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Attending to Multiple Cues: A Pivotal Skill for ASD

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We tend to focus instruction on following directions and then expand the number of instructions a student can follow (e.g., one step, two step, etc.). We hopefully address conditional directions (e.g., if you are a girl, line up) because these are used often in general education environments (and in life in general).  However, one of the things that we know about the development of skills in autism is that certain behaviors / skills are essential to opening up the world of learning.  Pivotal Response Training (PRT) is an evidence-based approach that takes the systematic approach of discrete trials and embeds that system into the natural environment.  One of the foundations of PRT is the concept that specific skills can serve as pivotal to learning to learn.  Essentially they are skills that allow the student to learn more independently without every single skill having to be taught explicitly.   Like the enabling goals I talked about with IEPs, these are skills that open doors for individuals and allow them to learn from their environment.  These skills greatly enhance their rate of learning because they don’t need someone to deliver instruction for each tiny skill or step.

to multiple cues is considered to be a pivotal skill for students with autism
spectrum disorder (ASD).  Simply put, it means that the student can focus on more than one element
of an item, interaction or task at a time. 
It is part of what makes up joint attention (being able to look at a
speaker and to what the speaker is referencing), which is also considered to be
a critical early learning skill for children with ASD. Students on the spectrum benefit from explicit
instruction in being able to attend to multiple stimuli simultaneously in order
to begin to learn effectively from their environment more independently.  For instance, if a student can’t reference
more than 1 element in an academic environment, he can look at the teacher or
look at his work, but he can’t focus on both. 
Similarly, if he is looking at materials, he can’t identify pictures or
words with more than 1 relevant element. 
For example, he could find words that begin with P but not one that
begins with P and ends with K. 
So, I started thinking about enabling and pivotal skills and how they could be taught in the classroom.  Then Krista Wallden from Creative Chalkboard came out with this GREAT cookie clip art (and I found others as well) that just screamed the need for a following directions activity.    The Sweet Directions books are designed to help teach students to respond to multiple cues in
reading and educational materials.  The
books are differentiated to work with early learners of the skills and increase
complexity through the volumes as the student masters the skill.  
They can be used in morning meeting and group
story times as interactive books that reinforce these concepts. Read
the story with the class, small group or individual student. Review the title,
the front of the book and back of the book, and the author for teaching basic
literacy.   If you are reading for a
group activity, have each student be responsible for following the directions
on a different page.  For instance, if
there are 5 students in the group, student 1 would complete page 1 and page
6.  Student 2 would complete page 2 and
page 7.

can also be used in discrete trials or PRT instruction 1-1 or in small groups
to explicitly teach responding to multiple cues.  For explicit instruction, presenting the
tasks in a sequential order will facilitate learning using reinforcement for
correct responding.  The books are set up
so that teachers can use errorless teaching, to prevent errors, or error
correction as is appropriate for the students.  

Within the packet is a sequence of steps for teaching the skill in
discrete trials as well as a data sheet for tracking progress. 

What’s Included:

  • Volume / Book 1: Focuses on attending to 1 characteristic of materials (red cookie)
  • Volume / Book 1A: Is the same as book 1 but with added visual cues in the text (e.g., the word red is colored red)
  • Volume / Book 2: Focuses on attending to 2 characteristics of materials (red, round cookie)
  • Volume / Book 3: Focuses on a characteristic of the cookie (color and shape) as well as a characteristic (red or green) of the plate it is put on.
  • Extension activities and differentiation suggestions
  • Cookie manipulatives
  • In addition to the volumes of interactive books, I included a data sheet and teaching program with the steps for teaching the skill systematically across the books.

Finally, if you are thinking about teaching these skills, here are some IEP goals and objectives that could be modified to fit your student’s needs.


Max will follow different types of directions with different types of materials requiring attention to at least 2 cues within the direction (e.g., put the green, round cookie on the plate or put the green cookie on the red plate) with 80% accuracy daily for one week in at least 2 settings during the school day by the end of the IEP period [insert date].

Objective 1:  

Max will follow a one-step direction that requires 1 discrimination between at least 4 similar items to complete it (e.g., put the green cookie on the plate) with 80% accuracy daily for 3 consecutive days by the end of the first quarter [insert date].

Objective 2:

Max will follow one-step directions that require attending to two cues of the material (e.g., put the red, round cookie on the plate) when given a field of at least 4 choices with 80% accuracy daily for 3 consecutive days by the end of the second quarter [insert date].

Objective 3:

Max will follow one-step directions that require attending to one differentiation among the material to be chosen and differentiating where to place it (e.g., put the red cookie on the green plate) with 80% accuracy daily for 3 consecutive days by the end of the third quarter [insert date].

If you are interested in the Sweet Directions books, you can find them in my TPT store here.

If you would like me to write more about PRT as a teaching strategy, leave me a comment and I will definitely add it to my list.

Finally, if you haven’t seen it already, there is a new Fan Freebie on the Autism Classroom News Facebook page, so check it out and like the page.
Until next time,

1 thought on “Attending to Multiple Cues: A Pivotal Skill for ASD”

  1. Pingback: Pivotal Response Training (PRT): A Naturalistic Instruction Strategy for Autism | Autism Classroom Resources

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