Children with autism can be easily distracted and may require a high level of assistance in order to attend to tasks and activities. Their attention span is typically shorter than that of their typically developing peers. When this is the case, an ABA program will begin teaching concepts by breaking them down into simple teachable steps in a distraction free environment, such as in their bedroom or in a quiet room in the house. For example, it may be too difficult for a child with autism to learn to count from 1-10 all at one time. Therefore, each number in the sequence will be taught one by one, at the pace of your child’s learning (chaining). On Monday, they may learn the number ‘one,’ on Tuesday, if they still maintain the memory of the number “one,’ they will be taught the number ‘two,’ on Wednesday, if they still maintain the memory of numbers ‘one’ and ‘two,’ they will be taught ‘three,’ and so on. While this may seem like a very slow learning rate, a child will be taught at the rate they are capable of learning.
With shorter attention spans, it is also important to note that clear, concise, and simple instructions are typically more effective in producing effective learning opportunities. This is why simple and clear language is often used in ABA programs. For example, the instruction, “point to number 1” is a much clearer instruction than “can you please point to the piece of paper that has the number 1 written on it?” and therefore, more likely to produce the desired response. However, it is also important to note that with continued success, and as attention and learning rates increase, language and instructions should be modified to include more complexity. This will help to promote generalization.
Children with autism typically need to not only learn in small steps, but require much repetition until the skill comes easily to them. Therefore, in an ABA program, the learning environment is structured so that it will allow as much repetition as a child needs while maintaining their motivation and interest in learning. When children begin ABA programs, they may need many repetitions on the concept before learning or mastering the concept. However, it is common to find that over time as a child learns “how to learn,” that these repetitions become fewer and fewer and learning rates increase. Some describe this phenomena as “learning to learn”.