Teachers, therapists and parents of children with autism and other developmental disabilities spend countless hours educating their children. They focus on teaching language, social and independence skills. Not only do they want their children to learn new skills during instructional sessions, but they also want them to be able to retain these skills and "generalize" them, or use them in all appropriate situations, in a natural way. In other words, they want their children to become "fluent" in the new skills.
Fluency is a relatively new term in the education of children with autism, and more and more educators are incorporating fluency-promoting practices into their teaching. According to Dr. Carl Binder, a fluency expert from Washington State, fluency means the child can perform a skill quickly, smoothly, fluidly, confidently, competently, capably, automatically, without thinking and without hesitation.
More specifically, fluency is performing the skill accurately. We typically set a mastery goal for a child to perform a skill at a certain level of accuracy, usually as a percentage of opportunities. For example, a mastery goal might be identifying pictures of common objects with 80 percent accuracy for all pictures presented during each teaching session.
Speed (also known as rate) of performance is another important aspect of mastery. Thus, in the above example, we would also be looking for the child to identify the pictures quickly, such as by pointing to the correct picture at a rate of 20 times per minute. Consider the difference in mastery between a child who can identify 20 pictures per minute and a child who can identify pictures at a rate of one per minute. We might say that the first child is "fluent" in identifying pictures.
Experts in promoting fluency have identified four primary considerations:
First, the target skill must be chosen. It is always best to focus on a specific skill that is observable and distinct from other skills. Often, we choose to work on one component or step of a larger, more complex skill, such as sounding out part of a word rather than the entire word.
Second, teach the skill to a high level of accuracy. A number of instructional procedures can be used, including discrete trial training and natural environment training, and by using positive reinforcement, prompting and the fading of prompts. When we are focused on accuracy, time is not limited and speed of response is not the priority.
Third, select a target speed of performance to indicate fluent mastery. The target needs to be individualized for each child and for each skill. Teachers should pick an accuracy level and a speed level that would likely result in the child being fluent in the skill.
Typically, we choose a short period of time to assess fluent mastery, such as a per-minute or per-five-minute period. Instruction to improve speed of responding may start with requiring an initial speed and then increasing the requirement before positive reinforcement is given.
Many short instructional and practice sessions appear to be more successful in maintaining the child's attention and performance than longer sessions.
Fourth, teach the child to combine the components to enable larger, complex skill mastery to occur.
Fluent mastery of skills is the outcome we desire in our teaching. Focusing on speed and rate of performance can help ensure this outcome. Successful athletes, actors, surgeons and speakers of a second language are good examples of individuals who have learned new skills to a high level of fluency.
A skill learned fluently will likely be retained and will likely occur in other settings and with other people. Once we learn to do something well, we enjoy it more and engage in it more often. The same is likely true for our children with autism and other developmental disabilities. To further explore this topic, visit www.autismteachingtools.com and www.binder-riha.com Alan Harchik, Ph.D., is senior vice president of the May Institute, which operates schools for children and adolescents with autism and other developmental disabilities in Arlington, Braintree, Chatham and West Springfield. The institute is sponsoring the development of the National Autism Center, a new nonprofit organization dedicated to supporting effective, evidence-based treatment approaches for children with autism. Contact the institute at (800) 778-7601 or on the Web at www.may institute.org