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Whole Task Teaching for Individuals with Severe Autism

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Autism: The Way I See It; Whole Task Teaching for Individuals with Severe Autis
by Temple Grandin
Autism Asperger’s Digest
 | September/October 2007

The standard method for teaching a nonverbal person with autism tasks such as dressing or cooking is to provide a picture schedule that shows the steps of the task. This works well for many individuals, but some have difficulty linking the steps together. To learn a simple task such as making a sandwich, they have to see a person demonstrate the ENTIRE task, from start to finish, with no steps left out. If they do not see how the second slice of bread gets on top of the peanut butter they may not try to perform the individual steps because, as a whole, they do not make sense to the individual.Sandwichmaking is easy to teach because when the task is demonstrated the ENTIRE task is observed, and the end product – the sandwich – is concrete and has meaning to the individual.

This idea of “whole task teaching” is particularly relevant in the area of toilet training. One of the challenges with toilet training individuals on the severe end of the spectrum is that the individual may not know how the urine or feces gets into the toilet. The picture schedule shows the waste in the toilet, but it does not show how it got there. There are often more problems with teaching the person to defecate in the toilet compared to urination. This is because the individual has more likely been able to directly observe how urine comes out of the person and goes into the toilet. This is especially true with boys, but even girls can observe this. It is not as obvious an action – for either sex – when it comes to defecating. If seeing how the waste goes from the person to the toilet is left out of the teaching sequence, these individuals may not know what they have to do.

Furthermore, neurotypicals assume a picture is all that’s needed to help the child or adult link the elimination of bodily waste to the place where it should go, i.e. the toilet. But for many individuals that link is too broad a jump and does not “compute” in their brain. Those with severe sensory issues may not feel the sensation of having to urinate or understand how to bear down to defecate. These are intermittent steps that may need to be addressed for a successful toileting program.

Sometimes even demonstrating a whole task via visual teaching is not enough. Many individuals on the severe end of the spectrum have so many visual processing problems that they have to learn tasks by touch. One therapist taught a child how to use a playground slide by “walking” him through the entire task hand over hand with no steps left out. To understand how to climb the ladder and go down the slide the therapist stood behind the child and moved his hands and feet through the entire sequence: climbing the ladder, sitting on the slide and going down it.

Teaching how a foot is put into a shoe can be done in a similar manner. The therapist, hand over hand, guides the individual’s hand over the ankle and foot so the person can feel the foot, then feel the inside of the shoe so they can cognitively link how the foot could slide into the shoe. The next step, hand over hand, is to slip the foot into the shoe in one continuous motion, so the individual experiences the feeling of the foot going into the shoe and makes the cognitive connection through the tactile information being received.

Individuals on the more severe end of the autism spectrum can be taught to perform different actions, but we must not lose sight of the accompanying sensory issues that can impede their learning. In many cases, these sensory issues are severe and rob the individual of much of the “data feedback” necessary for learning that neurotypicals receive unconsciously. Whole task, visual and tactile-based teaching strategies can supply the extra information these individuals need in order to learn.


Temple Grandin is an internationally respected specialist in designing livestock handling systems. She is the most noted high-functioning person with autism in the world today.

Copyright © Autism Asperger’s Digest. 2007. All Rights Reserved. Distribution via print means prohibited without written permission of publisher.

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