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What is generalization and why is it a consideration in selecting an ABA Center?

January 18, 2022

More and more children affected by autism are receiving ABA-based treatment in centers. These centers are typically controlled instructional settings designed to teach children essential life skills. Behavior analysts plan, so essential skills taught in centers transfer to the child’s natural environments (school, home, church, library, etc.) and to other people (teachers, siblings, grandparents, peers, etc.). The behavioral principle of generalization is used by behavior analysts to transfer skills to a non-instructional setting.

Generalization is the ability to perform a skill under different conditions (stimulus generalization), the ability to apply a skill in different ways (response generalization) and the ability to continue to exhibit the response over time (maintenance). If your child is only able to perform a specific skill in one setting, or one specific way, is the skill truly learned?

Throughout the goal development process, the Center Clinical Staff plan for the generalization of new skills. Generalization is embedded into teaching to ensure that multiple exemplars (aka–any different examples) are taught in different ways across a variety of settings. When a range of examples is used to teach concepts, learners can draw connections with the important features of the stimuli and extend what they learned. For example, when teaching the identification of the color red, the clinical staff will show the learner different pictures and objects with varying shades of red.

The Butterfly Effects ABA center environment automatically promotes generalization because teaching can occur outside of the setting where the skill must be exhibited.  Not only do therapists at the center teach children skills with a variety of different stimuli, but the different learning areas of the center are also arranged specifically to resemble other natural environments. For example, a simulated classroom environment can be arranged to teach important skills like following directions and group participation with fewer distractions than a typical classroom. A simulated grocery store setting in the imaginative play area of the center can teach skills like making choices, following a shopping list, counting items, and identifying different types of foods. The group tables at the center are set up to teach our children important mealtime behaviors that can be generalized into the home and a restaurant as well.

How can I best support my child and the skills they’ve learned at the center?

First and foremost, parents should coordinate with their service provider to guide the selection of socially significant treatment goals that will make a meaningful impact for their child.

To maximize a child’s growth and development on a continual basis, we encourage active participation in caregiver training sessions with your BCBA. Participation allows caregivers to gain a better understanding of autism spectrum disorder and how the diagnosis relates to your child as a unique individual. Parent participation allows caregivers to extend effective strategies that have helped their child improve skill acquisition and manage problem behaviors at the center to the home and community. Through active caregiver participation, center therapy goals are more likely to be maintained and generalized to new settings and can potentially reduce the level of service intensity. Generalization is an important factor in a child’s developmental success and facilitates independence. Research supports that the incorporation of behavioral strategies in multiple environments can improve the parent/child relationship and potentially reduce caregiver stress.

Steve Woolf, PhD., BCBA-D


Butterfly Effects

Father playing with his little girl at home Father playing with his little girl at home