Brookes Logo

The Preview: Disabilities

Teach children with autism in everyday settings for the most positive outcomes

Teacher and classmate look at art project boy is working on
Opportunities abound in daily settings for purposeful interventions to enhance the progress of children on the spectrum

Myth or fact? Children with autism cannot learn adequately in everyday settings so it is best to teach them in one-to-one settings or in segregated classes for children with disabilities.

Myth! There is a general belief among some professionals that children on the spectrum cannot learn in everyday settings the way typically developing children do. While it is true is that children with ASDs require more purposeful intervention to optimize learning, they can thrive in natural settings.

In fact, children with autism who receive evidence-based interventions in the context of daily routines learn better and have fewer problems transferring the use of their newly learned behaviors to other settings.

The benefits of naturalistic instruction

Pivotal Response Treatment

Unlike other ABA approaches that focus on improving individual target behaviors, Pivotal Response Treatment (PRT) is a comprehensive and naturalistic behavioral approach for children with ASDs. PRT targets pivotal areas underlying the core symptoms of autism that, when changed, produce generalized improvements across many behaviors.

The PRT Pocket Guidewhich explains the principles behind Pivotal Response Treatment, one of a select group of highly effective, evidence-based treatment approaches for autismemphasizes the importance of intervention in natural environments. Whenever possible, according to the co-developers of PRT, teaching needs to be done in the natural environmentgeneral education classes, after-school activities and classes, family outings—just as if the child didn't have a disability.

Here are some of the benefits of naturalistic instruction according to The PRT Pocket Guide:


Children who learn in very specialized, segregated environments have difficulties generalizing the use of new behaviors to other environments, to new tasks that weren't specifically taught, and to new people. For example, a child may perform perfectly well on math problems on worksheets, but can't go to the store and add up the prices of two items. Or, she can label a picture of a zebra but may go to the zoo and have no idea what is that black-and-white striped animal with four legs.

Teaching children in natural, everyday settings solves the generalization problem. By teaching children in general education classes whenever possible, taking them into everyday settings such as restaurants, the grocery store, or the toy store, and having them participate in after-school clubs and activites, they learn how to be in the "real world."

Social and academic gains

In segregated classrooms with a small number of other students with disabilities, children with autism often work on curricula at a lower level than what their peers in the general education classroom are working on so they are more apt to fall behind. They are more likely to acquire atypical behaviors when primary peer role models have delayed communication, disruptive behaviors, and limited interests. By contrast, in general education classrooms, children with ASDs have plenty of opportunities to observe and practice good social skills.


Working with children's natural interests and fun activities rather than arbitrary objects or flashcards in drill practice also leads to greater success. For instance, for a child having trouble learning how to produce the letter f, ask him to request a favorite item beginning with the letter f rather than asking him to name items on flashcards. With a child who loves playing with balls, gather a bunch of balls and name them with words that begin with the letter f: "football," a "funny" ball, a "foam" ball. When he requests with object with the correct production of the letter, give him the ball. Using fun activities also minimizes disruptive behavior and leaves the teacher more time to devote to teaching.

Download free tips on "Making It Work in Everyday Settings from The PRT Pocket Guide. " Also read the success story of "JC," a boy who overcame struggles with challenging behavior when he moved to a general education classroom.

Are interventions in natural environments sufficient?

Natural environment intervention

NEI is a federally mandated early intervention approach for young children with disabilities that systematically maximizes teaching and learning opportunities throughout the day by embedding interventions within naturally occurring routines. In using NEI, caregivers are not required to set aside extra time in their day to provide "therapy." Instead, they receive training and support from professionals to provide evidence-based interventions within the context of their daily routines. Thus, NEI doesn't require extra time, but it does require a more systematic use of time spent with the child to optimize learning opportunities throughout the day.

In 2001, the National Research Council (NRC) recommended that children with ASD receive at least 25 hours of intensive instructional programming. Some professionals took that to mean that children with ASD should receive at least 25 hours of one-to-one instruction in therapeutic or clinical settings each week. In actuality, NRC specified that learning should occur within daily caregiving, play, and social interactions that are repeated throughout the day.

Debra Leach, author of the new book Bringing ABA to Home, School, and Play for Young Children with Autism Spectrum Disorders and Other Disabilities, clarifies that with carefully designed natural environment intervention (NEI), young children can receive the intensity of interventions they need within their ongoing routines across home, school, and community settings. Of course, some children may require one-to-one interventions in addition to NEI, depending on the profile of the child.

Natural environment interventions have three essential components:

  • they must incorporate an interest-based approach to increase the child's active participation in everyday routines

  • the skills targeted for intervention during those routines must address the child's core impairments (joint attention, social reciprocity, communication skills)

  • the instructional strategies selected must have an evidence base specifically for children with ASD

Like PRT, NEI utilizes the principles of applied behavior analysis (ABA), which has a strong research base for effectiveness with young children with ASD. Contrary to some misconceptions—as Dr. Leach points out—ABA teaching strategies can and should be implemented within naturally occurring everyday routines.

Help pinpoint a child's interests with this sample caregiver interview from Bringing ABA to Home, School, and Play for Young Children with Autism Spectrum Disorders and Other Disabilities.


Children on the spectrum make great progress when they receive evidence-based interventions in typical, everyday routines and settings. To give them the best chance of success in real-world environments, give them every possible opportunity to learn, practice, and interact in real-world environments.

Evidence-based interventions in natural settings ...

Bringing ABA to Home, School, and Play for Young Children with Autism Spectrum Disorders and Other Disabilities

The PRT Pocket Guide: Pivotal Response Treatment for Autism Spectrum Disorders

Social Skills and Adaptive Behavior in Learners with Autism Spectrum Disorders

Treatment of Autism Spectrum Disorders: Evidence-Based Intervention Strategies for Communication and Social Interactions

Real Life, Real Progress for Children with Autism Spectrum Disorders: Strategies for Successful Generalization in Natural Environments

home | catalog