Teaching one step directions to young children with autism can be a struggle! Every school year, I have new students who have goals and objectives for imitation and following one step directions. Every year, my team and I start with the basics when teaching them. I’ll be honest and tell you that when I have a student that is not able to imitate me yet, I panic a bit. Imitation is a KEY to learning! As a speech/language pathologist, I need to get on that ASAP. Let me let you in on a secret…I don’t panic anymore. This is because I have put a system into place that works! I hope this system and hierarchy for teaching children with autism imitation and one step directions works for you too! First, just a little dose of reality. For some children, this hierarchy works really quickly and they make fast progress. For others, it can feel slow and a bit arduous. Just keep pressing forward! Some students just need a LOT of repetition to make that connection in their brains. They will get there!
It’s best to teach motor imitation before moving on to more complex skills like following one and two step directions or verbal imitation. This skill is such a huge building block for everything else. It should be one of the first things on your radar when you start working with a new student who doesn’t exhibit this skill yet. To start, say “do this” and clap your hands. If your student is not able to copy you, follow these steps:
1. Full Physical Cue
Start with the cue “do this”. After giving that cue, you perform the motor action (clap hands). Then immediately use a full physical cue to help the student clap their hands (hand over hand prompting). Use a data sheet and track how they are doing.
2. Partial Physical Cue
Give the cue “do this”. Then place your hands on your student’s elbow and push in a bit to see if it cues them to finish the motor action of clapping their hands.
3. Verbal Cue Only
Say “do this” and clap your hands. When your student is able to imitate this consistently, then move on to a new action, such as “stomp feet”. When introducing a new motor action, you may have to back up to step 1 in order to help them learn it. Once it is mastered, you can start to alternate between the two actions and take data. After that, continue on until your student can imitate a variety of motor actions. I usually start with 10 motor actions. Once they have those down, give yourself a high five and move on to step 4.
Next, you will move from IMITATION to teaching the child to follow simple VERBAL directions. Start with the same motor action(s) that you have just taught.
4. Verbal Direction With Visual Cue
Research shows time and time again that children with autism are visual learners. A visual cue that shows them what to do can be very helpful. It can bridge the gap in understanding how to follow one step directions. Use a picture depicting what you want your student to do (e.g. “clap hands”). You can take real pictures or purchase a simple set of visual supports that provides a clear visual cue for your student. Give the direction “clap hands” at the same time that you show the picture. Take data. If they are not able to follow the verbal direction using the visual cue, move to step 5.
5. Verbal Direction Full Physical Cue
For step 5, you will want to pair the visual cue card with the verbal direction (“clap hands”). Immediately use a full physical cue to help the student clap their hands (hand over hand prompting). Use a data sheet and track how they are doing. Please be mindful of children who are don’t like to be touched.
6. Verbal Direction Partial Physical Cue
Similar to the previous step, for step 6 you will pair the visual cue card with the verbal direction (“clap hands”). Next, place your hands on your student’s elbows and push in a bit to see if it cues them to finish the motor action of clapping their hands.
You may go back and forth between steps 4-6 for a while before you move on to step 7. When your student can consistently follow the verbal direction when it is paired with a visual cue, remove the visual cue. See if they are able to follow the direction with only the verbal cue.
7. Verbal Direction Only
The final step is to give only the verbal direction. For example, say “clap hands” and give some wait time if needed. Take data to make sure you know if you are making progress.
Tips To Remember
Occasionally you will have a student who doesn’t follow this exact order (doesn’t understand “do this”, but learns to follow the verbal direction with a visual cue). That’s okay! Just move on to what they respond best to.
Reward often! Some children need to be rewarded (praise, bubbles, tickles) after each attempt. Others can do several trials before they need a reward. If your student is trying to walk away or is starting to become stressed or upset, that is a cue to YOU to reward more often. It is also important to find a reward that is motivating to the student. That’s another blog post!!! LOL!
I created a set of data sheets to use when teaching children with autism how to imitate motor actions and follow one step directions. It includes 2 cue cards with the steps for teaching children with autism how to imitate motor actions and follow one step directions. They are yours for free!
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I would love to hear your comments below! Is this helpful? What else would you like to see from me? Thank you for everything you do & for being a part of the Autism Little Learners Community 💛🍎