Assessing Basic Language Skills

Categories: ASD and DD, Child-focused

Most children with autism and other developmental disabilities have been through numerous assessments, evaluations, and tests. Some assessment tools, such as the Wechsler Intelligence Scale for Children, provide an age-or grade-equivalent score. Others, such as the Autism Diagnostic Observation Schedule (ADOS), help determine whether or not a child has a specific disability. Neither of these types of assessment tools, however, provides guidance in determining what to teach a child with disabilities.

A third type of assessment tool measures and assesses a child’s ability to perform a number of skills. The Assessment of Basic Language and Learning Skills (ABLLS) is this type of tool. The ABLLS has been available for about 10 years and has just been revised and updated. It was designed to help develop the content of educational programs for children with autism and other developmental disabilities. It is a tool that can be used as a curriculum guide for choosing instructional objectives, and a system to track and monitor progress.

Tools such as the ABLLS contain long lists of tasks relating to a child’s language, social, and self-care abilities. These assessments can provide a lot of guidance in determining what to teach the child because they point to very specific skill deficits a child might have. These tools are called criterion-referenced because the child’s score is compared to whether or not the criterion was met, not how the child compared to other children.

In the ABLLS, hundreds of skills are separated into 25 categories, most in the area of basic learning skills. These are some of the most important skills a child should master in order to obtain a foundation for further learning and development. They include:

  • imitating actions

  • imitating verbal sounds and words

  • making requests

  • matching items

  • following instructions

  • stating the names of common items

  • having a simple conversation

  • engaging in independent play

  • following classroom routines

Reading, writing, math, dressing, eating, and toileting skills are also included in the assessment. Because many of the children we serve in May Institute schools and programs do not have these basic skills, we focus on teaching them.

The different sections of the ABLLS assessment are completed by teachers, instructors, parents, and therapists. The child is required to attempt to complete each section so an accurate score can be recorded. Each section includes a description, the desired response, and scoring instructions. Most sections are scored on a scale of one through four. The ABLLS is completed over many sessions, sometimes taking an hour or two each day over the course of two or three weeks.

The results are charted so it is easy to determine the child’s strengths and areas that need work. Then it is up to the child’s team to prioritize which skills to teach first. The ABLLS provides guidance on where to begin and how to proceed. It is a useful tool in developing a comprehensive Individualized Education Plan (IEP).

The strength of the ABLLS lies in its comprehensiveness, description of the child’s current ability, and method of tracking progress. It does not provide guidance on how to teach – that also remains a decision for the child’s team. An applied behavior analysis (ABA) approach is typically used.

At the May Center School for Autism and Developmental Disabilities in West Springfield and in our home-based early intervention service programs, we find the ABLLS to be an extremely helpful tool. Most encouraging is our recent use of the tool to provide guidance in providing instruction to adults whom we support in community group homes and apartments. The ABLLS is available at Behavior Analysts, Inc.

By Alan Harchik, Ph.D., BCBA

May Institute is a nonprofit organization that is a national leader in the field of applied behavior analysis, serving individuals with autism spectrum disorder and other developmental disabilities, brain injury and neurobehavioral disorders, and other special needs. Founded more than 65 years ago, we provide a wide range of exceptional educational and rehabilitative services across the lifespan. For more information, call 800.778.7601  or visit