man choosing food.

Choices and Preference Selection

This article is part of our ABA therapy techniques series where we explore the different techniques used by ABA therapists.

Choices and preference selection is used in applied behavior analysis (ABA) therapy as a method for increasing the active participation of children with autism. In this article, we explain how choice-making strategy works and how it can bring about positive behavioral changes in your child. 

What Is the Choice-Making Strategy?

Choice making can be challenging for children with autism because it requires flexible thinking and causes stress, anxiety, and exhaustion. When presented with different options, children on the autism spectrum are not always able to understand the choices they’re given, grasp the potential consequences of these choices, or communicate their preferences to others.

 

Choice-making strategy is a way to support interactions in children with autism. Additionally, learning choice-making skills allows children to indicate their preferences and get access to the items or activities they like. It can also help parents and therapists determine the reinforcers that they can use for managing the child’s behavior. 

 

This technique is particularly effective for children with autism who tend to resort to problem behaviors in order to avoid participating in activities or using materials that they find unappealing, challenging, and overwhelming. 

How does it work?

The choice-making strategy consists of presenting a child with several choice-making opportunities throughout the day. For example, you can ask the child to choose among different toys, activities, locations, foods, drinks, actions, and people to interact with. If choices are offered multiple times throughout a single activity, they may help your child remain focused, engaged, and cooperative. 

When offering a choice, it is important to start by providing a limited range of options, for example, choosing between two different books or two different snacks. The number of options can then be gradually expanded, based on the child’s needs and level of functioning. However, you should avoid giving too many choices as it can be too much information for a child to process.

 

It is essential to keep choices as simple, concrete, and relevant as possible. Additionally, after the child is presented with various options, he or she must be able to have immediate access to the preferred activity or object.

 

Choice making should be always accompanied by verbal or physical prompts, as well as a visual support, such as activity schedules or picture boards. Visual supports can help the child understand the different alternatives, give them more time to process them, and ensure a more appropriate response.

 

Children can indicate their preference in many different ways, for example: 

 

  • Giving verbal answer
  • Through verbal approximation (using only parts of a word)
  • Using body language, for example, reaching or pointing
  • Changing the facial expression
  • Blinking or nodding.

Preference assessment

Preference assessments are conducted by ABA therapists to determine the rewards that will be most motivating for the child when learning a new skill through differential reinforcement. If the child has the possibility to choose a preferred reward, then a target behavior is more likely to occur.

There are several methods a therapist can use to identify potential reinforcers:

  • Offering a pre-task choice, that is, asking the child which among several items he or she would like to earn for completing the task
  • Asking the child about his or her preferences, as well as interviewing the child’s parents, caregivers, and teachers
  • Direct observation of the child’s reactions and engagement when he or she is using various items or activities and when playing with others.

In What Settings Can Choices Be Offered?

Choices can be easily incorporated into a child’s daily schedule. Instead of setting up a predetermined activity, you can simply place two or more task cards on a table and allow the child to decide which one he or she wants to complete. These choices can be offered in many different settings, for example:

 

  • Meals and snacks
  • Sensory activities
  • Academic tasks
  • Chores
  • Recreational activities
  • Free time and play

Some examples of simple choices between two items or activities include:

  • Listen to music or read a book
  • Play alone or with a peer
  • Write with a red pen or blue pen
  • Drink a glass of juice or milk at lunchtime
  • Turn right or left during a walk.

Giving your child choices is simple and free to implement and has numerous benefits. In the following section, we explain the importance of teaching children with autism choice-making skills and the positive behavioral changes you can expect to see.

Why Is It Important to Offer Choices to Children?

Adults often tend to make decisions on behalf of children with autism, giving them few or no choices throughout the day. However, research shows that children who are offered alternatives and have the possibility to choose a task they enjoy are more engaged in activities, more cooperative, and display challenging behaviors less frequently. 

 

Choice making has many benefits for children with autism, for example:

  • It helps communicate their interests and preferences
  • It allows them to make decisions and think independently
  • It provides a sense of control over the situation
  • It helps develop a sense of self and build self-esteem
  • It increases the probability that they will complete the task
  • It increases engagement, focus, and concentration
  • It builds a positive learning experience
  • It increases active participation in activities
  • It improves relationships with others
  • It improves the child’s problem solving skills
  • It improves the performance of academic tasks
  • It helps manage problem behaviors and reduce difficult interactions.

What Behavioral Changes Can Be Expected?

When you offer a child with autism a set of choices on a daily basis, you can expect to see a number of positive behavioral changes, such as:

  • Improved engagement and motivation
  • Improved self-determination and independence
  • Enhanced social interaction
  • Increased communication
  • Increased compliance
  • Decreased disruptive behavior.

 

You will often be able to notice changes in your child’s behavior relatively quickly after implementing a choice-making strategy. At the same time, the effectiveness of this technique will be different for each child, depending on their skills and development level.

 

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