How Incidental Teaching Benefits Kids With Autism

The owner of Spark Center for Autism in Farmington Hills discusses this unique way of teaching kids with autism and offers advice to trying it at home.

Does your child’s ABA therapy feel a bit robotic?

Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA) therapy relies heavily on structure and repetition to teach children with autism appropriate responses, which can indeed make this type of therapy seem rather rigid.

“While this teaching style works – and is typically included in many intensive ABA programs – it isn’t the only effective way to teach skills, and it can get boring for kids, which can be stressful for both them and their parents.”

That’s why the technicians at Spark Center for Autism in Farmington Hills incorporate “incidental teaching” into the ABA sessions of their patients.

What is incidental teaching?

Incidental teaching, or natural environment, is a style of teaching that combines a child’s individual interests with standard ABA principles to encourage learning in everyday situations.

“Incidental teaching is much less structured and might look like play,” Reena Naami, the owner and director of the Spark Center for Autism explains. “It occurs in the child’s natural environment, and rather than using specific materials, it uses the motivation of the child.”

Unlike the more structured formats of ABA implementation, incidental teaching doesn’t necessarily take place at a table and doesn’t focus on “expected responses.” Instead, incidental teaching creates learning opportunities throughout a child’s day to help them develop language and social skills.

“Playing in multiple environments and with different people in the context of a moment makes it a lot easier to teach the skills,” Naami adds.

Incidental teaching doesn’t require much of a set-up – though some kids benefit from the utilization of specific items they enjoy or a type of situation they need to work on – and can reduce some negative behaviors.

“It looks like play and it’s based on something the child is interested in – and that makes it more fun,” Naami explains. When a child is having fun during his or her therapy session, that child is less likely to lash out.

Every patient that works with the Spark Center for Autism will be exposed to this style of teaching at some point. Younger kids who are just beginning their therapy may receive it more than older kids who are preparing for school.

All clients at the Spark Center for Autism spend time in a social group to interact with their peers and experience social situations in real-time.

Incidental teaching at home

Since incidental teaching requires little advance preparation, parents of kids with autism can use this technique to help improve their child’s communication and social skills at home.

Naami admits that this can be a bit of a struggle for some parents who are still learning this style of teaching, but says that it can be added throughout the child’s day in the easiest of ways – provided it is approved by the child’s ABA technician.

“Don’t have things the child wants readily available so they have to ask for what they want,” Naami suggests.

For example, a parent might keep a favorite toy, blanket or other item out of reach of the child and then ask the child to respond in some way before granting access to the item.

“We always want to make sure kids are motivated for things we have around or they won’t have to use their language if it’s readily available,” she adds.

In addition, parents should require some sort of prompting from a child and should also model behaviors that the child may be struggling with.

For more information on incidental teaching or how to get your child started in ABA therapy, visit Spark Center for Autism online at


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