Generalizing Skills across Multiple Situations
A hallmark feature of people with Autism has been difficulty with learning a behavior or skill and applying it across multiple settings or people. If a skill is taught by a specific person, then the skill is only demonstrated toward that person. If a socially accepted behavior or social skill is developed in a specific location, it only get demonstrated in that location. This can be very frustrating for educators, families, and caregivers who work very hard, but do not see the expected results. It can also be just as frustrating for the person with Autism who may not understand why they are not meeting expectations. This relates to Executive Function (organizational processes of the brain) differences and a hyper-focus with learning.
Since many people with Autism learn through visual imagery and association, the circumstances in which new learning takes place becomes connected to the demonstration of that learning. In many cases, if the person with Autism does not see the visual cues associated with the learning, then they do not know that this is a situation to display the new behavior or skill. There are a few techniques to remedy this situation.
The easiest way to ensure generalization of a skill or behavior is to conduct training across multiple locations with multiple people. This will allow the person with ASD to see that this skill is to be used in many situations and can help them generalize the skill with less prompting. Care must be taken, however, not to vary the people and settings at the same time. This could cause confusion and become overwhelming. Typically, the training starts with one person and one setting. Once the skill or behavior becomes learned, then generalization can begin. You can either have a new trainer in the same location or have the original trainer conduct the training in a new location. Either way, it will be important to inform the person with ASD of the change. Also, the person may need additional transition assistance such as having the original trainer accompany initial sessions with the new trainer or having the person with ASD bring an item from the familiar setting to the new location. This will allow for a more gradual and smoother transition and is often referred to as scaffolding.
Once initial generalization has been established, gains can be maintained and possibly increased by the use of cue control. Cue control refers to using some type of prompt or reminder to trigger the association of performing the skill or behavior. In other words, it is a subtle reminder that this is an appropriate situation for the person to use what they have just learned. For people with ASD, cue control is typically best when the cues are visual and short. Cue cards with pictures, single words, or both are typically most effective in achieving this purpose. Cue cards are often the size of index cards and can be attached to a key ring or other small carrying device. The cards could be carried by a caregiver and shown to the person with Autism at the appropriate times. If the person with ASD is more capable, they can carry the cards themselves in a place that is accessible and refer to the cards when needed. For those who are more technology savvy, the cues can be programmed into a smart phone or tablet and can be accessed by tapping an icon or programmed to either appear automatically or respond to voice command.
In general, learning is only truly mastered when it can be applied whenever and wherever it is needed. Many highly skilled and well trained/educated individuals with ASD do not succeed as independent adults, in part, because there has been an assumption that the learning will automatically generalize across the various situations where it is needed. This is not the case. In order for individuals with ASD to be successful as adults the generalization needs to be a part of every educational experience. Appropriate education is not just a school issue, but a home and community experience as well. When the three areas are combined in training, then greater generalization and independence become much more likely.
Steven C. Altabet, PH.D.