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Fostering social awareness using 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. This requires that there is a focus on the social dimensions of instruction as well as on content; That our teaching engenders engagement, that children gladly accept and invite our guidance, that they learn to observe patiently and, 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 an 'Sd and reinforcer dispenser'

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 to task'. However, a side effect of this strategy is that when 'speed' takes precedence, it 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 need to rely on "diexic insistence" in which 'pointing' and the use of demonstrative pronouns is baked in throughout early exercises in order to encourage social awareness. (For example, see 'selection based imitation' in the ABA Mini-Manuals).  Also, at the outset of intervention, we establish a simple routine of 'look, listen, respond, look, consequence' (For more on this click here). Getting this routine off the ground and baking in diexic insistence allows allows us to create complex and nuanced exercises such as the one below. 

The exercise below includes layered demands on attention (to task and to others), working visual memory, executive function, following a point and, at its core, this exercise fortifies social awareness. Children are required to attend to the instructor; that to 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 and salient events.  


In the example below (found in Schnee, 2023) 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, proximal)

"What's that?" (Pointing to more distant object)


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


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


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


“Bring me the (ball)” (No point)


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


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

"Put it under that chair" (Pointing to designated chair)


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 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 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 generate instructions but can't point to something in the room, nod in agreement, smile with pleasure etc. If children are not oriented to us, this is all missed; WE are missed. 

​The better we are able to design instruction that also fortifies social acuity, 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 with ASD and which may be overlooked during intervention.


These baked-in social dimensions are an integral part of many exercises the ABA Mini-Manuals.

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