Using Incidental Teaching with Children with Autism

Mary E. McDonald, Ph.D., BCBA
Published in
5 min readMay 4, 2021


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Incidental teaching was first developed by researchers Hart & Risley in the late 1960s and into the 1970s (Risley, 1968; Hart & Risley, 1975). Incidental teaching is a child-directed teaching method in which the child’s interest leads the instruction. The adult (teacher or parent) uses the child’s interests to encourage language. The child is then provided a model to promote the elaboration of language. Incidental teaching can be used with children who have a language delay and it has been used effectively with children with autism to promote the use of communicative language.

How to Set Up Incidental Teaching Opportunities

For incidental teaching to be effective, the child’s interests must be known or the child should be observed closely to see what may be of interest from moment to moment. Once the child shows an interest, there is an opportunity for an incidental teaching interaction. For example, if a child notices a toy and begins to reach toward that toy, the adult then prompts the child to point to the toy as pointing would be a more advanced form of communication than grabbing or reaching toward the toy. If the child was able to point to the item of interest, the adult would prompt the child to verbally name the item as a request.

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When using incidental teaching there are several steps in the process. First, the child must take an interest in something in the environment (at times an adult may add desired items to the setting to increase interest). The child then initiates to the adult in some communicative form that they would like to have the item (e.g., pointing). The adult then attempts to gain elaborated language from the child by modeling a higher form of communication for the child. The child then uses that level of communication with the adult and the adult provides the child with the desired item.

Creating Opportunities for Communication

When attempting to motivate the child to communicate it is important to know the child’s likes and dislikes. Knowing this information allows the adult to set up the environment with toys or activities that will most likely capture the child’s interest. Knowing the child’s current communicative level as well as communicative style is crucial when attempting to increase the child’s communication.

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It is possible to use communicative temptations to encourage the child to initiate. Communicative temptations could include: initiating activity and then stopping so the child will ask for more (e.g., spinning a top), completing a typical routine and withholding materials that are needed to complete that routine (e.g., a puzzle piece is missing), having the desired item that the child would likely want once it is seen (e.g., eating a particular snack in sight), placing desired items in sight but out of reach (e.g., candy in a jar on a shelf).

Some Potential Challenges of Implementing Incidental Teaching

It can sometimes be challenging to use a child-directed teaching method as it may seem as though the child is not interested in much or that there are just not enough opportunities for the child to practice the skill. Often, getting the learner to be motivated enough to initiate can be difficult. Therefore, the adult will sometimes set up the environment by enriching the setting with items that may be interesting to the child to increase the likelihood of initiation. Once the child is motivated by an item and the adult is aware of the opportunity, the adult will want to elaborate on the child’s communication, which may prove difficult for children who have so much difficulty with expressive language.

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One of the hallmark features of incidental teaching is that it occurs in the natural environment, however, it can also at times make it more difficult to implement. As the child moves freely through the environment and is exploring it may be more difficult to manage the child’s behavior than it would be in a more adult-directed interaction.

Benefits of Incidental Teaching

Incidental teaching can be a beneficial teaching method for children with autism and related disorders as it promotes the elaboration of existing communication. This teaching method does capitalize on the child’s interests and assures that the child is motivated during the teaching exchange. It is conducted in a natural setting and is a natural way of encouraging language in a child. It is more natural than other adult-directed teaching methods that are very structured and adult-led, such as discrete trial instruction.

It also may be possible to use incidental teaching during a telehealth therapy session with proper planning and the appropriate materials which could extend the applicability of this intervention greatly (Neely, Rispoli, Gerow & Hong, 2016).

As a child progresses, incidental teaching can be used to continue to develop communication skills and make the child a more effective communicator. As the child’s communication increases, we also often see a decrease in challenging behavior as an added benefit.

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Hart, B., & Risley, T. R. (1975). Incidental teaching of language in the preschool. Journal of Applied Behavior Analysis, 8(4), 411–420.

Neely, L., Rispoli, M., Gerow, S., & Hong, E. R. (2016). Preparing interventionists via tele-practice in incidental teaching for children with autism. Journal of Behavioral Education, 25(4), 393–416.

Risley, T. R. (1968). Establishing use of descriptive adjectives in the spontaneous speech of disadvantaged preschool children. Journal of Applied Behavior Analysis, 1, 109–120.

Robinson, K. L. S. (2018). Using incidental teaching to teach mands to children with autism spectrum disorder. Graduate Theses, Dissertations, and Problem Reports. 1–36.



Mary E. McDonald, Ph.D., BCBA

Professor @HofstraU, Researcher, Author, Autism Specialist, Behavior Analyst, and Speaker