EXAMPLE OF APPLIED BEHAVIOR
LISTENING TO A STORY
This is a selection of notes from over two years
of behavioral intervention sessions with a young child who ultimately
recovered completely from Autism.
It includes many curricula ("drill sheets"), therapists'
notes, and parents' notes, covering (in part) his development from
no pretend play skills all the way to fully independent, spontaneous,
The notes are by the parents, Megan and Jim Sumlin (pseudonyms),
who feel strongly that this information should be freely available
to all who might benefit from it. They ask only that these drills
belong in the public domain, and are not to be claimed or copywritten
by any person who is or will in the future be seeking monetary gain
for wide distribution of same. Feel free to re-distribute this document,
but please include this entire preface.
These notes are just one part of a comprehensive program guided
by a behavior analyst; there were other parts of the total program,
not included here, that were necessary to the child's development
and eventual recovery. They are specific to one individual child.
Use them as a resource to help you plan your child or student's
curriculum. What works for one child will not work for all. While
much of the material here addresses problems common to many or most
children with an Autism Spectrum Disorder, you will want to select
carefully based on individual needs, learning style, and personality.
A few notes on terminology:
Discriminative Stimulus (SD)
This is the instruction given to the child.
This is the response expected or desired from
This is one specific technique for presenting
the "Discriminative Stimulus," then prompting (providing
the "R") if the child responds incorrectly.
This is a brief removal of all reinforcement,
where the child must sit and do nothing. This is meant to reduce
certain unwanted behaviors but it has no moral or emotional overtones;
it is not a punishment for "being bad."
This is a reward for a correct response, which
may be anything the child loves: a bit of chocolate, a piggy-back
ride, an enthusiastic "You're so great!" Proper reinforcement
is the key to learning.
Differential Reinforcement of Other Behavior (DRO)
Much more common in these notes is Differential
Reinforcement of Other Behavior. In addition to reinforcement for
getting the right answer, the child was frequently praised for unprompted
appropriate behaviors (in place of undesirable, stereotypical behaviors).
For example, when playing with dolls, the therapist may say, "I'm
glad you're not banging the characters together," or as the
notes say in many places, "DRO'd flexibility"--unprompted
spontaneity. Remembering to "catch 'em being good" takes
a lot of practice, but it is essential to the development of a truly
natural repertoire of age-appropriate skills.
USING APPLIED BEHAVIOR ANALYSIS in listening to a story
Listening to a story 1
For us the first early drill that worked on not
only on pronouns and sequencing, but also comprehension and recall.
For our son, the third part alone (LISTEN III) lasted for over a
half year (and he was a quick learner!)
Therapists tells short, one line story and child answers "Wh-
questions about it.
We used a large flannel board with people, places and began with
stories like, e.g.:
"The girl left her house and went to the bakery"
(On flannel board picture of house and a bakery. Have figure of
girl "walk" o/o house and toward the bakery.)
SD1: "Where did the girl go?"
R1: "to the bakery"
[I'm not sure if we looked for "She went to the bakery"
from the start, although I'm sure that we would have prompted fuller
sentences soon after, especially because we were doing pronouns/pronoun
labels at the same time. We apparently began ONLY with "the
boy" and "the girl" because there's a note approx
one month into the drill that says "put Man and Woman into
We did many like this and once we were getting 90% across a few
therapists, we began to add an ACTION to the story:
"...and then s/he [something incredible or wild that he would
Example: "The girl left her house, went to the factory and
she JUMPED ONTO the roof!"
[I'd remember that we would say JUMPED ONTO to the roof w/a vocal
prompt, especially at the beginning when we first added the extra
SD1: "Where did she go?"
R1: "She went to the factory"
SD2: "What did she do?"
R2: "She jumped"
[I'm sure that we may eventually leave out the word "she"
in our story example i.e., "the girl left her house, went to
the factory and jumped onto the roof" and would differentially
reinforce if he'd say "she jumped to the roof" (we'd have
been thrilled)...we would always shape w/diff reinforcement towards
better, fuller answers and our SDs also would work toward this.
We continued "and she climbed the tree" and other wild
stuff (to help him remember and make him laugh--we were lucky that
he had a sweet sense of humor) for a while and then there's a note
that says to begin making our stories "more contextual"
once he was getting the wilder ones. This was a drill where we were
able worked very hard on his pronouns and sequencing skills.]
Unfortunately, I couldn't find any notes on the early parts of this
teaching program (Listen to a Story I or II) but we do recall that
we would sometimes give him a chance to tell US a story and then
prompted him to ask US wh- questions! This was great fun for him
(we were doing CHILD AS TEACHER drill by this time so it was easy
for him to understand turn-taking with therapists).
