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At a glance: Incidental teaching
Type of therapy
Behavioural
The claim
Promotes language use, interpersonal interaction and learning readiness
Suitable for
People with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) and developmental disabilities
Research rating

Find out more about this rating system in our FAQs.

Research shows positive effects.
Time

Estimate of the total time for family in hours per week and duration

20+ The time commitment required for incidental teaching depends on the type of program in which it’s used and the specific needs of the child.
Cost

Estimate of cost to family per session/item or week

$120+ The cost of incidental teaching depends on the type of behavioural intervention program in which it’s used.
Visit the Autism Services Pathfinder to browse service provider information.

What is incidental teaching?

Incidental teaching is not a therapy in itself, but a naturalistic teaching technique used in some therapies, particularly Applied Behaviour Analysis (ABA) programs.

When teachers (or parents) are using incidental teaching, they use naturally occurring opportunities for learning, like playtime, to develop children’s skills. And they reinforce children’s attempts to behave in a desired way the closer the children get to the desired behaviour.

Who is incidental teaching for?

Incidental teaching is typically used with children aged 2-9 years, but it’s suitable for people of any age who have autism spectrum disorder (ASD) or developmental delays.

What is incidental teaching used for?

Incidental teaching is used to improve language and other communication skills in children with autism spectrum disorder (ASD). It also aims to help children transfer skills from one situation to another, and to encourage them to start conversations.

Where does incidental teaching come from?

Incidental teaching has been part of the Applied Behaviour Analysis (ABA) approach since the 1970s. It was the first naturalistic teaching technique developed. It offered an alternative to traditional techniques that taught skills in very controlled environments.

What is the idea behind incidental teaching?

Incidental teaching is based on the idea that if a skill is rewarded, a child will use it more often.

All naturalistic teaching techniques assume that a child will use skills more easily in a wide range of situations if those skills are learned in a natural environment like playtime, instead of in a highly structured setting like a clinic. Incidental teaching relies on the child’s natural interests as the basis for learning, with the teacher following the child’s lead.

What does incidental teaching involve?

Incidental teaching involves using several steps to improve communication skills:

  1. Set up an interesting environment for a child – for example, a play area with favourite objects and/or activities.
  2. Restrict access to an interesting object in some way – for example, by putting it in a place that’s visible but out of reach.
  3. Wait for the child to ask for the object or make a gesture like pointing. This is where the learning begins.
  4. Prompt the child to elaborate – for example, ‘What colour teddy bear do you want?’.
  5. Wait until the child responds – for example, ‘Pink teddy’.
  6. Reward the child by giving the desired object.

Incidental teaching can take a lot of time. It might need many hours a day. Depending on the needs of the child, it can go on for several years.

Cost considerations

The cost of naturalistic teaching approaches depends on the type of intervention or program used. Applied Behaviour Analysis (ABA) programs that use incidental teaching will probably involve a high cost because they take a lot of time.

If you choose to work with a speech pathologist or psychologist, your costs might be covered for up to 20 sessions by Medicare. Some private health care funds might also cover a portion of the consultation fee. This can be claimed immediately if the provider has HICAPS.

Does incidental teaching work?

High-quality research shows that this approach has positive effects on the behaviour of children with autism spectrum disorder (ASD).

Who practises incidental teaching?

Anyone can practise incidental teaching. Most Applied Behaviour Analysis (ABA) programs are developed by psychologists and implemented by special education teachers, occupational therapists, speech pathologists and other aides.

Parent education, training, support and involvement

If your child is in an Applied Behaviour Analysis (ABA) program that uses naturalistic teaching techniques, you’ll have an active role. The level of parent involvement varies depending on the program or service in which incidental teaching is being used. You might get some training, depending on the specific program.

You can also use incidental teaching practices during everyday activities – for example, when you’re reading a story or going to the park.

Where can you find a practitioner?

The Behavior Analyst Certification Board has a list of members internationally who have achieved certification in Applied Behaviour Analysis (ABA).

You can also find practitioners by going to:

If you’re interested in incidental teaching it’s a good idea to talk about it with your GP or one of the other professionals working with your child. You could also talk with your NDIA planner, NDIS early childhood partner or NDIS local area coordination partner, if you have one.

There are many treatments for autism spectrum disorder (ASD). They range from those based on behaviour and development to those based on medicine or alternative therapy. Our article on types of interventions for children with ASD takes you through the main treatments, so you can better understand your child’s options.
 
 
 
  • Last updated or reviewed 25-11-2016