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Teaching New Skills

Best Practices for Teaching New Skills

During the COVID-19 pandemic, it is important for all of us to learn new skills, like handwashing and wearing masks. For individuals on the autism spectrum, learning new skills can be hard. This resource includes tips for teaching new skills to people with autism spectrum disorder (ASD).

Break Skills into Smaller Steps

It can be helpful to break up the skill into steps or smaller pieces. For example, if you are teaching someone to wash their hands for 20 seconds:

  • First, teach how to pump soap and turn on water.
  • Next, teach how to scrub palms of hands, fingers, back of hands, then under fingertips.
  • Then, teach them to sing ‘Happy Birthday’ twice while washing hands.

Use Visuals or Lists

  • Many with ASD learn better when using a visual aide or list. When teaching something new like wearing a face mask in public, it can be helpful to use a social story or short cartoon to explain why they should wear a mask, when they should wear a mask, and even how to properly put on a face mask.
  • A checklist or list of instructions for completing the skill can be used. For example, before leaving the home, a person with ASD could have a checklist that reminds them to wash their hands, get their keys, wallet, and to put on their face mask.

Be Creative/Flexible

When it comes to new skills related to COVID-19, you may need to be especially creative or flexible. For example, people with ASD may resist using alcohol-based hand sanitizer because of the strong smell.

  • You may need to find alternative types of liquid hand sanitizers, hand wipes, or washing hands more with soap.
  • Due to sensory differences, some people with ASD may also struggle with wearing a face mask.
  • Face shields (if you can get one), sewing buttons onto a cap or using a device to keep the mask from wrapping around a person’s ears, wearing a costume mask that the person likes instead, or making a mask from preferred fabrics.

Give Choices

To teach a new skill, it is important to make learning enjoyable. Oftentimes, it can help to provide a choice. For example, when learning to wear a face mask, let the person choose if they want to a.) hold the mask to their face for a few seconds, or b.) try putting the elastic band on an ear for a few seconds.

Pair with Preferred Activities

Lastly, when teaching a new skill, it is important to reward the person for learning and trying! Praise them and make sure that they know that they get to do a favorite activity after a short learning session.

Teaching New Skills

Everyone learns in different ways. Some people need to see the information, while other people may do better hearing the information. Still other people may need to be hands on and be actively engaged in the learning process. Or, some people may need to both hear and see the information to learn. The important thing to understand is that each person has different learning preferences and may respond better to certain teaching methods. You know your family member best, so choose the information and teaching methods presented that best suits their needs!

One of the first steps to teaching any skill is breaking it down into smaller parts. This can make it easier to teach bigger, complex skills. There are a few ways that you can figure out how to break down a skill.

Look online: Some skills, like washing hands, are pretty common and someone may have already outlined steps for the skill. You may need to modify it to fit your needs or the individual, but it may be a good starting point.

Do it yourself: You can go through the skill from start to finish yourself and write down the different steps that you do along the way.

Watch someone else: Have someone who is already good at the skill do it, and write down the different steps.

Ask an expert: Depending on the skill the person needs/wants to learn, you could also ask someone who is an expert in the field. For example, if you want to learn how to play golf it’s best to ask someone who already plays the game!

Once all of the steps of a skill are outlined, you should have the person try each step to see what they are able to do. If they already know how to do some of the steps, you won’t need to teach those. You can also find out what type of help they may need for each step. For each step, let the person try to complete it themselves. If they aren’t able to do it on their own, you can provide a prompt to see how much help they need to complete the step. These are the different types of prompts, from least helpful to most helpful:

  • Verbal
  • Gestural
  • Modeling
  • Physical

When providing prompts follow these guidelines:

  • Only provide one prompt at a time. Give the person a chance to respond, and if they don’t after a few seconds provide the next level of prompt.
  • Do not repeat prompts. If the person doesn’t respond to a verbal prompt, don’t repeat it again. Move to the next
    level of prompt, a gesture or model. If you repeat prompts the person may learn that they don’t need to pay attention the first time a prompt is provided. They may begin to ignore the prompts.
  • Don’t provide more help than the person needs. If the person can complete the skill with only a verbal prompt, don’t provide a physical prompt. This might make the learning experience unpleasant or frustrate the person. It could also lead to the person becoming dependent on prompts to complete the skill.
  • Reduce prompts as they learn steps. If the person initially needed a gesture to complete a step, but is now doing it consistently at that level, try giving them a verbal prompt the next time they practice the skill. As they continue to practice and get better, you can keep reducing the level of prompt they need until they’re able to complete the skill independently.

Another important part of teaching someone a new skill is reinforcing the person. As they are trying the different steps, provide them praise and encouragement. Simple things like saying “great job!” can go a long way.

Even if the person may be struggling to learn a certain step, or they’re not quite successful in completing the skill, it can be helpful to praise them for trying and encourage them to try again.

Everyone likes hearing praise, and making the experience positive for the individual will go a long way in helping them learn the skill.

Creating a Task Analysis

Task analysis is a way to break down multiple components into much smaller steps, in order to teach a new behavior. The purpose of this resource is to provide families and caregivers with a tool to help their loved one overcome new tasks in relation to Coronavirus guidelines, such as wearing a mask, hand washing, coughing into the arm, etc.

How to Use the Tool

  • Break down a new skill(wearing a face mask,coughing into your elbow, washing your hands, etc.)into small steps.[Do the skill yourself and notice what is involved].
  • Write out each step. Make sure each step is only 1 behavior, a behavior you can see, and written in a way that the learner will understand it.
  • Teach 1 step at a time(either start at the first step and go down, or at the last step and work your way up). Use visuals, pictures, or a list to show the learner.
  • For each time you teach the skill, mark each step either Y(done), P(partial or needed help), or N(not done).

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Other downloads

Name Description Type File
Best Practices for Teaching Skills This resource reviews some best practices to consider when teaching someone new skills. pdf Download file: Best Practices for Teaching Skills
Teaching New Skills This resource provides information on breaking skills down into smaller parts, prompting and reinforcing skills. pdf Download file: Teaching New Skills
Task Analysis This resource provides information on creating a task analysis to teach a new skill, and a sample chart that can be used. pdf Download file: Task Analysis

This information was developed by the Autism Services, Education, Resources, and Training Collaborative (ASERT). For more information, please contact ASERT at 877-231-4244 or info@PAautism.org. ASERT is funded by the Bureau of Supports for Autism and Special Populations, PA Department of Human Services.