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How to Generalize Skills for Children with Autism?

Using varied instructions, materials and settings promotes the generalization of learned skills to contexts in daily life.

Children with autism often have difficulties with generalization, which refers to transferring learned skills to new contexts. While neurotypical children appear to naturally apply learned skills in new ways, children with autism tend to require more support. An example of a lack of generalization occurs when a child knows how to respond to the greeting “hello” but is unable to apply that learned skill when greeted with other similar expressions such as “what’s up” or “hi there”. According to a review by de Marchena and colleagues (2015), inadequate transference of skills learned in interventions to daily life is a common barrier to the success of many interventions. It highlights the importance of considering children’s difficulties with generalization throughout the planning and course of interventions.

Repeat and apply learned skills in varied settings

As discussed, children with autism may find it challenging to use skills they have learned in school or therapy and use them in other settings. For instance, a child with newly gained speech skills may return to their old habits when they communicate at home. In such a case, it is strongly encouraged that caregivers and family members continue to consistently correct and encourage the child to speak clearly at home and in other settings, such as at the playground or the store. In general, repetition in varied contexts is necessary, as it promotes learning and memory through exposure. However, it is critical to note that persistent repetition in limited settings may have adverse effects, such that it prevents the generalization of past experiences to new ones (Rea, 2015). Therefore, it is crucial to support smooth transitions in learning in varied settings to improve the target skill in more than one context.

Using varied instructions and materials

Similarly, it is vital to introduce children with autism to new instructions and materials (i.e., stimuli) to encourage the generalization of learned skills to different examples. For instance, a child who can count objects well using an abacus may not understand how to apply their numeracy skills when tasked to count items of different properties (e.g., shapes, sizes, colors). Therefore, this also exemplifies the significance of introducing variability in learning. 

Using another example, a child who has learned a new label (e.g., fish) using only one flashcard, may not understand that another fish of a different size, shape, and color can also be labeled a fish. When instructions are overly standardized, both stimulus (e.g., flashcard of goldfish) and response (e.g., “fish”) are impeded. As a result, in Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA), professionals train loosely, meaning that they utilize varying stimuli in a systematic way, such that small or irrelevant aspects of the training are altered slightly. For example, it is suggested that seating configuration, tone, words (i.e., instructions), presentation of stimuli, reinforcer, time of day, and other environmental characteristics are varied unpredictably (Arnold-Saritepe et al., 2009; McCarton et al., 2009). These changes can contribute to helping the child tolerate minor changes in instructions and prepare them to face the different situations that may occur outside the context they practiced in (McCarton et al., 2009). Parents and teachers can also support the generalization of learning by practicing the skills learned by introducing new materials such as books, toys, and videos.

Programming common stimuli

Another recommended strategy to promote generalization is programming common stimuli, which means incorporating stimuli and typical features of the natural environment into the instructional setting (e.g., classroom, therapy sessions). Simply, it means to teach the target skill, for example buying food, in a more controlled setting first, such as through activities such as role-play. Once the skill is learned, it is essential to introduce them to the stimuli they would encounter in the real world (e.g., paper notes, coins, food items). This strategy is believed to be effective as it allows children to practice the skill and identify the key elements in a controlled environment before learning to transfer them to the natural environment (McCarton et al., 2009).  


There are many strategies to promote the generalization of skills. In general, variability of instructions, materials and settings is crucial. In addition, collaboration, and communication between stakeholders – parents, school, professionals, and community, is also key. Understanding what and how a child has gained a new skill in school or therapy can provide insights into how they can be practiced at home or in a different context altogether. Though it may be effortful, transference of skill indicates success and mastery as a child is able to utilize the skills learned in their daily life. Therefore, generalization should always be prioritized in the planning and process of learning new skills.

Written by: Shariffah


Arnold-Saritepe, A. M., Phillips, K. J., Mudford, O. C., De Rozario, K. A., & Taylor, S. A. (2009). Generalization and maintenance. Applied behavior analysis for children with autism spectrum disorders, 207-224. 

de Marchena, A. B., Eigsti, I. M., & Yerys, B. E. (2015). Brief report: Generalization weaknesses in verbally fluent children and adolescents with autism spectrum disorder. Journal of autism and developmental disorders45, 3370-3376.

McCarton, C., Weiss, M. J., Feldman, I. & Hickie, J., (2009, July 1). Improving the generalization skills in learners with autism. Autism Spectrum News.

Rea, S., (2015, October 5). Training by repetition actually prevents learning for those with autism. Carnegie Mellon University.

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