Autism and Generalization

Learning a new skill can be challenging and it often helps to begin instruction in a controlled environment like a classroom. Once this goal is achieved, it is equally important to learn (and teach) how to translate the skill into other scenarios. Literally, every skill or lesson learned should be able to be generalized by the student. The challenges associated with generalizing learned skills are a developmental characteristic of many students on the autism spectrum. These are three things teachers and/or parents should measure after the student has mastered a skill. The student’s ability to generalize skills across:


If a student can individually and successfully complete a task (such as reading) only in the presence of a particular person, this will not lead to a self-sustaining situation for him/her. The student will be expected to read in the presence of any number of different individuals in the course of his scholastic studies. Each person will also have his/her own unique way of interacting with the learner which should not affect the outcome of the skill or situation. In instructional situations, these are largely teacher driven activities which currently require an instructor to be present. There are also a number of social and life skills which may benefit from conducting short generalization trials.


Life skills, such as tooth brushing, often run the risk of failure if the skill is taught at school and not subsequently taught in different areas as well. There are a high number of relatively small differences from one room to the next; the light switch location, faucet design, cabinets and so on. The goal is not to teach to each and every one of these different variables, rather it is to instill in the student the ability to recognize these differences and react appropriately.


Here again, while there are various minor and sometimes major differences associated with physical items used in a skill, the student should be able to use any of these items to complete the relevant task at hand. For instance, microwaves come in many different shapes and sizes and it seems that each one has a unique operating panel. Even so, there is a universal nature to completing this task which can be taught to; such as teaching to different door opening mechanisms, locating the number panel to indicate the length of cooking, and so on.

It is very important that the learner has mastered a skill, before any attempts at generalization take place. Generally speaking, if a student can not yet complete a task in a particular setting it is unlikely that they will be able to complete it in another. Instead of teaching to each and every type of microwave or in dozens of possible locations one might brush their teeth, instructors can take performance data on several sample situations. This will give them a clearer picture of whether or not the student will be able to successfully generalize each skill with any person, in any location and using various materials to complete the task.