When your child begins ABA therapy, you want them to be able to take the skills they have learned in therapy and apply them across all situations and environments. This is what ABA therapists call generalization — and it’s important to your child’s growth and development, says Taylor Fortin, Supervising Board Certified Behavior Analyst at Gateway Pediatric Therapy in Lake Orion.
“Generalization is beneficial for a child’s skill development and success in different environments,” Fortin says. “It helps ensure that newly learned skills are maintained over time and promotes independence.” The great news is that parents can take an active role in helping their child generalize their skills.
Children on the autism spectrum may be hesitant to try something in a new environment, so they don’t always independently transfer skills from the one-on-one ABA setting to novel situations. But that doesn’t mean these skills must be isolated.
While a big part of generalization is applying skills learned at ABA therapy to a home or community setting, generalization extends across new time frames and people, too. “You know generalization has occurred when a new behavior is demonstrated in the presence of factors that weren’t in the original environment,” she explains.
How generalization happens
Fortin encourages parents to think broadly about generalization and recognize various ways their child can successfully generalize skills. “One of the ways to generalize is across many examples of the same object. So if we are teaching a child the word ‘cup,’ we could teach them that a water bottle can be a cup, as can a coffee cup and a Solo Cup,” she explains. “Children learn to apply that word to more than just their sippy cup.”
Children can learn that parents, grandparents and siblings can play games with them — not just their ABA technician. At Gateway, therapy is designed intentionally to include different technicians on alternating days to help children generalize skills across people.
“It’s wonderful to have parents and teachers who can participate, too,” Fortin says. “Many people can teach the same skills and help support learning at home.” Once a technician helps a child master clapping her hands, for instance, a parent can help maintain this skill by asking their child to clap their hands in the car or at home.
A child can also learn to generalize skills across different instructions. When the teacher at school comes to a child’s table and says, “Let’s go to the bathroom,” the child needs to have mastered all the skills this seemingly simple request involves, Fortin explains, including standing up, walking toward the teacher, even recognizing that the word “bathroom” is synonymous with “potty.” One instruction may involve many combined actions.
Parents can help
To achieve the best possible outcomes, parents should take full advantage of the expertise of their child’s ABA therapy team. Attend an hour of parent training each week or create a schedule that works for you, Fortin says.
“Parent training is incredible, and being able to have parents involved in therapy is critical. It’s so important that parents meet with their BCBA to learn what goals their child is working toward,” she says.
Consistency and perseverance can help, too. “Generalization occurs in small steps and can take a long time, so don’t give up. Reinforcing a new behavior increases the likelihood that it will happen again,” Fortin says. “Remind your child they are doing a great job!”
Learn more about Gateway Pediatric Therapy’s best-in-class ABA therapy offered at 13 Michigan locations. Visit gatewaypediatrictherapy.com.