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Generalization: What is it, why is it important, and how do we work on this concept during ABA-based treatment?

March 8, 2020

Shot a mother and her children sitting on the sofa together indoors

The intended outcome of ABA intervention is to foster the skills necessary for the client to achieve independence. In order to achieve this goal, it is important that all programs are designed to promote generalization- essentially the ability for concepts and skills to transfer across similar or even new conditions. Generalization allows the learner to utilize what they’ve learned during sessions and put it into practice in their natural environment.

Put simplistically, generalization can be thought of as the transfer of learning from narrow parameters to much broader ones. In our day to day lives, we are constantly applying skills that we learned under very specific conditions and we apply them to other situations, but this can be especially difficult for people on the spectrum and generalization does not occur automatically, it has to be by design. To further break down the concept of generalization, we have to tease out the difference between stimulus generalization and response generalization.

Stimulus generalization is recognizing critical features that fall under the same category. For example, you’ve learned that a public restroom will usually say, “Ladies’ Room”, but you can also identify a bathroom when the establishment is feeling creative and labels it “Lassies’”. Being able to recognize a bathroom sign even if it doesn’t have the sign that you’re used to, is an example of stimulus generalization. Over your lifespan, you’ve seen enough examples and non-examples of what constitutes a public restroom that you identify them with relative ease. This is different from response generalization, which is when a behavior that is taught under certain conditions is now occurring in other environments in a new form.

To continue with the bathroom example, if a child dries their hands after washing them at school and at home, this skill has been generalized, but we can say that the response (drying hands in this case) has been generalized if they are drying their hands with a towel at home and an air dryer at school. The outcome is the same (drying hands), but the actual behavior looks different between using a towel and using an air dryer. When we are thinking about implementing new programs, it is important that we consider if the behavior itself has to change or if it’s the circumstances that are changing.

We can further break down generalization into three types, across people, across settings and across behavior. Generalization across people is when a behavior occurs in the absence of the person that taught it. For example, most people are taught to say, “excuse me” to interrupt a conversation by their parents at home. If you say, “excuse me” when you interrupt anyone outside of your parents, that shows that you have generalized the phrase across people.

If I say, “excuse me” when I go to the museum with my parents, this is an example of generalization across settings because the context has changed. If instead of saying, “excuse me” to the security guard, I say, “pardon me”, this is now generalization across behavior because I’m using a phrase that means the same thing, but is different than what I’ve been taught.

If these concepts seem complicated, it’s because they are! Life is a stream of new situations and that makes it so important for us to ensure that generalization training is occurring within our interventions and at home beyond therapy. Being able to come up with the appropriate skill in that new situation doesn’t occur without active training. Fortunately, there are several fairly simple ways we can promote generalization.

The simplest approach is to use as many examples of a stimulus as possible. The more exposure you’ve had to a concept, the more you start to see the patterns of what makes up a certain category. For example, if someone is learning about fruits, it would be better to use several pictures of an apple rather than using the same image over and over. Using the apple again, instead of having pictures of different red apples, one can show the learner pictures of green apples, yellow apples, a cartoon apple, a whole apple, a slice of an apple, etc.

Presenting an item that is categorically the same, but has different attributes is what we call training loosely. This will help the learner identify the various features that together will allow the learner to recognize an apple. Sometimes we need to interact with the same stimulus in completely different ways according to the setting so we need to plan on teaching the client the rules or contingencies around when apples are okay for them to eat. For instance, if they are home, they can go to the fruit bowl and grab an apple whenever they want, but in a store, they have to pay for it first.

If we were to just teach the learner what an apple is based on a single picture of a red apple, we have not given them all of the information necessary for them to be able to apply that concept outside of the teaching environment. Finally, utilizing multiple teachers, i.e. staff and parents to work on programs promotes generalization across people and it helps the parents generalize the teaching skills they need once services have been removed.

Ultimately, the goal is to foster independence as much as possible and by promoting generalization within an intervention, there are greater chances of a positive and long lasting outcome. Generalization is not only necessary for our clients to develop their own skills, but also for parents to provide support as needed beyond ABA services.