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Helping Children with Autism Thrive: The Power of Natural Environment Training

by Jaime Friedman

June 25, 2024


Helping Children with Autism Thrive: The Power of Natural Environment Training

Children with autism often find traditional classroom settings challenging. These environments can feel disconnected from their everyday lives, making learning difficult. However, there’s a wonderful approach that can help: Natural Environment Training (NET).  By turning everyday moments into learning opportunities, NET makes education more meaningful and enjoyable.

What is Natural Environment Training (NET)?

Natural Environment Training (NET) is a way of teaching skills to children with autism right in the places where they will use them. This could be at home, out in the community, or even in familiar spots at school. The main idea is to help children use the skills they learn in a variety of settings and with different people.

NET is based on principles of Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA), which means understanding and changing behavior through positive reinforcement and other techniques. In NET, therapists or teachers use natural teaching methods, like incidental teaching (using naturally occurring opportunities to teach) and mand-modeling (prompting a child to ask for what they want), to teach skills in a way that feels natural to the child.

Why NET Works for Children with Autism

  1. Real-Life Learning: Skills are taught in everyday settings, like home or community spaces, where they are most useful.

  2. Positive Reinforcement: Good behaviors are encouraged with rewards, such as praise or favorite activities, making learning enjoyable.

  3. Child-Led Activities: Learning often starts with what the child is interested in, making it more engaging and fun for them.

Benefits of NET

For children with autism, NET offers many benefits:

  • Natural Connections: Learning happens in familiar places, helping children feel more comfortable and confident.

  • Meaningful Learning: Children see how their new skills fit into their everyday lives, making learning more relevant.

  • Flexibility: Skills learned in one place can be used in many different settings, improving overall adaptability.

NET turns everyday moments into valuable learning opportunities, helping children with autism connect with their surroundings in a fun and meaningful way. This approach makes learning a positive and empowering experience for your child.

Using NET in the Classroom

Circle Time Activities: During circle time, the teacher can incorporate NET by observing the interests of each child and using those interests to teach various concepts. For example, if a child shows interest in animals, the teacher can use animal toys to teach counting, sorting, or vocabulary related to different animals.

Individualized Instruction: NET allows for individualized instruction tailored to each child's unique needs and interests. Teachers can use NET principles to teach academic skills, communication skills, and social skills in ways that are meaningful and relevant to each child. For example, if a child is interested in trains, the teacher can incorporate train-themed activities into math lessons by using toy trains to teach addition and subtraction.

Social Interactions: During recess or lunchtime, teachers can facilitate social interactions using NET principles. They can observe peer interactions and provide support or prompts to help children with autism engage with their peers in meaningful ways. For example, the teacher can encourage turn-taking during games or facilitate conversations about shared interests.

Using NET at Home

Sibling Interactions: Use NET to promote positive interactions between siblings. For example, you can encourage your child to take turns playing with toys, share toys, or work together on a puzzle or art project. Use praise and positive reinforcement to encourage cooperative play and sibling bonding.

Daily Routines: Incorporate NET into your child's daily routines such as getting dressed, brushing teeth, or bedtime routines. For example, you can use a visual schedule to help your child understand the sequence of activities during bedtime. You can also use NET to teach self-help skills like buttoning shirts, tying shoelaces, or zipping up jackets.

Playtime: Use your child's interests during playtime to teach new skills. For instance, if your child enjoys playing with blocks, you can use NET to teach concepts like colors, shapes, counting, or building structures. You can also work on social skills such as sharing, taking turns, or following directions during play.

Using NET in the Community

For individuals with ASD, learning community safety skills is crucial for their safety and independence. By teaching these skills in the community, therapists can ensure that the individual is learning and practicing the skills in the environment where they will be used.

For example, if a child needs to learn how to cross the street safely, the therapist may use incidental teaching to prompt the child to look both ways before crossing the street. This allows the child to practice the skill in a real-life situation, increasing the likelihood of generalization and safety.

Park Outings: During a visit to the park, use NET to teach your child social skills such as taking turns on playground equipment, initiating play with other children, or sharing toys. You can also use the natural environment to work on gross motor skills such as running, jumping, climbing, and balancing.

Library Visits: When visiting the library, use NET to teach your child about different types of books, how to handle books properly, and how to use the library catalog or find books on shelves. You can also use the opportunity to practice quiet behaviors and following instructions in a public setting.

Grocery Shopping: Use a trip to the grocery store as an opportunity to teach your child various skills such as following a shopping list, identifying different items, practicing social skills such as greeting the cashier, and using money or counting coins for payment.

The value of Natural Environment Training (NET) within Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA) lies in its ability to make learning more meaningful, relevant, and engaging for individuals with autism. By teaching skills in natural settings where they are most likely to be used, NET promotes generalization of skills across various environments and people. This child-led approach, grounded in ABA principles, allows therapists to capitalize on the individual's interests, increasing motivation and engagement in learning. Through NET, individuals with autism can develop a wide range of skills while feeling connected to their surroundings, leading to greater independence and success in daily life.