We did this for a couple of months and then it changed slightly
Listening to a story 2
Also using the flannel board (although I'm sure
that different things can be used...perhaps colorforms or just dolls.
Whatever is used, the same props probably should be consistently
used....but I suppose we might have changed it if he was perseverating
or seemed inflexible. We had lots of problems like that later on
in therapy and tried to be more varied with our props)
Tell the story w/ACTION (as before), but add a second destination
after the action. This time there are three SDs (story should reflect
this, some examples are in our actual therapists' notes below LISTEN
III as well).
SD1: "Where did the [pronoun label] go?"
SD2: "What did [pronoun] do?"
SD3: "What happened next?" or "And THEN what happened?"
Story example: "The man went to the library and yelled 'Hooray!"
AND THEN he went to the newsstand."
SD1: "Where did the man go?"
R1: "He went to the library."
SD2: "What did he do?"
R2: "He yelled 'HOORAY!'
SD3: "AND THEN what happened?"
R3: "He went to the newsstand"
Be sure you use "AND THEN" during the story when you introduce
the third part. Make it contextual until he's getting it well and
then get "wild" gain. [Now this seems like the opposite
of what we did in LISTEN I... my guess is that this just keeps the
drill interesting to him going from contextual: "The girl went
to the bakery and then ate a cupcake" to WILD: "The girl
went to the bakery and drove the car onto the roof!"]
Once we began these multi-part/multi-SD drills, we used No-No-Prompt
(or simpler "no equiv/no equiv/prompt", i.e. NO = "almost",
"say it better", "try harder", "pretty
good"....) in the middle of our delivery. i.e., If he was unable
to get R1 correctly (or even if he DID get R1 correctly but messed
up on R2 or R3), we would "no" it and re-enact the same
story with the flannel board from the beginning, NOT just repeat
the SD sequence. This was important. If he could not complete the
three responses twice in a row (w/full flannel board re-enactment
by us), then we would fully prompt all responses. Although this
may seem tedious, we feel it was necessary.
We seemed to have done LISTEN II for a short time (some may want
to do this longer to help with pronouns and to keep it interesting...because
of the flannel board), when we began....
Listening to a story 3 (no props)
As above in LISTEN II, pronoun goes to TWO places
and does ONE action but without a flannel board (or props). Actual
note on drill cover sheet says: Include some "Why When and
How" but BEGIN WITH MOSTLY WHERE? WHO? and WHAT?
[There's a note that says "begin Why When and How six weeks
after the start of this drill"...i.e., we were still in the
thick of our Why When and How (separate) drills when this one began
so I suppose he needed more experience with these first]
Get him to use WHY during his turns (when we give him any [he definitely
perseverated on getting all the turns!]) by saying "Ask me
"why?" [He would tell us a story and obviously forget
that he's supposed to follow it up with SDs to us asking WH questions]
[Some yellow post-its that remained on the cover sheet: "WHEN"
and "HOW" are OK again" (as if we began them too
soon and he had problems with them) and also "TELL FULL STORY
AND ASK ONLY ONE WH- OR HOW QUESTION AND THEN TELL ANOTHER STORY,
In these drills, we often had to scale back and work forward again.
Typical notes made during the drills
The following are some notes taken during this
drill (notes were found for LISTEN III only). PN=parents note. All
are notes on loose-leaf paper following the drill sheet. Please
note that every one of these is a full entry preceded by therapists'
initials and date.
"I had a hard time w/him in this drill.
Insistent on how I asked questions and who my subject was. I worked
through breaking the rigidity -- he cried, etc. & overall became
quite upset. Did get through it though on my terms."
"Did very well."
"Did well. Two places, one action. Also able to do two places,
one action and one 'why?' e.g., left school and went to pizzeria
and bought pizza - Why? because he was hungry."
"Did well w/recalling places & actions. He attempted to
come up w/answers to WHY but they didn't make sense so I had to
"He is recalling excellently."
"Impossible to get any answers -- total non-compliance"
"Did well recalling stories. Able to answer WHY questions."
"I did one past tense and one future tense. He had difficulty
"Did well. Also asked him past & future tense -- conditional
"Did well. Worked on WHY questions. Story: 'Man went to subway
because he needed to ride to work." Independently asking WHY
"Did fine on first two, but then had trouble w/concentration.
Some difficulty with HOW questions."
"Did very well. Answered easy HOW and WHY questions. e.g.,
Woman went to shoe store and bought shoes but had to bring them
back because they didn't fit. He answered WHY she had to bring them
"Great attention. Able to answer WHY questions to emotion stories."
