How do you design an ABA drill/program?

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How do you design an ABA drill/program?

Postby MCA » Tue May 30, 2006 9:29 pm

What is the magic ingredient ABA supervisors use to make a needed skill into an ABA drill from scratch? I'm not talking about the "let's draw a line, a circle, and a cross" type cookie cutter program, I mean a program created especially for a kid using materials I bought.

Say for example I wanted to have my son do a hidden picture exercise where he has to look for objects amongst visual clutter. I am thinking back to my teaching days where you had to begin teaching math with concrete objects (2 actual apples), then move to semi concrete (picture of 2 apples), then to abstract (the number 2).

So does that same rule apply to designing ABA drills? Would I teach him to search for things in the environment first, like via an "I Spy" game, then finding pictures of the same things he looked for in the environment, then the worksheet.... OH GOSH this is why I can't do this. :( I'm so dang close to being able to do this but I am missing something.

I found a fabulous game matching faces. My son needs to focus more on people's faces. How do I teach him this game? How many "matching cards" are enough?

If I wanted to teach him how to play a new board game... how can you tell what needs to be taught first? Spinning a spinner? Making sure the game is not too visually overwhelming, but interesting enough in appearance? How to move a game piece using 1:1 correspondence correctly to follow along space by space on the board?

How do you design a program?

I need to teach my son playground rules such as "don't slide down until the next person is off the slide." Do I use a stuffed animal on a real slide? A pretend slide? A Fisher-Price playground set using little people? Do I take him to the park over and over and make him check?


I am seriously sick of being reliant on other people to tell me what my son needs and help him. I know what he needs, I can even follow an ABA program, but how do you go from assessment results to an individualized program? Or from observations about your child's deficits to an ABA drill? I understand all my son's test results and needs, I have killer ideas about ways to teach to those needs... but then it all falls apart because I don't know how to take what I know and make it into a workable drill that everyone can follow.

Wolf's Rain
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Postby Wolf's Rain » Tue May 30, 2006 11:05 pm


Typically you back track, dividing the skill into smaller parts until you reach a point that is readily accessible to your child, but not already known.

As for your example of scanning through visual clutter, you probably wouldn't start with an environmental "i spy" game. It would probably depend on your child's current ability to scan a field. But if he is already identifying things receptively in fields, he would already probably be close to your goal. What about his drawing ability? Making circles? If he can receptively understand directions such as "circle the ____" then you could probably add that into a receptive identification drill or even an independent work activity.

Always look at all the individual skills that a drill / activity would require and assess if your child has them. Then figure out if its necassary to first teach those skills individually or if your child is able to aquire multiple skills at once.

I'd be willing to talk about it over email / instant messenger if you ever need help.

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Postby MCA » Wed May 31, 2006 12:16 am

Thank you, Wolf's Rain. I'd love to take you up on that email offer. :D

If you see a deficit area... like say the child cannot find the most direct route between two points, or uses inefficient planning... how do you take abstract assessment items like that and turn them into specific, kid-friendly, developmentally appropriate drills/programs?

Alex's mom
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Postby Alex's mom » Wed May 31, 2006 12:30 am

I have to say, I've come to really admire through your posts how well organized and well prepared you are. No wonder your son has made such amazing progress. You definitely deserve to pat yourself on the back and take credit.
I must admit, I lack method. Lately especially, I feel like I'm throwing a bunch of concepts at Alex hoping to have some stick. So I'm probably the least qualified person to answer your questions.
I just wanted to comment on the "I spy" exercises. Not sure if it's what you are looking for, but my son's therapist had him first identify similar objects in a picture (for example all the flowers in a garden). Then she brought some pictures where he had to find all the bears in a room. The easy ones clearly showed a few bears, but as they were getting progressively more difficult, you would only see the bear's ears or part of the body etc. He actually enjoyed that.
For us games may flop or float all according to his motivation. If his heart isn't in it, he will check out and not really cooperate, whereas if it's fun for him he will likely try to stay with the program. I start with simple turn taking games and work my way up from there. Lately I went back to simpler games (like Pop-up pirate, Slap-Happy, Crocodile Dentist, Ker-Plunk, Barnyard Bingo etc) and we are having much more fun than with Candyland for example. I'm trying to first build up his turn-taking / "partnership" skills before pulling the more cognitively challenging games.
Adding something unpredictable also works well with my son. Today for example I told him that I wasn't going to talk during our entire bingo game, and it was nice to see how much closer he was studying my face to see what would happen next.
I hope you get some helpful suggestions to your questions from people better organized than myself :)
Alex's mom

