Bridging Sensory Processing Theory and Practice with Discrete Trial Teaching

By Amy Zier, M.S., OTR/L and Kimberly Garvey Hoehne, M.A.

What is Discrete Trial Teaching?

Discrete trial teaching (DTT), often used in Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA) programs, is a methodology aiming to help children learn developmentally appropriate skills of imitation, receptive/ expressive language, pre-academic concepts, social relations, toy/peer play, and self-help/adaptive abilities. A discrete trial consists of an instruction or question to the child, the child’s response, reinforcement or consequences, and prompting, followed by fading prompts, as necessary. Skills are broken down into small, manageable tasks according to the child‘s level of ability. The method promotes natural learning by teaching children how to learn from their environment.

What does sensory processing have to do with DTT?

Children who have difficulty processing sensory information often cannot efficiently utilize the range of learning activities used in DTT. They may respond to the daily experience of touch, movement, sight and sound with a variety of negative behaviors and be unable to sustain an optimum level of arousal. However, when a DTT therapist makes adjustments to accommodate a child’s individual sensory processing profile, that child is more likely to master skills and concepts and generalize them across settings.

How can DTT therapists and parents at home bring sensory processing concepts into their interactions with children?

DTT and Sensory Processing Perspective: A Good Combination.

Both DTT and sensory integration therapy are important tools for working with children on the autism spectrum. When therapists take underlying sensory issues into account and integrate the sensory modality into DTT, children improve in their ability to attend and to maintain appropriate levels of arousal. As a result, they achieve an optimal state for interaction and learning. Children are the winners when DTT is enriched with sensory integration practices.

[Amy Zier treats children with autism spectrum disorders in Libertyville, IL. Kimberly Garvey Hoehne is a child development specialist at Early Intervention Approaches, also in Libertyville.]

[Initially published in New Developments: Volume 6, Number 3 - Winter, 2000-2001]

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