"Attention was fair, but he was able to get himself together
when I picked up the pace."
"Refused to answer questions; NNP got him to know the answers.
Then he began getting them."
"Tried hard --- need to remove WHEN and HOW."
"His attention was great, getting all answers, so I focused
on eliminating finger/hand perseverative stuff w/NNP."
"Major compliance problems due to glue on his hands [from glue
drill, a constant problem throughout therapy]. Once [mom] straightened
him out he did very well."
"Major compliance problems. Began imitating what I was doing
(physical gestures). Told him to stop and when he wouldn't, told
him that I would stay all night, sleep over, etc. never go home.
"Really nice work. After initial struggle where he didn't listen
to two stories. Told him we will keep this going until he can listen
to four stories and then he could take a break."
"He was being awful, covering his ears, etc. Told him I would
work with him until he was good even if [next therapist] was here.
"When he gave a purposeful wrong answer, I let him have a turn
and I gave HIM the wrong answer. He didn't like this, but he still
continued to give me wrong answers. I then gave him an easy one
(my mom gave me a sandwich and I ate it. What did I do with the
sandwich?). He answered correctly and I let him go and did NOT return
to the drill. At no time when he got the wrong answer did I 'uh-uh'
him. I just said, 'OK, do you want to go?' After I let him go, I
didn't call him back to the same drill. I felt this would show that
he got to me. This entire drill lasted no more than about four minutes."
"Did ok. Listened carefully and answered well. Told him stories
about a little boy who went to the park and had adventures. He seemed
"Very good attention. I told a story about a little boy at
the amusement park."
"This was the first verbal drill of the day. He was doing lots
of stimming and had problem answering WHEN questions. Told him that
if he acts like this in school, kids may laugh at him. He quickly
got himself together." P.N. - Great!
"Nice job. Good on WHEN and WHY."
"Very well. Did well w/HOW and WHEN."
[Entry below is by same therapist who did short drill earlier....she
was the only therapist who was asked to leave throughout our son's
therapy] "Immediately gave a purposeful wrong answer to WHERE
instead of answering '....to school', he said '....to the farm'
and....' I left the rest of the story the same and this time asked
him a WHAT question. He answered appropriately throughout the rest
of the drill, incl. HOW and WHEN."
"When I let him know he's misbehaving, he has been continuing
the behavior and saying 'like this...I go like this'. So far my
making a face and looking away has sufficed."
"Problem with WHEN questions."
P.N. - If WHEN remains weak, do a few isolated ONE sentence WHEN
stories with a WHEN question. e.g., Johnny bought ice cream after
dinner; when did Johnny buy ice cream?
"WHEN and HOW questions still weak when they're in the context
of a larger story. I switched to WHEN and HOW 1 liners and he did
"Did well with HOW in more complex stories, but WHEN was a
problem, even in simple one-liners."
"Still having trouble with HOW. WHEN was fine only after we
went over it 2x."
P.N. - Keep one-liners for a while and then go back to fuller once
he gets it (on same day, in this drill).
"Answered difficult HOWs and WHENs after a few one-liners.
"Complex stories. He did very well."
"Was very distracted and much more interested in playing with
the glue on his hands."
"Excellent listening to a story."
"Good listening and answering."
"WHEN questions were problematic at 1st in complex stories.
Told him some one-liners and then WHEN improved. At 1st he was confusing
WHEN and HOW."
"Worked on WHEN, HOW, WHERE. Did not get them on 1st try but
did on second. Probably because he knew at that point (2nd time)
what to listen for. Otherwise he was not able to recall the info
and dissect it for the correct answer."
"Answered perfectly HOW and WHEN. 1st story. Confused HOW and
WHEN three times."
"At 1st asked him a WHEN question. He got this wrong and then
for the next stories was listening for WHEN information and could
not answer OTHER kinds of questions."
"He did the same thing as he did w/[above therapist]. First
asked HOW and then kept answering HOW when I asked other things.
Had to repeat myself several times to get a correct answer."
P.N. - Vary the placement of the KEY statement in your story before
you ask the question. e.g., sometimes beginning/middle/end.
"Unable to answer HOW questions, but was able to answer others
when key statement was in beginning and middle."
"Answered some basic questions in simple stories: HOW WHEN
and WHERE. But when I made the stories a little more complex, he
wasn't able to answer the question and usually gave an answer that
had 'context' at the end of the story."
"WHEN was still difficult for him. All the rest he did well
on. Compliance not too good."
"Answered WHEN well. Had trouble with more difficult HOW and
WHY questions, not necessarily using last line of story to answer,
just various inappropriate parts."