Wolf's Rain
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Postby Wolf's Rain » Wed May 31, 2006 12:32 am

like say the child cannot find the most direct route between two points, or uses inefficient planning

It's hard to tell exactly what you mean, since it is a rather broad problem. Executive function is a core deficit with autism. This can effect a child's ability to plan across many different scenarios, environments, modes, etc. It's hard to give specific ways to work on it with out specific situations.

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Postby Winnie » Wed May 31, 2006 1:22 am


I found the ABLLS helpful (very) in planning (I know I sound like a broken record on this point). If you need a "road map" of sorts to determine what your child can do, what developmental skill gaps may exist, and what may need to be taught, I don't know of a more thorough overall assessment. I would recommend reading Partington and Sundberg's book as well (you may have both of these already). I'm sure that there exists some good info with PRT as well in regard to planning -- I haven't read the smaller manuals, nor the more recent book (yet), but probably other posters can give some advice about this (LM?).

Even with the ABLLS, skills listed may need to be broken down or extended further. It is just easier when you have a way to prioritize what to teach, and when you can find ways to teach across several language areas simultaneously.

As in the game examples that you gave -- depending on what kind and what level of proficiency he is able to match, he may be able to match face cards (assuming that the faces are different enough from one another). You might want to work matching like faces with like expressions and then toward matching different faces with like expressions. There may be several steps and extensions of this matching task. In the case of the face matching game, you might want to make sure that he is selecting for the expression rather than other features such as hair, etc., if expression is the target being taught. You could eventually work toward matching a card with an expression you make, or letting him choose a card and you make the expression (could be a pretty funny game). My son always liked games where he was "teaching" me.

I am just rambling away here with the idea for example's sake -- not knowing your child nor the game -- you sound like you have a lot of creative ideas on how to teach skills. With finding games that he can play now, the trick is finding (and possibly adjusting) a game that uses skills he has.

As for the visual scanning task -- for his age, and for functional purposes, scanning the environment (or room) might be the best choice for the moment (I'm assuming he can already scan for pictures and objects in an increasing field placed within reaching distance). Again, I am just rambling off the top of my head, but you might start by using 5 common objects (that he already identifies) in fairly close proximity to each other, though placed at a distance in the room, asking him "where" one is (or "touch," "give me" etc), having him bring it to you, making it a big game. Then scramble the order, and move the objects increasingly further apart, then in different areas of the room, until he must scan the room for the correct object. Move from the simple to the more complex, and make sure that he experiences success at each level (plant some "gimmes" for this reason). You might begin with object labels that he already knows, and if he can identify objects by features, you might try an "I Spy" format doing the same. If he needs to learn to scan a page at some point, the idea is the same...start with the less visually busy, more toward more, and try to use meaningful pics or print for the task. Like I said, I'm just rambling.

If you want to give a specific example and describe what he is having difficulty doing, some of us may be able to give examples of how to break the task down (I wish Wolf's Rain had been on a message board when I was sorting this out!).
"Make it a powerful memory, the happiest you can remember."

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Postby irenes » Wed May 31, 2006 9:21 am

your post is a little overwhelming, i feel there isn't 'one way' to design ABA programs.. its really a matter of seeing what works best and going with it. But some ideas i have for some of the things you are targeting.

the board game-
first do programs that would address any deficits he might have in individual parts of the game (such as 1:1 correspondence).. Work on these tasks before you start the game program. it would be frustrating i would think if someone asked me to play a game and i had to learn not only the "game" but the parts too!

then to teach the actual game a forward chaining routine might work. Break the game into a list of very concrete, distinct tasks. Include setup and cleanup..Then when you say "lets play the game" he should be reinforced if he gets up to whatever step you are working on..

the slide-
have you done an in-session turntaking program ? i woudl start with this if you haven't .. Use a drum or other activity and SD is "YOUR TURN" where he would take his turn and MY TURN where the correct response is waiting.. Then use the playground for generalization.
proud mom of zachary age 3 1/2 with PDD-NOS

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Postby respect » Wed May 31, 2006 6:30 pm

MCA thanks so much for posting. Your words could have come out of my mouth. Putting together an ABA drill or learning lesson seems to be a combination of having experience of ideas and knowing your child.

