Fostering social awareness within discrete trial instruction

As teachers of children with ASD, our job is to not only teach content but to ensure that our relevance is heightened. That there is a focus on the social dimensions of instruction as well as on content.  This means that our teaching engenders engagement; that children gladly accept and invite our guidance, learn to observe patiently, learn to 'try' and look to us for feedback. The manner in which we structure our teaching and the way we design instructional content needs to include these social processes.

Teaching is more than simply being Sd and reinforcer dispensers

Some current trends in ABA-based intervention tend to undercut the social dimensions of teaching.  We see this, for example with 'paced instruction'. During 'paced instruction' Sds are fired off as quickly as possible in the service of maintaining attention. However, a side effect of this strategy is that 'speed' takes precedence, and supplants the social aspects of instruction. 

It is possible to do both

While it may seem counter-intuitive, we can actually slow things down in order that children maintain attention to task and to us. We can arrange things so that certain techniques, structures and designs encourage social reciprocity, awareness and acuity while also enhancing accuracy and attention to task. From the outset of intervention, we can establish the foundation for these things by developing a simple routine of 'look, listen, respond, look, consequence' (for more on this click here). Getting this routine off the ground allows us to implement complex and nuanced exercises such as the one below which calls for attention to task and 'baked in' social aspects of the exercises.

The exercise below includes layered demands on attention (to task and to others), working visual memory, executive function and serves to fortify social awareness. Children are required to attend to the instructor; to that which the instructor attends and to track the instructor's point and to track the instructor as they move about the room. By mixing instructions, children learn to switch flexibly between different kinds of instructions. 


In the example below (found in Lund and Schnee 2018), matching is used as a vehicle for fostering social awareness and maintaining attention to task and teacher:


Shifting between instruction modalities


Set up: Pictures are placed on a wall(s). Matching pictures are placed on the child’s desk and corresponding items are distributed around the room. Child is seated at the desk, instructor is standing by the wall.


Procedure 1: Point to a picture on a wall. Present random instructions:


“What’s this?” (Pointing to picture on the wall)


“Touch same” (Pointing to picture on the wall child touches matching item on their desk)


“Touch this and this” (Point to two pictures on the wall consecutively, child touches matching items on their desk);


“Bring me this” (Point to picture on the wall, child retrieves it)


“Bring me the (ball)” (No point)


“What color is that car” (Pointing to car on wall)


“What color is this?” (Pointing to item on wall)


Procedure 2: Same set-up as in procedure 1 except pictures are now placed on two different walls and items are also placed inside and outside of the room.


Common exercises (e.g., matching, imitation) can also serve as vehicles to address many other things  i.e., concept development, attention dexterity, social acuity, perspective taking, memory, executive function, specific social skills and social pragmatics. Exercises can and should be designed to teach more than one behavior at a time (as illustrated above).  Exercises should be designed to interconnect abilities. Exercises can be designed to fortify and emphasize social awareness (the relevance of instructors) and social reciprocity...and should be.  Discrete instruction can be robust  and used to address a multiplicity of considerations within each exercise and always with social awareness as a feature of implementation. It's not all about the content.

When we design intervention and exercises in this manner, children are required to attend to US and not simply our words...a computer can also produce words but can't point to something in the room, nod in acknowledgement, smile with pleasure etc. If children are not engaged with us, this is all missed; we are missed. 

​The better we are able to design exercises and instruction that also fortifies social awareness and social reciprocity, the greater are learning efficiencies and enjoyment. Design in this way serves to better prepare children for participating and responding to the many social techniques employed within our communication practices... many of which often elude children and which may be overlooked during intervention.


For more exercises which bake-in social dimensions, additional sample exercises can be found by clicking here.