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Priming 101: Help Your Loved One with ASD Succeed in New Situations


This article was contributed by Leica Anzaldo and Louise Southern of ASNC’s Clinical Services Department.

How many of you have experienced the challenge of introducing something new or unknown to your loved one with autism? Having an effective plan is a critical component to the person with autism succeeding and reduces the likelihood that they will respond negatively or incorrectly. For some individuals with autism, priming should be a key part of that plan. Priming is an evidence-based antecedent strategy in which the learner is exposed to materials or activities that are likely to present difficulties later, when he encounters those materials or activities in an actual performance situation. The general objective of priming is to increase the likelihood that the student will exhibit the primed behavior in subsequent, naturally occurring situations.

Priming can be used in a variety of areas: social, academic, functional skills, transition, etc. An example is a kindergarten student who will experience an assembly for the first time. What can you do to prime for this? Priming for this out-of-the-ordinary event includes teaching the expected behaviors prior to the actual event and providing an opportunity for limited exposure to the event using a means that does not evoke stress and anxiety in the child. This may mean that you first allow the child to watch a video of an assembly and identify and list the expected behaviors they are observing. Then perhaps a social story is developed about an assembly that again includes those expected behaviors. This should be followed by modeling the expected behaviors and having the student imitate and practice them, as you give feedback and reinforce appropriate performance of skills.

Visual supports, including scripts, schedules, and organizational systems, are also evidence-based practices for children and adolescents with autism. Priming that features a visual component may be especially helpful to individuals with autism. A visual schedule is meant to clarify expectations, reduce maladaptive behavior during transitions, and, ultimately, increase independence. This priming tool prepares the student for transitions and allows the opportunity for others to visually display new or non-routine events in a platform with which the student is comfortable and familiar. A visual script is another great priming tool that displays written phrases that identify what to say and often how to say it. These may be accompanied by images that clarify or serve as shorthand for the phrases and are especially helpful for those who have difficulty initiating and/or delivering a message in an effective way. A social narrative is a written description of what the expected or appropriate behavior is for a specific situation. It not only explains what to do, but also promotes social understanding by explaining the reason behind an expected behavior. Social narratives often include images that support comprehension and promote interest and motivation. These include social stories, power cards, and cartoon or comic book conversations. Visual rule-and-reminder cues are words and/or images that signal which behaviors should be performed in a given situation, or sometimes, which behaviors should not be performed. These most often should be portable and used as a reminder of what is expected just prior to the individual being exposed to a situation that may evoke negative/maladaptive behaviors. They may also replace the need for verbal reminders, which often overwhelm individuals with autism.

Like all strategies, priming tools must be taught in a systematic way, presenting the tool within a structured instructional activity that delivers high levels of reinforcement for performing the appropriate behavior. Priming does not need to be overly complicated, but it must address the specific needs of the learner. It is a proactive, simple procedure that can be used by many to prepare for upcoming events or activities.


Learn more

Here are some recommended books on these topics from the ASNC Bookstore:

Activity Schedules for Children with Autism

How to Develop and Implement Visual Supports

How to Write and Implement Social Scripts

Visual Strategies for Improving Communication: Practical Supports for School and Home


For more information on strategies like these, please contact ASNC’s Clinical Services Department at training@autismsociety-nc.org or 919-865-5070 or 919-743-0204, ext. 1118. Louise Southern, M.Ed., BCBA, Associate Clinical Director, can be reached at lsouthern@autismsociety-nc.org or 919-743-0204. Leica Anzaldo, MPA, BSW, BCBA, Lead BCBA/Trainer, can be contacted at 704-894-9678, ext. 1603, or lanzaldo@autismsociety-nc.org.

ASNC’s Clinical Services Department staff is composed of PhD and master’s-level licensed psychologists, Board Certified Behavior Analysts, and former special education teachers. We provide individualized intensive consultation using evidence-based practices to support children and adults across the spectrum in home, school, employment, residential and other community-based contexts. We also deliver workshops to parents and professionals on a wide range of topics including but not limited to, strategies to prevent and respond to challenging behaviors, best practices in early intervention, functional communication training, and enhancing social understanding in individuals with autism.

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