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ABA Natural Settings

Responding to "Wh" Questions

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Brief Description

Maggie, a six-year-old girl with autism. She can follow many basic requests and her expressive language consists of a variety of one- to three-word phrases. She rarely exhibits tantrums, but is often inattentive. She will work with a teacher for 20-30 minutes without breaks.

Maggie is able to answer well-practiced "wh" questions ("who," "what," etc.). She cannot reliably answer new "wh" questions. Maggie also has difficulty answering questions that require her to say more than one word at a time.

In this video clip, Maggie's mother is asking Maggie simple "wh" questions in order to reinforce better eye contact, voice tone, and longer answers. This should also help Maggie learn to answer "wh" questions she has not practiced.

Detailed Description

Guide to ABA Terms and Concepts


Maggie will correctly respond to "wh" ("what," "where," etc.) questions about her daily life.

Teaching Sequence

Maggie will first reliably respond to "wh" questions she knows. As she becomes better at responding to each type of question, she will answer similar questions that she has not heard before.


Maggie's mother uses verbal praise, social interaction, and food to reinforce appropriate behavior. Verbal praise is very specific to the task, incorporating Maggie's correct response as part of the verbal praise ("mommy and daddy, that's right").

What to Look For

Maggie is sitting at the kitchen table with her mom for this task. Maggie is not very interested, and therefore requires more structure and fewer distractions for the lesson to be successful. As Maggie becomes more successful with the questions, her teachers should make efforts to ask her questions in more natural settings, such as before or during related activities. In addition, her parents can ask others to ask Maggie known questions (for example a checker at the supermarket may ask her a question about her family's trip to the store).

Because Maggie is not interested in this task, she requires the use of more powerful reinforcement (food). When children are less motivated to complete a task, strong reinforcement items may be needed to help motivate the child. As the client learns the task, trainers will need to pay specific attention to ways in which the child can gain natural reinforcement. In doing this, the trainer will be able to fade contrived reinforcement (such as food) to more natural reinforcement (social interactions leading to additional social activities).

At one point in the video clip, Maggie's mother gave her a food reinforcer for a correct response. Maggie's mother then asks another question before Maggie finishes chewing the food. This is a procedural error. If Maggie's mom had waited until Maggie was finished eating, Maggie may have responded more quickly.

Maggie's mother responds to incorrect answers by saying "no." This is done in a neutral, not punitive, way. It tells Maggie that her response was incorrect. Her mother then immediately repeats the question to allow Maggie another chance to earn reinforcement. It is common for children to make mistakes during learning. If mistakes are ignored entirely, the child might lose interest and move on to something that provides more reinforcement.

Maggie's eye contact is poor. Therefore, Maggie's mother prompts eye contact before asking each the question. By pairing eye contact with reinforcement, Maggie's eye contact will improve. Eventually, Maggie will learn that observing other people's expressions provides valuable information, and eye contact will maintain itself.

Maggie uses an unnatural high-pitched voice when speaking. Maggie's mother prompts Maggie to use a "lower," more natural voice tone. In addition, by learning to match other's tone of voice, Maggie will learn how to speak in different settings (loud voice on the playground verses a quieter voice in the classroom).

A high rate of high-quality social reinforcement is important, especially when learning a new skill. Therefore, Maggie's mother reinforces or prompts often. Maggie's mother's responses are natural, cheerful, and frequent, modeling an interest in the task.

What Comes Next?

Maggie's behavior in this segment is focused, accurate, and social. She is learning, but still requires a fairly structured setting to be successful. By creating a natural but still structured setting, Maggie can learn without distractions. Lessons such as this could be expanded and adapted to include many kinds of skills. As Maggie's becomes more skilled in this setting, the range of learning environments will be expanded.

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