"Difficulty w/WHEN questions embedded in larger story."
"Nice job on all."
"Great with everything."
"Good again. Told story about a boy who saw a grownup who was
his friend and went with her. Why did he go with her? He didn't
know why. I told him because she was his friend and he knew her
well. I asked him if he would go with the grownup if he didn't know
her and he said 'yes'. I explained that we NEVER go anywhere with
grownups who we don't know."
P.N. - Start being more consistent working w/NNP on eye contact
when he's getting correct answers [this drill was much later than
PRETEND...where we still would have used more differential reinf
re: eye contact Here we were already very purposefully targeting
eye contact and shaping it w/NNP, something we had probably started
doing across many drills at this time.]
"Did well. Answered all ?s appropriately. Good eye contact"
"Lots of problems answering questions. Especially WHEN."
"We did this outside. He kept talking about other things, the
park, etc. and couldn't answer any ?s, particularly WHEN."
"Outside. He did very well. Answered all ?s incl. WHEN and
HOW. Worked on better eye contact w/NNP."
"Missed the first WHEN, but got the second (different stories).
Correctly got HOW. Was being non-compliant with his arms and legs.
Fixed the arms and then announced that his legs were wrong. I told
him "yes, I know, but I don't care" and he stopped."
"WHEN ?s were a problem in the beginning of sentences. Answered
WHERE WHO and WHAT nicely (worked on eye contact during these)."
"WHEN still pretty poor. Nice eye contact"
"Had great eye contact Loved story about a boy whose nose fell
off because he never blew it!"
"Major non-compliance. Lots of stuff w/hands, not looking,
and "I don't know"s/"don't remember"s. I told
him if he doesn't know, then guess. After I told a story he started
asking me all types of questions: "What did they sing?"
"Who did you see?" "Why did you see them?" "When
did you see them?" I let him go play even though it wasn't
a sustaining conversation drill. Very impressive." [this was
w/the therapist who he often had lots of non-compliance with] P.N
- Good judgement!
"Listening wasn't great. He had a hard time answering questions.
He wanted to talk a lot (I think he thought this was sustaining
conversation drill). I told him I like talking to him but now it
was time for him to listen. He got himself together and he realized
what we were supposed to be doing." P.N. - Great!
"Not sitting where I wanted him to; worked through this, labeled
him 'rigid' and he finally quickly to the correct place. He was
attentive and answered all ?s. Lots of DRO because he had been inappropriate
early in the drill and he really got himself together nicely."
"Listening seemed good but he had hard time answering WHEN
questions. Couldn't answer even two line stories. Able to answer
HOW, WHY and WHERE. Worked on eye contact through these."
"Did great! Even with WHEN. Lots of DRO."
"Mostly wonderful. Had a little confusion with WHAT and WHEN,
but I worked him through it. Great eye contact."
"Really good. Worked on WHEN, HOW, WHERE. HOW was good. WHEN
still a bit weak, usually getting it on second shot."
"Needed prompt on HOW. Great with WHO and WHERE. DRO'd great
P.N. - TO ALL - Thanks for all the info re: eye contact
"Said 'I don't know' two times at first on WHERE ?, then did
better but kept trying to tell me stories. Got WHEN ?s right away.
"'I don't know's at first. Worked on WHEN ?s until he got one.
DRO. Moved onto HOW, WHO, WHERE and another WHEN. Got them all right.
Big DRO. Good eye contact"
"Tried to talk back like conversation. I let this go on for
a while & then got to work. Still weak on WHEN; better w/more
concrete questions -- tomorrow. Harder time with stuff like -- in
two weeks, over the weekend, etc."
"Did easy stories with WHEN. Got them. I tried a harder one
and he still had to have it told twice."
P.N. - Focus a little more on WHEN (tomorrow, two weeks, next week,
etc.). and definitely prompt and explain. Let's hammer the concept
"Concentrated on WHEN. Got about 50% right. I prompted and
"More WHEN. Missed first ones but then got them all after that.
I mixed up when the answer was presented within the story. He still
does better when the answer is at the end of the story. The closer
to the end the better he does."
"Still really weak on WHEN. Forgets to give answer at beginning
of story if story is more than one line. Worked on WHEN in two line
stories after he got it in one line stories. HOW was fine."
"Lots of trouble with WHEN. Seemed to have WHEN w/simple sentences
but as soon as I threw in other WH- questions, especially WHERE,
he began guessing a lot. Needs work."
