Generalization and How It Applies to ABA Therapy

Generalization is when an individual applies something learned in a specific situation to other similar situations which is marked by progress toward therapy goals. It is also referred to as a “carryover.” Progress is wanted to see outside of the therapy setting, such as, at home, at school, park, etc. as well as with multiple people, such as, a parent, grandparents, babysitter, teacher. In most ABA programs, specific programming is put in place for generalization. Generalization is not automatic and needs to be worked on continuously to make the most out of behavior change and to make it meaningful. Generalization refers to the process of practicing skills often and thoroughly enough to make sure that a person is able to use them when needed, in any given situation or environment.

Methods for Generalization

1. Teaching many examples

One of the most reliable ways to reach generalization is to teach many different examples. This can be done across people, settings, objects, behaviors, or any other relevant aspect.

Ex. Teaching the word “cup” with a variety of types of cups.


2. Teaching across many people

Generalization across people is going to be easier if a child has several different teachers rather than just one. Having different people teach the child will assist in performing something with a variation of people.

Ex. Not giving in to whining should be practiced by all individuals in contact with the child.


3. Teach with multiple instructions

It is very common for children with autism to not automatically generalize understanding to multiple instructions which are meant to mean the same thing. It is recommended to start with teaching one, then teach another, while still using the old one occasionally. Continuing with integrating new instructions as previous ones are mastered. Eventually, when a particular child has learned this way enough times, you can start by teaching with multiple instructions from the beginning when teaching new skills.

Ex. “Come over to the table” and “Come here”


4. Choose “functional” behaviors

Teach behaviors that are likely to be useful to the child in their everyday life. Behavior change should result in the child being able to independently get reinforcement out of his/her environment. Skills that improve the child’s life, such as, teaching the child to request things they want is the objective rather than teaching new skills that are not useful.


5. Learning occurs 24-hours per day
Incorporating generalization should not only occur during planned times. It should be during planned time, but also in their natural environment since every moment that the child is awake is another opportunity to learn something.

Ex. When a child wants something, practice generalizing mands (requests).


Generalization usually occurs in very small steps. It is important to be consistent, don’t give up, and give it enough time to give it a chance to work. Try one approach at a time, and adjust to new approaches when necessary, avoiding prompt dependence. Generalization requires explicit planning and intervention.

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