I constantly wrack my brain about how we can incorporate directed learning so address a particular skill/deficit. then my ABA supervisor comes in and can do it immediately. She has 10 years experience and has dealt with most of the target learning areas before in other kids so its easy for her.

What to do when she is not there though?? I just glean ideas from other people - constantly. Just like you are doing. There are MILLIONS of ideas to address each and every learning task/problem. The idea has to work for YOUR child though based on HIS ability. This is where it gets tough taking other people's advice cause they speak for their own kids' programs.

I totally understand what you say about ABA people coming, that you could do this stuff yourself. I know i could too, its not rocket science but it really comes down to having been exposed over time, to other children who have experienced the same learning problems and coming up with answers over and over over again.

For us, we are new to it, dont know any other kids on the spectrum, havent watched other kids learning styles within "autism" and just dont have a clue. Thus for the moment, we must rely on the ABA people. Ticks me off a bit that they can do this but I cant! Seeing its my son, and seeing that its not a difficult thing.

But i suppose eating from a spoon would be difficult, if you have never done it before.

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Postby MCA » Fri Jun 02, 2006 10:57 am

Thank you very much, everyone. I appreciate all the great ideas.

Thanks for the nice words, Alex's Mom, I am acceptably good at understanding what the problems are, I only wish I could design/implement solutions.

I have another question... Once you get past the "initiation" point, where the child is motivated to play with others and initiating like crazy (albeit clumsily) how do you get him/her to maintain the "play session" and go with the flow of it?

A typical play session looks to me like this at preschool (and pardon me because I am just doing stream-of-consciousness here)... one kid says "let's play Power Rangers," and another kid agrees. Then they play it "correctly" for about 2-3 conversational exchanges and one kid sees a shovel sitting there, gets another idea and says "I'm gonna get you with this shovel of power," which would be TOTALLY ad-libbed and out of the range of any script ABA would teach...

but the other NT kid can adapt to the change in play, and before you know it they've moved to digging with shovels... then without a word spoken they start collaborating on digging a really big hole, then one kid gets an idea to start playing "jump over the hole as high as you can," and the other kid agrees, then the teacher comes over and says something and before you know it they've moved on to something else, and one kid decides to be Darth Vader and the other kid is still a Power Ranger...

So how do you teach an ASD child this? It seems more like an attending to social cues issue than a problem with "initiating," but every ABA program just seems to get to "initiating" and then just STOP. Nor will "following a play script" help in this case because I don't see kids maintaining strict adherence to a script in real life.

Wolf's Rain
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Postby Wolf's Rain » Fri Jun 02, 2006 12:43 pm

Your example sounds like the type of chaos you can only get from a real play experience. Have you been able to set up playdates? Circle of friends?

Having playdates with typical and ASD peers with adults around to mediate the interaction may help your son develop some of the above skills.

You may also want to check out Michelle Garcia Winner and her ideas on social thinking. She has a few books out that might be helpful. I've been to one of her conferences and it was pretty fascinating.

I think you started to answer your own question when you mentioned social cues. Your son may have to be tought how to read other peoples body language and also how to react to novel play ideas. Another thing that you can do with play groups is act out different play scenarios and then pause the action so you can talk about what is happening with the kids. It's a good way to explore conflict resolution as well.

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Re: How do you design an ABA drill/program?

Postby Winnie » Sat Mar 10, 2012 9:50 pm

Here are some good online resources and manuals (free!):

This is a (free online) Verbal Behavior training manual for employees at the Mariposa School (parent-friendly and a great introduction to the basics): ... ly2007.pdf

Here is a list of ABA/VB recommended resources:

How to Start a Home-Based ABA/VB Program: A parent’s manual (free online): ... rogram.pdf
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