Categories: ASD and DD, Child-focused

Learning new social, language, and daily living skills can be challenging for children with autism and other developmental disabilities, but acquiring those skills is only the first step of the learning process. Children must also learn how to “generalize” their skills, or use them in a variety of settings, with different people, and in different formats. In addition, they must become fluent with these skills.

Fluency is the ability to perform skills easily, automatically, quickly, and accurately. For example, when you first learned to drive, you had to think about how to turn on the ignition, put the car in gear, and check your mirrors. Now you do not even think about those tasks – you do them automatically. Reading is another example. A fluent reader does not have to sound out each word, but can easily read individual words and focus on comprehending the text.

Before a child can become fluent with a skill, he or she must acquire the skill and learn to perform it accurately. For example, young children in applied behavior analysis programs learn to label, or name, items that are presented to them one at a time. Initially, the therapist or teacher holds up an object or picture and asks, “What is it?” The child answers, and is rewarded for every correct answer.

After the child learns several words, the teacher decreases the amount of reinforcement the child receives for naming individual objects, and offers rewards only when the child names many items in quick succession. Then, the teacher might hold up five items in succession and reward the child for labeling them all within 10-15 seconds. Later, she might expect the child to label 20-40 pictures presented on a page within a minute.

It is also important for children to develop fluency in basic reading and math skills. They need to have good language and comprehensive skills and fluent decoding skills to become good readers. They need to become fluent in basic math skills in order to be successful with higher-level math.

One way teachers assess fluency in academic skills is by using curriculum-based measurement (CBM). CBM assesses both the speed and the accuracy components of fluency. It can be used with children who are typically developing as well as with those who have disabilities.

A teacher using CBM to evaluate reading skills might ask a student to read two or three passages from the reading curriculum. The teacher would determine the student’s oral reading fluency rate by counting the number of words read correctly per minute.

CBM for math involves similar assessments of computational skills. For instance, to assess a student’s fluency in addition, a teacher would give him or her a worksheet with addition problems. The student would have two minutes to work on the problems, and then the number of correct digits would be calculated.

In addition to using CBM to evaluate reading and math skills, teachers also use it to determine the effectiveness of interventions and to inform parents about a child’s week-to-week progress.

Children whose skills are fluent will be much more likely to maintain their skills and use them in a variety of settings. Just like the rest of us, children on the autism spectrum like being successful and are more likely to regularly engage in activities that they can do well. If parents and teachers can help children with autism develop fluent skills, these children are likely to use their skills more frequently, and be happier doing so.

By Shannon Kay, Ph.D., BCBA-D

May Institute is a nonprofit organization that is a national leader in the field of applied behavior analysis, serving individuals with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) 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. May Institute operates five schools for children and adolescents with ASD and other developmental disabilities, including our newest school in Chicopee, Mass. For more information, call 800.778.7601  or visit