What is Naturalistic Teaching ABA?

In recent decades, the naturalistic teaching approach has offered guidance and a path to socialization for many who experience an autism spectrum disorder (ASD). As an extension of ABA therapy, naturalistic teaching approach emphasizes contextual learning. It is an alternative to discrete trial training which typically takes place in a structured, more clinical setting. We’ll explore this fascinating and fruitful field in the article below.  We also discuss how these teaching methods can assist individuals with ASD to engage in their world.

How Does Naturalistic Teaching ABA Differ from Other Approaches?

The immense strides made by practitioners of ABA techniques should be acknowledged. However, ABA methods are often criticized for their drill-like, rote nature.  This has encouraged the development of more holistic and adaptive teaching techniques. Naturalistic teaching is one such approach.  What is naturalistic teaching?  Naturalistic teaching incorporates many of the beneficial insights of ABA therapy.  It retains a fresh and novel perspective for the individual. When a teacher uses this approach, they account for the specific student and their natural environment.

The naturalistic approach is adaptive and reactive to the student’s needs. The benefit of this is coupled with a holistic theoretical perspective.  This unique perspective allows lessons to be more globally applied. Once students learn a particular skill or skill set, they are encouraged to apply it to a range of situations that have bearing on their particular experience. Unlike the rote-memorization of ABA, naturalistic methods provide ample variation and context in which skills can be practiced.

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ABA naturalistic teaching methods are also designed to be simply incorporated into the existing routines of a child with ASD.  ABA that occurs only in highly specialized settings contributes to a compartmentalization effect.  In naturalistic teaching, parents and teachers can easily add a new lesson to their child’s daily routine. Hence, naturalistic methods are intended to mimic the natural instruction a child receives in a variety of contexts, with a special focus added to benefit the needs of one with ASD.

Foundational Motives

Individuals with ASD have trouble connecting and communicating with other individuals socially. Techniques to assist these individuals have historically focused on language acquisition and interaction.  Unfortunately, they typically take place in a specialized context that limits a child’s application of the learned skills. Naturalistic learning style approaches, while no less structured in their design, encourage a relaxed, situational application that helps children make their own connections.  We discuss several of the most common types of naturalistic ABA approaches.

Incidental Teaching 

Incidental Teaching (IT) is a naturalistic method that creates opportunities for children to learn new language skills on the move—at the grocery store, at home during play, and in daycare or classroom environments where they interact with non-ASD or other ASD children. In essence, it’s the natural way humans learn social behaviors, with a bit of additional help. In an IT approach, an adult will create a setting in which activities and items preferred by the child with ASD are made available.

Mand-Model Approach

The mand-model approach is actually an extension of incidental teaching.  When the child engages with an item or activity, the adult prompts them to request the item via sign language, gestures, or speech. New verbal skills are introduced in this way and often reinforced or generalized. In this way, the adult may praise and reinforce the child’s positive behavior with the desired toy, item, or activity.


The time-delay procedure is especially helpful in teaching children to initiate verbal contact.  An adult will identify a situation where the child wants to request an item and waits for the child to respond.  If the child responds appropriately, they receive the item.  If the child responds incorrectly, they may implement another delay.  If the child continues to give an incorrect response, the adult may switch to a different approach like the mand-model to assist the child.

Milieu Language Teaching

Milieu Language Teaching is a combination of strategies that is used to elicit communication responses in children with autism.  The model is comprised of three parts including:

  • environmental arrangements
  • responsive interaction techniques
  • milieu teaching procedures

The environment is arranged to promote the child’s use of language.  Favorite items or other objects of interest are arranged in the environment to provide an optimal environment for language use.  The adult or therapist uses responsive interaction techniques that promote conversational interaction.  Milieu teaching procedures like mand-modeling and time-delay are used to facilitate language learning.

Pivotal Response Training

Pivotal Response Training is a unique naturalistic environment teaching approach that addresses the cause of the behavior instead of the actual behavior.  This approach focuses on things that are pivotal to the child’s behavior including:

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  • the underlying motivation for the behavior
  • how the child responds to social interaction
  • how the child handles their emotions and behaviors

The goal of PRT is largely to help the child move away from undesirable behaviors and toward more appropriate ones.

Related Resource: Top 20 Best Applied Behavior Analysis Programs

Naturalistic teaching ABA is one of several techniques available to parents and teachers of children with ASD.  This school of thought offers intense potential for adaptive growth. This mode of instruction offers a number of approaches, not limited to the IT or MMA techniques.  It also includes more structured styles such as Natural Language Paradigm and Pivotal Response Training.  These strategies are aimed at expanding and elaborating social communication skills. In time, children who successfully learn social skills through naturalistic teaching strategies may integrate more fully into society.