For Families

Why is it important to teach concepts rather than just individual skills?

June 18, 2020

I was trained in Verbal Behavior when I started out in the field of Autism and related disorders.  I loved working with *Sue who was 2yrs old when I met her and “echolalic”.  She was diagnosed with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) at a young age.  Sue is the reason I am in this field and one of my best friends.  Sue is now 18yrs old and a beautiful woman, who cares about people more than most 18yrs old women I know.  The way I started working with her was to use her interests (at that time it was music) and engage with her through these interests.  I spent hours finding new songs that might help Sue connect with me authentically and for her to start trusting the process of learning.  

From there I started a weekly social group combining neuro-typical children with children diagnosed with ASD.  At that time there were no other groups that were similar to this that I knew about.  To me and Sue’s mom this felt like one of the main reasons why Sue made so much progress in such a short period of time.  Sue felt accepted and loved by typical and atypical kids.  Contrary to popular belief about individuals on the autism spectrum, Sue loved interacting with children and adults.  She had and still to some extent has a different way of interacting, but it’s authentic, raw and absolutely beautiful.  She can speak about her interests for days, yet will not bother too much about topics that she finds mundane.  Sue will tell you how much she loves you and won’t wait for your response at times.  She is honest and pure and will only state little white lies if she absolutely has to get out of trouble.  Her sparkle in her eye will tell you that the only reason she lied was to not be a disappointment in your eyes.  

Fast forward to the present and the current support system that Nanette Botha and myself created.  Even though we have been working in this field since 2004, we are proud to admit that we are still learning every single day.  I usually tell parents two things during our initial meeting: (1) you know your child the best and (2) if a professional tells you that they know it all or exactly what to do you should be careful to trust the advice given.  I stand by these statements as I honestly believe that the field of autism is ever changing and there is still a lot of learning and evolving that we, as professionals, need to do to truly be able to offer the support our children require, crave and deserve.  

One of the philosophies of the AIMS support system is to teach children concepts, rather than individual skills (alone).  I will provide you with an example here.  Let’s imagine that we, as adults didn’t know why we had to wear a mask during the pandemic, do you think that we would wear it happily?  What if I forced you, step-by-step or hand-over-hand, to put a mask on first thing in the morning, struggling to breathe and being unable to understand the reasoning behind it?  Do you think your mood will be positive and do you think you will be motivated to listen to me again?  Now, we understood the reason for wearing a mask and we received information on where it is absolutely crucial to wear the masks.  We might still not like wearing masks, but we know it’s in our best interest to do so.  We understand the concept of wearing a mask and protecting ourselves.  

Why can’t we teach our kids the same way?  If your child is motivated to bake cookies or plant trees, you can teach various “academic” targets within these activities and your child will understand why they are learning each step.  

I remember a day in my past where I was told by a behavioral therapist that I should write down a 50 step task analysis to tie shoelaces. This meant that I had to not only write it out, but the poor kid I was working with had to do each step individually to ensure that he is able to “copy me” or imitate actions.  Why not ask your child why he needs to wear shoes or show him a picture of his favorite character wearing similar shoes to him and then a video of a character or another child putting their shoes on?  

I know – easier said than done, but one thing is for sure – we all want to learn about things that we understand the reason for.  I don’t want to learn French when I live in Portugal.  Let’s keep it practical, functional and as far as we can, concept based 🙂 

Thank you for reading. Speak soon,