What is incidental teaching?
Incidental teaching is a naturalistic teaching technique used in some autism therapies, particularly Applied Behaviour Analysis (ABA) programs. It’s also used in speech pathology, occupational therapy and other therapies. It isn’t an autism therapy in itself.
When teachers, therapists or parents are using incidental teaching, they use natural opportunities for learning, like play, to develop children’s skills. And they reinforce children’s attempts to behave in a desired way as children get closer 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 are autistic or have developmental delays.
What is incidental teaching used for?
Incidental teaching is used to improve language and other communication skills in autistic children. 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. It offered an alternative to traditional techniques like Discrete Trial Training (DDT), which teach 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 natural environments like playtime, instead of in highly structured settings like a clinic.
Incidental teaching also relies on the child’s natural interests as the basis for learning, with the teacher, therapist or parent following the child’s lead.
What does incidental teaching involve?
Incidental teaching involves using several steps to improve communication skills:
- Set up an interesting environment for a child – for example, a play area with favourite objects and/or activities.
- Restrict access to an interesting object in some way – for example, by putting it in a place that’s visible but out of reach.
- Wait for the child to ask for the object or make a gesture like pointing. This is where the learning begins.
- Prompt the child to say or communicate more – for example, ‘What colour teddy bear do you want?’ It’s important to make sure that the child has the language skills to say what you’re prompting.
- Wait until the child responds – for example, ‘Pink teddy’.
- 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.
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.
You might be able to include the cost of using incidental teaching in children’s NDIS plans. You can contact the NDIS to find out.
Does incidental teaching work?
High-quality research shows that this approach has positive effects on autistic children’s behaviour.
Who practises incidental teaching?
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. For example, if your child is working with a speech pathologist or occupational therapist, they’ll probably ask you to use incidental teaching during everyday activities – for example, when you’re reading a story or going to the park. You might get some training, depending on the specific program.
The level of parent involvement varies depending on the program or service in which incidental teaching is being used.
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:
- Speech Pathology Australia – Find a speech pathologist
- Occupational therapy Australia – Find an occupational therapist.
If you’re interested in incidental teaching, it’s a good idea to talk about this approach with your GP or one of the other professionals working with your child. You could also talk about it with your NDIA planner, NDIS early childhood early intervention (ECEI) coordinator or NDIS local area coordinator (LAC), if you have one.
There are many therapies for autism. They range from those based on behaviour and development to those based on medicine or alternative therapy. Our article on types of interventions for autistic children takes you through the main therapies, so you can better understand your child’s options.