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Empowering Students with Autism: Teaching Replacement Skills to Address Maladaptive Behaviors

In autism classroom settings, teaching replacement skills can be a vital component of managing behaviors that you are targeting for reduction. This skill building perspective empowers individuals to navigate the complexities of daily life with confidence and independence. From requesting preferred items to tolerating change, using structured skill protocols can allow educators to promote skill acquisition and foster positive outcomes. In this blog post, we’ll explore using skill protocols to teach replacement skills and provide actionable tips for effective teaching.

Overview of Functional Replacement Skills

  • Requesting Skills: Teaching individuals to effectively communicate their wants and needs is crucial for promoting independence and reducing frustration. Often, students with autism have limited communication skills, and as such have become dependent on engaging in maladaptive behaviors to indicate their wants and needs.

  • Requesting a Break: Recognizing when to take a break is a crucial self-regulation skill. This is so important for learners who are reliant on engaging in maladaptive behaviors to avoid work or other non-preferred events. Learning the replacement skill of expressing the need for a break in a respectful and communicative manner promotes self-awareness and emotional regulation.

  • Tolerating “No“: Learning to accept “no” as a response is essential for navigating social interactions and following rules and instructions. While we want to grant learners’ requests, we also need to keep them safe. I have personally experienced learners become frustrated when the answer is “no” to requests such as: opening fire extinguisher case doors, going out on the playground in the rain, or not wearing shoes to get on the bus! Accepting “no” without engaging in maladaptive behaviors encourages resilience and flexibility.

  • Tolerating Change: Adaptability is a vital life skill, especially in a world filled with unpredictability. Learning the replacement skill of tolerating changes in routines, environments, and expectations, fosters resilience and coping skills. Common examples of changes in schedules that can sometimes trigger inappropriate behaviors could include: assemblies, fire drills, and field trips.

  • Waiting: Patience is a virtue, but it’s also a skill that can be taught and reinforced! I think of learning to “wait” as a precursor to learning to accept “no.” Whenever I took my students on community based instruction outings, this was where I would realize how much more we needed to practice this skill in the classroom to mimic waiting in: restaurants (waiting for their order), grocery stores (waiting on line to pay), or even recreational parks (waiting for peers to finish using the bathroom to board the bus).

This is by no means an exhaustive list, but rather some core replacement skills that I try to keep in mind when teaching early learners with autism. By proactively teaching these skills, we can minimize occurrences of aggressions, disruptions, and other maladaptive behaviors.

Tips for Effectively Teaching Replacement Skills

  • Choose Appropriate Mastery Criteria: Set clear and attainable mastery criteria for each skill (e.g., 80% success over 3 consecutive days), considering the learner’s current abilities and progress. Adjust criteria as needed as you are teaching replacement skills, to ensure the criteria is challenging yet achievable.

  • Practice Consistently: Integrate skill practice into daily routines and activities, providing frequent opportunities for practice across different settings and contexts. Strive to practice these replacement skills as much as or MORE often than academic skills. Really think about the skills you are teaching in perspective to the larger environment outside of structured school settings. After all, how functional it really is that a student can learn to count out the correct number of bills for a purchase if they cannot appropriately wait on line to make that purchase?!

  • Generalize Skills: Encourage the learner to apply newly acquired skills in various environments and with different communication partners, promoting real-world relevance and application. For example, if you are practicing requesting snacks, give those snacks to a teacher that the student does not normally encounter, and make sure this novel teacher can understand the student’s request.

  • Individualize Instruction: Tailor instruction to meet the unique needs and preferences of each learner, modifying teaching strategies, materials, and prompting techniques as necessary.

  • Use Motivation: Identify meaningful reinforcers that are highly motivating for the learner and deliver them contingent upon successful trials of replacement skill teaching. Use differential reinforcement to deliver the highest quality reinforcers for independent, correct responses (e.g., a prompted request might yield a 30 second break, but an independent request accesses a 2 minute break).

  • Make Data-Based Decisions: Collect data systematically to track the learner’s progress and evaluate the effectiveness of teaching the targeted replacement skills. Use data to make informed decisions about adjusting instructional methods (such as prompting techniques or visual cues), modifying mastery criteria, or targeting additional skills as needed.


In conclusion, implementing structured protocols can teach functional replacement skills. Incorporating the tips for effective teaching outlined above can assist ABA therapists and educators to empower individuals with autism to acquire essential skills that can replace maladaptive behaviors.


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