"Wasn't paying attention at first. Then started listening more
carefully and answered WHO, WHAT, WHEN, WHY, WHERE with simple stories
and then started not paying attention again. I stopped and told
him I'm going to write a note to dad about what he did. He said
I couldn't do this, please don't and I told him I have to because
he's not listening. We tried again. Got two out of three stories
correct and I let him go on a positive note."
"Guessing WHENs....got last one correct so I let him go."
P.N. - Keep the focus on WHEN (tomorrow, two weeks, next week, after,
soon, etc.) and add HOW MANY in as well where you can....notes.
"Some problems attending to stories. Got him to attend by telling
him he needed to listen carefully and give the right answers if
he wanted to go see [family friend he likes]. He listened, even
with [brother] walking around him. Answered HOW MANY questions.
Answered 2 out of 4 WHEN questions."
"Answered nicely. WHEN confused with WHAT a bit. He sat nicely,
concentrated well with a lot of people in the room, all talking.
Great eye contact."
P.N. - Always add in a few HOW MANYS (notes please). If prompt is
needed, hold up # of fingers as you say the # in your story.
"He wasn't listening; had his own agenda. Got a huge T.O. Extremely
effective. He finally answered one HOW question. Lots of DRO for
sitting nicely. He was staring off a bit too!"
"T.O. immediately for sitting and feet. Wouldn't answer my
questions so [dad] worked with him. Did well w/him on WHEN questions.
This was a marathon drill with [dad] working and then myself. Wasn't
able to answer my ?s but it was apparent that he was listening and
knew the answers but just didn't want to give them. He was able
to answer [dad's] questions very quickly and when he would ask him
what I said, he was able to answer."
P.N. - If he doesn't answer, rapid fire your statements and questions
and challenge him (e.g.: you: "did I say Tuesday?" child:
"no" you: "Well then, what DID I say?"). This
"Listening was good after I did the above. Asked "did
I say she rode in a pizza?" .... he said "no, in a pumpkin".
Then he listened nicely and answered HOW MANY, WHEN without problems."
"Got a T.O. for talking back. Then answered WHEN (DRO) and
then didn't answer WHEN. Did rapid fire and then he answered HOW
MANY, WHEN, WHO and WHY perfectly. DRO'd."
"HOW MANY, great! WHERE, WHEN, wonderful! Then he stopped listening
and started making weird mouth gestures. Worked through this until
he got better again."
"Didn't pay attention at first. I used rapid fire statements
and questions and he did better. Towards the end he was much more
focused and answered questions quickly, inc. HOW MANY and WHEN.
DRO'd a lot towards the end."
"HOW MANY and WHEN got good at end after I changed my speed
"Weak on HOW. Didn't seem to be listening well even with rapid
questions and giving wrong choices. T.O. for continually biting
"Excellent job! Answered all ?s correctly on first tries and
he even interspersed some spontaneous questions. For example, I
told a story about my kitten and he asked me how old he was! I think
he was good because he was interested in the stories."
"Wasn't listening during drill and got a T.O. for various hand
and foot stims. The T.O. really bothered him and he straightened
out when he came back. Answered HOW LONG, HOW MUCH, WHEN and HOW
"Did great! Told him about Martin Luther King. Answered all
questions? Great eye contact DRO'd."
"More on MLK Jr. Great job. Answered questions WHEN, WHY, HOW
and then he asked for story about my cat. He did fantastic job listening.
I told him my cat jumped on my leg and he got stuck. He asked if
I put tape on my cat. Really cute."
"Great job. Answered WHEN, WHY, HOW MANY, WHAT. Sat nicely
and very good eye contact I told story about a boy who wasn't well
behaved at the playground who didn't listen, shoved things in his
peer's face, etc. Asked him WHY the child's parents were upset at
the little boy and he gave detailed answers. Wonderful job!"
P.N. - Great story and notes!
Avoiding answers, not looking, changing subject. Last story he got
some of the HOW MANY questions b/c the story had to do with a boy
who had three T.O.s for not listening to three stories I told him."
This seems to have been one of the more important prerequisites
to the Conversation - Dolls/Puppets drills we sent over the past
few days. Seems that it changed into the "Dolls" drill
after a while.
Click here for the full
range of Asperger's and Autism fact sheets at www.autism-help.org
See the Behavior
& Life skills page for tips on developing programs you can
implement at home.
The notes are by the parents, Megan and Jim Sumlin
(pseudonyms), who feel strongly that this information should be
freely available to all who might benefit from it. They ask only
that these notes belong in the public domain, and are not to be
claimed or copyrighted by any person who is or will in the future
be seeking monetary gain for wide distribution of same. If this
information has proved useful, click here
to download their information package. You will need the Winzip
program to decompress the files.