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MouseTrial Autism Software
Fun animated online exercises to help kids with autism

about discrete trial work

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All illustrations, animations, software and text ©Dan Welchman Productions

MouseTrial is based on the technique of discrete trials which is an important part of the ABA approach to autism treatment. The two terms are often used interchangeably but strictly speaking ABA is a broader term encompassing any application of behavioural principles towards a therapeutic goal. Discrete trial is only one of many techniques used in ABA programs. The abbreviation DTT (discrete trial training) is often used.

so what is it?

This question is best answered by a visit to the Polyxo website by Jason Wallin. This is a superb resource for anybody interested in ABA and DTT. It gives a very clear explanation of the technique with detailed examples. For even more detail, see the brilliant online training materials by the Mariposa School in North Carolina. But in brief, the idea of discrete trial is to do lots of short "exercises" with the child in the absence of distractions. In classic ABA the exercises are usually carried out at a table. In other variants of the technique you might do them round the house or mix them in with your daily routine.

components of a discrete trial

Many different kinds of exercise are used in discrete trial training. In MouseTrial we concentrate on receptive object labeling which is simply jargon for a trial where a child shows that he has understood a verbal command by touching (or clicking) the correct item. In regular discrete trial work several other kinds of routine are also employed, including matching, sorting, copying actions, carrying out instructions and verbally identifying objects. But there's a common sequence to all of the trials:-
  • CD, the discriminative stimulus.
    Academic jargon for the cue or instruction that you want the child to respond to. In MouseTrial this is the "click on-" audio file that plays when the array of objects is displayed.
  • SP, the prompting stimulus.
    The hint or prompt that the teacher gives to help the child respond correctly. This stage is left out if the initial response is rapid and correct. In MouseTrial it's the flashing yellow background that appears behind the target item.
  • R, the response.
    This is the resulting behaviour in the child which in MouseTrial we hope is a mouse-click on the desired item.
  • SR, the reinforcing stimulus.
    The reinforcer. A reward or treat for giving the right response. Needless to say in MouseTrial this function is provided by the animations.
  • ITI, the inter trial interval.
    Sometimes considered an optional stage, this is simply a pause between trials. Often occurring naturally as the child scoffs the reinforcer or the teacher fumbles desperately to find the necessary materials for the next trial.

why does it work?

Until the neuropathology of autism is fully understood nobody can really claim to know why discrete trial work is effective. But it's not beyond the bounds of possibility that it acts a bit like a "workout for the brain", stimulating the neurons in some way and helping them reconnect in more favourable configurations. As such, it may be related to the process of recovery after brain injury or stroke.