A new strategy for teaching autistic children.


visual learning 1Visual Communication Analysis (VCA) is a strategy targeted at autistic children who think in pictures i.e. visual learners.

This technique is a combination of strategies used to teach visual learners with the techniques of behavioral analysis. It has shown remarkable success with those children who have failed to progress using standard ABA practices.

Visual Communication Analysis (VCA) breaks down the rules of ABA, or applied behavior analysis, and incorporates it into a multi-dimensional non-linear way of learning for the child. This is so they are not just learning one task, one subject, or one topic at a time, but rather learning several different themes for everything that is presented. It incorporates multiple strategies including multi-trial and social stories in order to teach tacting (expressive language), pronouns, prepositions, matching and receptive labels and instructions. The first step of VCA is to teach independent typing, which is the gateway to independent communication and the learning of academic subjects.

ABA has become somewhat of a “dirty” word in the Autism community. For many parents of older children and especially “recovered” autistics, ABA is synonymous with cruel and unusual punishment. The “subjects” of this failed experiment are forced to “put their hands down” and stop stimming. The practiced theory is that in order to learn anything, they have to sit quietly for 10 minutes or more before the lesson can begin. This is contrary to modern research that has shown that stimming is required for self-regulation that is required for proper concentration. They are taught Pavlovian style and are forced to endure hours of boring repetitive interactions with a therapist, resulting in robotic responses to stimuli.

If one reads the research then it is obvious why standard ABA has failed. In 1996, Lovaas in his Criteria for Appropriate Treatments stated that “under optimal conditions, a sizable minority of children will gain and maintain ‘normal’ functioning. These are children who can be labeled as auditory learners. The remaining children, ‘visual learners’, do not recover with behavioral treatment at this time, and will require intensive one-one treatment for the remainder of their life.”

In the April 2011 study on the Effectiveness of Therapies for Children with Autism Spectrum Disorders (CER26), the panel concluded that the strength of the evidence in support of the current implementations of ABA is low. These findings are not surprising in light of the fact that most children with autism are visual learners and Lovaas’ own findings.

Temple Grandin coined the phrase “Thinking in Pictures,” as a way to describe how people with autism process information. Since then, there have been many studies that have confirmed this notion by utilizing functional MRIs to study the brains of children with autism.

Autistic visual learners are in some ways similar to other visual learners. They do not learn step by step, they learn the whole part at once. Visual learners do not learn words by phonics, they learn the whole word at a time. Sometimes they learn complex concepts easily and struggle with easy skills.

One of the main reasons many of these kids do not progress with discrete trial and other ABA methods is due to the design of the curriculum and the requirements of mastery before moving to the next step. The supervisors refuse to allow the child to learn the next step because they have not mastered the current one. For example, they believe that if a child cannot recognize the letters they cannot recognize words. This may be true for an auditory learner but not for a visual learner.

Behavior modification is a tool used to teach new behaviors. It is the implementation of the tool that is critical to the success of the learning process. Our strategy is to utilize those tools that work best for visual learners. As such we make extensive use of task analysis, chaining, multi-trial and errorless learning. We also incorporate social stories as part of reading comprehension programs to ensure the effectiveness of the story.