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Teaching Variation Among Responses

The following blog was written by Tyra Sellers, Ph.D., BCBA-D, Research Consultant with Trumpet Behavioral Health.

Tyra Sellers, PhD, BCBA-D
Tyra Sellers, PhD, BCBA-D

Building skills is such an important focus for all of us who have the pleasure of working with and parenting children with special needs.  You know the drill: teach a new skill by modeling, prompting, and reinforcing –rinse and repeat!

We do this with language skills, life skills, pre academic and academic skills, social skills, etc.

Because individuals with autism may have a tendency to engage repetitive behaviors and may take a while to learn new skills, they often are at risk for not developing a wide variety of similar ways to complete a task, or communicate.  As teachers and parents, we are also so excited when a new skill is being learned that we do an excellent job of reinforcing it!  This could be a problem if the limited skill that a person has is ineffective at producing the desired outcome in a given instance.  One example is a child who can reliably request for a cookie by stating “cookie,” but does not have any other way to ask for a cookie.  If the person with a cookie does not hear the request, does not understand the request, or ignores the repeated request of “Cookie.” the child might not be able to get her/his wants met.

To address this potential problem, it is important to consider teaching and reinforcing several similar versions of a new skill or multiple responses that will lead to the same outcome.  In the above example, we might teach the child to request food items by name, by stating “eat,” by stating “want,” or by pointing to the item and making eye contact.  If all of those different skills can be effective at getting a cookie, then when one option does not work the child may be able to effectively use one of the other responses.  When a child can vary among similar responses, it is called response or behavioral variability.

Besides allowing a child to obtain her/his needs or wants, behavior variability has other desired effects.  For example, being able to alternate among different responses can result in a child becoming a more effective problem solver by trying out different responses and finding the most effective response for a given situation.  This process often results in children trying out new, or novel responses, or combining learned responses in new ways.  Finally, being able to engage in a variety of similar, but different responses, as opposed to very rigid or limited responses, may result in more effective development of peer relationships.  For example, a peer may find it more reinforcing and fun to play with a child who can use blocks in 10 different ways, as opposed to repeating the same 1 or 2 actions.

So, when we are teaching children how to request, play, have a conversation, or just about anything, it may be helpful to teach several similar responses that can be used in the same situation.  In addition to teaching a variety of responses, we can also provide increased reinforcement (more animated praise, the most preferred toy) for those responses that do vary from the typical ones a child engages in.  Lastly, we can always model a variety of responses for children, showing them that there are lots of ways to ask for a cookie, attention, or a break; that there are different ways to play with a toy car or toy dinosaur.  After all, variety is the spice of life!