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 the applied behavioral analysis (ABA) suite of techniques and pedagogies, this approach emphasizes contextual learning. In the article below, we’ll explore more about this fascinating and fruitful field and how it can assist individuals with ASD to engage in their world.

How It Differs

The immense strides made by practitioners of ABA techniques should be acknowledged. However, recent critique of the methods for their drill-like, rote nature has encouraged the development of more holistic and adaptive teaching techniques. Naturalistic teaching is one such approach, which incorporates many of the beneficial insights of ABA, but retains a fresh and novel perspective. When a teacher or therapist uses the Naturalistic method, they take into account the specific student and their lived experience.

Such an approach is both adaptive and reactive to the needs of the student. The benefit of this is coupled with a holistic theoretical perspective, which allows lessons to be more globally applied. What that means is that, having learned a particular skill or skill set, a student is then encouraged to apply it to a range of situations that have bearing on their particular experience. Unlike the rote-memorization of ABA, which was criticized for its limited student applicability, naturalistic methods provide ample variation and context in which skills can be practiced.

These methods are also designed to be simply incorporated into the existing routines of a child with ASD. Rather than occurring only in highly specialized settings, which contributed to the compartmentalization effect of ABA methods, 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 humans in their social world. Techniques designed to assist these individuals have focused on language acquisition and interaction, but have typically taken place in a specialized context that limits a child’s application of the learned skills. Naturalistic approaches, while no less structured in their design, encourage a relaxed, situational application that helps children make their own connections.

Incidental Teaching (IT) is one 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.

When the child engages with an item or activity, the adult will prompt them to request the item via sign language, gestures, or speech. New verbal skills are introduced in this way and often reinforced or generalized with the Mand-Model Approach (MMA). In this way, the adult may praise and reinforce the child’s positive behavior with the desired toy, item, or activity.

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While it is only one of several techniques available to parents and teachers of children with ASD, this school of thought does offer intense potential for adaptive growth. This mode of instruction offers a number of approaches, not limited to the IT or MMA techniques, but including more structured styles, such as Natural Language Paradigm and Pivotal Response Training, aimed at expanding and elaborating social communication skills. In time, children who successfully learn social skills through naturalistic teaching methods may integrate more fully into society.