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    How to Use Chaining to Break Down Complex Tasks for Autistic Children

    Topics: Autism & Transitions, Infant/Toddler (0-3), Elementary (4-12)

    How to Use Chaining to Break Down Complex Tasks for Autistic Children


    What Is Chaining?

    Have you ever sat down with a recipe in front of you and started reading the list of the ingredients and each step in the recipe? Some steps you may already know, but some you may not. Some recipes are simple, and some are much more complex. If you tried making the dish without the recipe, you may leave out an important ingredient, get the measurement wrong, or miss a step. 

    Teaching a new or complex skill using an Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA) method called chaining can help a learner who misses steps, performs steps out of sequence, or completes the steps incorrectly. Although chaining is a part of ABA instruction, this method can be used to teach anyone a complex skill where several behaviors are chained together to accomplish a terminal goal. 


    Why Is Chaining Beneficial?

    In ABA, chaining is the process of connecting smaller individual behaviors in the correct order to complete a more complex behavior. Any task that requires more than one behavior can be taught using a behavior chain. This behavior chain allows a complex task to feel more achievable. The child works on one step at a time independently while receiving assistance in completing the remaining steps in the chain.   

    For autistic children, using the process of chaining provides a “recipe” to follow, which clearly outlines the steps and expectations necessary to complete tasks. Some of these tasks include everyday events, such as handwashing, making a bed, brushing teeth, or tying a shoe. 


    How to Create a Behavior Chain?

    When teaching a child how to use a fork, you first want to lay out the steps involved in the task:

    1. girl with autism using a forkPick up the fork.
    2. Poke a piece of food with the fork. 
    3. Poke the food so that it stays on the fork.
    4. Lift the fork to your mouth.
    5. Open your mouth.
    6. Place the fork with the food in your mouth.
    7. Close your mouth.
    8. Pull the fork from your mouth without the food.

    Next, you want to evaluate if the child successfully performs any of the steps already. For example, does the child already know how to pick up the fork and poke a piece of food? If the child can only pick up the fork, have them complete the first step independently and then prompt and assist the child with all remaining steps. Once each step is mastered at an independent level, move forward to the next step. In the last step, if the entire series was done more independently than the last time, then you would provide a reinforcer, such as verbal praise. Keep repeating the chain until the child masters each step in the correct order and completes the entire task independently.  

    Once the behavior chain is laid out step by step, I like to complete the entire chain myself to make sure I did not miss any steps! You would be surprised at how often it happens!  


    Here is a look at another example:

    Jonah is learning to brush his teeth. He knows where the toothbrush and the toothpaste are kept, and he can identify both objects. First, you want to break down the task of brushing his teeth into small achievable steps. Do not forget to complete the behavior chain yourself to ensure you did not miss any steps. Here we go:

    1. boy with autism brushing teethJonah will get his green toothbrush from his cup, and his toothpaste from the bathroom drawer.
    2. He will wet the toothbrush bristles, unscrew the cap, and put toothpaste on the bristles.
    3. Then Jonah will open his mouth and begin to brush his top teeth. (This part usually takes time to teach. Show the child using your hand over his hand how to properly brush.)
    4. Once Jonah has mastered step 3, you can model for him how to spit into the sink and rinse out his mouth.
    5. Once Jonah has mastered those steps independently, he is ready to rinse his toothbrush and put it away.
    6. Then he screws the top back on the toothpaste and puts the toothpaste away.
    7. Before he leaves the bathroom, Jonah needs to wipe his mouth.

    Provide reinforcement each time Jonah completes the first step independently. When you move on to the second step, reinforcement is provided only after Jonah completes both the first and second steps independently. Then reinforcement is provided after he completes steps 1-3 independently and so on.  

    Make sure Jonah can perform each step independently 3-4 consecutive times before moving on to the next step. This is a complex behavior that requires time. Feel free to break these steps down into even smaller steps if necessary. Some children need more reinforcement, and that is okay! 


    Examples of Reinforcement

    Often when you hear or read anything about autism, you come across the word reinforcement. However, what are some good examples of reinforcements when teaching an autistic child new skills? We have put together a small list:

    • Offering praise
    • Giving a thumbs-up
    • Giving a high-five
    • Clapping and cheering
    • Providing a hug
    • Giving a sticker
    • Providing access to a privilege or activity
    • Giving tangible rewards, such as a favorite snack

    When working with behavior chains, I usually start with smaller reinforcements such as verbal praise or a high-five and offer a more rewarding reinforcement for more difficult steps or completion of the entire chain. You do not want your child so focused on reinforcement in the first few steps that they do not want to continue with the rest of the behavior chain. I would also consider what type of task the child is working toward completing. For instance, reinforcing with a tangible item is probably not the best choice after brushing your teeth.

    mother and daughter with autism high fiving


    Visual Schedule

    Any time you teach a new skill, creating a visual picture schedule is an effective way to support the child. In this case, you would be able to review the visual schedule with Jonah before attempting the skill. You could also hang the visual close to the sink where Jonah brushes his teeth. Another option is to create a flip book that allows the child to flip through each step, which may promote more independence, or try the STAGES® Learning Sequencing Cards.


    Store This Technique in Your Recipe Box

    Almost any task that requires more than 3 steps can be broken down and taught effectively using this technique. Chaining is especially helpful when a child can only remember some steps or the beginning steps of a complex task, such as tying a shoe. Store this technique in your “recipe box” so you can use it when you feel it is appropriate! 


    Have you used chaining with your child? What has worked and what has not worked? Do you have any questions about chaining? Let us know!


    For more specific information on Task Analysis see:

    --Using Task Analysis for Arrival and Dismissal Routines

    --Teaching Multi-Step Skills Through Task Analysis for Students with Autism

    --Using Task Analysis to Develop Independent Living Skills

    Marianne Coppola

    Written by Marianne Coppola

    Marianne Coppola, MHA, ABA works as a child development specialist with toddlers and pre-schoolers. She is passionate about early intervention and finding creative and engaging ways to help children reach developmental milestones. Her work extends to children diagnosed with Autism Spectrum Disorder, Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder, Sensory Processing Disorder, Social Anxiety, and Motor Development Delays. She holds an M.A. in Healthcare Administration, and an M.A. in Special Education and Applied Behavior Analysis. She is currently studying to become a Board-Certified Behavior Analyst and is pursuing a PhD in Behavioral Health.


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