. F. Skinner in 1957. Applied behavior analysts, such as Dr. Carbone, Dr. Partington, and Dr. Sundberg, have worked to create a behavior analytic teaching method based on Skinner’s analysis of language.

The primary focus in an AVB program is to identify the functional language deficits in a child with autism and teach appropriate skills that address the motivation and natural controls related to the different types of verbal behavior. AVB uses the classification system developed by Skinner (1957) and teaches verbal skills from a functional framework. The main three types of verbal behaviors are identified as: mands, tacts, and intraverbals. Strict AVB practitioners advocate only using vocal or sign language. However, the AVB approach can be successfully implemented for individual with no vocal abilities and those using PECS and other augmentative communication.

Other Important Components/Considerations Related to AVB: Similar to the logistics related to DTT, with the exception of delivering reinforcers. In an AVB teaching situation the reinforcer delivered is functionally related to the type of response the child produced. Edibles and toys are often used for early learners, or very difficult responses, but are faded to the natural reinforcers that should functionally maintain the specific type of response.


  • What is PRT? PRT is generally described as a naturalistic teaching method that was developed by Robert L. Koegel & Laura Schreibman. PRT, like DTT, is based on the principles of behavior analysis. While there are significantly fewer research studies focusing on PRT, the research to date suggests that PRT can be an effective way to teach and increase skills for individuals with autism.
  • PRT is based on teaching and increasing “pivotal” behaviors. Pivotal behaviors are those that are central to a broad area of functioning and effect widespread positive changes on other corollary behaviors.
  • Researchers have identified motivation and responsivity to multiple cues as the main pivotal behaviors of focus for children with autism. Increasing a child’s motivation and ability to respond to a variety of cues may have sweeping effects on others areas of the child’s development.
  • PRT focuses on increasing motivation by using child-directed activities and interactions. PRT works on increasing responsivity to multiple cues by using the natural environment and those materials found in the natural environments.
  • PRT is frequently set up to be implemented by parents, caregivers, siblings, or peers.


  • What is NET/Incidental Teaching? NET and Incidental Teaching both provide structured learning opportunities within the natural context or naturally occurring activities by using the student’s interests and natural motivation. The focus is to capitalize on naturally occurring opportunities where the student is inherently motivated. Another key aspect of NET/Incidental teaching is that instruction occurs in the setting when the skill will naturally occur, not a separate instructional setting. Finally, NET/Incidental Teaching is child-directed, not instructor oriented.
  • While NET/Incidental Teaching both strive to use naturally occurring opportunities, solely relying on situations as they present themselves can severely limit the number of learning opportunities available. Therefore, it is common, as with PRT, to set up, or contrive, situations. This is always done within an activity for which the response would be considered natural and appropriate. For example: if you are teaching a student to request “help” you might purposefully place items out of reach, put lids on too tight, present broken materials, etc. So, unlike DTT, and early AVB, the instruction does not occur in isolation with many learning trials stacked together.


  • What You Should Notice: It should be clear that no single teaching strategy or method addresses all of the critical areas of instruction. Therefore, it is essential that effective ABA-based teaching programs for individuals with autism be an individualized blend of the appropriate teaching methods for given skills sets and deficits.

  • Methods for Teaching Skills & Tasks: In addition to the different ABA-based teaching methods available to teachers, there are several different approaches to teaching skills and tasks. While DTT, AVB and PRT typically address very small units of learning; other skills and tasks may require a different approach. Each approach below can be taught using the framework of the teaching methods described above.

  • Shaping: This involves accepting and reinforcing approximations of the target response and then successively increasing the response requirements until the child is able to engage in the final target response. This strategy is particularly useful for students who have difficulty engaging in the target response. For example: an instructor might shape verbal requesting by accepting an initial sound (e.g., “b”) for the item (e.g., “ball) and then systematically increasing the response requirement to “ba,” then “ba”+‘l.” then “baaa”+”l,” and finally requiring “ball.”

  • Chaining: A behavior chain is a sequence of single behaviors that, when linked, achieve a particular goal (e.g., tying shoes, washing hands, etc.). Completing each single unit serves as a reinforcer for having completed it. Also, each completed step acts as an SD for the next step in the sequence.