Children with autism often need help breaking down steps in daily tasks to learn the full process. This may be associated with communication struggles.

People on the autism spectrum tend to take language literally, so they often do not understand body language, implied information, or some tones of voice. This can make it difficult for parents and caregivers to teach what seems like a simple task to a child with autism.

Applied behavior analysis (ABA) therapy uses a process called task analysis to break down daily skills like meal preparation or hygiene. This process teaches very small steps of the task in chronological order, so the person can understand each part of the task to successfully complete it.

One way to teach a task is backward chaining, in which a therapist or teacher guides the child through the entire task, step by step, until the last step, which the therapist then prompts the child to complete on their own. Once the child completes that step, they are rewarded. The therapist will start going through the task again until the second to last step, which the child will now complete on their own, followed by the final step. The entire process is rewarded.

This process continues as the therapist guides the child backward through the process, chaining behaviors together, until the child has learned the entire task.

What Is Behavior Chaining?

Applied behavior analysis (ABA) therapy is an evidence-based approach to treating conditions with behavioral issues. It is a type of therapy that has been especially effective at supporting improved socializing, learning, and communication in people with autism, which is a developmental disorder that manifests most often in difficulty understanding and interacting with others.

People with autism often struggle to understand subtext, sarcasm, body language, or facial expressions. They may struggle with implied or hinted information. For children with autism, this may lead to problems learning specific tasks because they do not pick up on all the steps of the process.

One way that ABA therapists can help children with autism is by breaking down daily tasks, like getting dressed, eating a meal, or performing basic hygiene tasks. This process is task analysis.

The therapist, sometimes with the help of their client, breaks down a routine task into the most basic steps, so the entire process can be learned completely. Learning the task in these small steps is called behavior chaining, or simply chaining.

Types of Behavior Chaining

There are two basic processes for chaining tasks in ABA therapy.

  • Forward chaining: This is when the child learns the first step and is rewarded when they successfully complete it. Then, they learn the second step in conjunction with the first and are rewarded. This process continues until the entire process has been learned completely.
  • Backward chaining: This is when the child and therapist go through each step of the process together until the last step, which the therapist prompts the child to complete. Then, the two move backward through the steps until the whole process has been learned in full.

Both forward and backward chaining work well, but many ABA therapists prefer backward chaining since it allows their client to see the entire process from start to finish. The client gets this overview of the process before they attempt to learn the task.

Learning Tasks With Backward Chaining

Backward chaining is one method of teaching tasks through task analysis. People with autism may struggle with learning a task or successfully completing a task because they take language literally. If steps are implied, left out, or vague, the person may struggle to interpret the full task.

For example, a child with autism who is taught to make their bed may not learn exactly how to tuck in the sheets, may not be told to put pillowcases on their pillows, or may not be shown how to put the fitted sheet around the mattress. While this can seem like a simple process to break down on your own, someone with autism may encounter obstacles because certain parts of the process were unintentionally left out of the explanation.

Task analysis can look at this problem and break down each step of making a bed into smaller steps, explaining them clearly so the process makes sense. The explanation and learning part of this process (chaining) might work well as backward chaining. The therapist works with the child on every small step of making a bed, from start to finish, until the very last step — putting the last blanket on top of the bed or putting the pillows on top of the bed, for example. For the last step, the therapist prompts the child to complete it on their own. Then, the child receives a reward for completing the final step.

Backward chaining will then work backward through the process, with the therapist prompting the child to complete the step before the final one and then the final step, following that completion with a reward. This process continues, working chronologically backward, until the child can complete every step of making the bed successfully. They will then be rewarded for the entire process.

The Importance of Backward Chaining & Task Analysis in ABA Therapy

Task analysis is a vital component of ABA therapy. Almost any part of daily life can be broken down into smaller tasks, so they can be clearly understood and completed. This process most often applies to hygiene or daily living skills, like cooking, brushing teeth, getting dressed, or performing other household chores. It also works to help with desensitization, as many people with autism struggle with loud environments, like restaurants, or tactile sensations, like having their hair cut.

The number of steps involved in a process and the specific wording used to describe the process will vary by individual. An older child who does not have many autism symptoms may still need help understanding a task like getting dressed. Backward chaining can help them see the entire process up to the final step, which might be tying their shoes, putting on a coat, or something similar. For people with autism who have already imperfectly learned specific tasks, backward chaining can help to revise their understanding and show them how to fully complete each step.

Younger children with autism may still be learning these tasks, so an ABA therapist can work with them as they start to learn hygiene, chores, and other basics of caring for themselves. The child’s parents may teach them something like brushing their teeth, but if a step or two is accidentally left out, the child may repeatedly fail to put the toothpaste back where it belongs, wash their toothbrush off, or brush their teeth for the correct amount of time. Breaking down the steps and going through them using backward chaining can help the child find those places where they missed information, so they can learn the task correctly.

Backward Chaining Works for Many Children With Autism

While forward chaining starts at the very first step, demonstrates how to complete that step, and rewards the child before adding the second step, backward chaining requires enough attention from the child to follow each step in the full process. Research shows that backward chaining is very effective for many children with autism, but it is important for the therapist, teacher, or parent to be involved and attentive at every step.

The therapist or caregiver must start the backward chaining process by completing every step in the task with the child, until the very last step. Skipping steps in this process or failing to reward the child for completing the very last step can dismantle the task analysis that supports backward chaining.

Still, backward chaining is a useful tool to help many people with autism learn daily steps so they can lead independent lives. The process can also help ABA therapists measure progress in their clients and understand how well the overall treatment plan works for the child.


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