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Increasing Independence with Written Prompts

Since most of my students on the spectrum are stronger visual learners (rather than auditory learners), I've been starting to give more written instructions rather than verbal instructions. It seems like a simple idea, but I believe it is a very effective strategy. I think it helps students to have the extra time to look at the written instructions to process them, as opposed to the spoken word, which is said once and then is "gone." With written notes, instructions, or schedules, it creates a more permanent item for a student to read and process. Sundberg & Partington (1998), as cited in Finkel and Williams (2001), suggest that the use of written words as prompts may help with improvement of language and speech. Here are a few examples:

1. Written Instructions for a Project

A craft of a droid next to a card that reads, "Draw 2 small rectangles. Draw 2 big rectangles."

I was making a Star Wars craft with a few students recently, and I needed one student to cut out some particular shapes while I worked with another student. I wrote the instructions for student A, put them next to him, and started working with student B. Without any other prompts or instructions, student A started working on the tasks I'd written.

As a note, we had so much fun making Star Wars crafts that day! Here are the crafts we worked on:

If you'd like to learn more about how I use a child's favorite activities and interests to work on language, communication, and social skills, please see this page about my "Play to Learn" program, where I work with kids in their homes on these skills.

2. Written Reminder of What to Say (Like a Script)

In image of a card in front of a computer screen. The card reads, "Can you help me? The problem is ______. Let me show you."

I also sometimes write out phrases that students can say if they need a reminder of how to ask questions, etc. (like a script). Here's an example that I'm using with one of my older students learning 3D modeling. I'm working with him on telling me when he has a problem with the program and communicating to me exactly what the problem is. Here's a visual reminder that I sit on the desk next to the computer while he's working. We've practiced this skill before using verbal prompting, modeling, and other practice. This card just serves as reminder of the skill we've already practiced a bit.

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3. Written Schedules Another example of this is a written schedule. If you have a sequence of items that your child or student needs to do, you can write them in a list and post them where he or she can refer to the list. If your child isn't reading yet, a picture schedule also works well.

A Note About Prompt Fading

When we're using prompts for something we want kids to say (like example 2 above) or something we want them to memorize, we want to consider how to fade out the prompt. We don't want them to be dependent on the prompt; we want the student to eventually learn to do the skill independently. (Note: this doesn't apply to things like written instructions that are just to tell the student what to do to compete a one-time activity).

So, to fade a prompt, we can gradually reduce how much we prompt, so the student gets used to doing the skill on their own. After the student is successful using the full prompt comfortably, you can start fading. An example with a written prompt can be to gradually remove part of the prompt. One way to do this is to cover up parts of the prompt (gradually, over time). For this student, we were practicing greetings. When it was time for him to greet someone, I held up this card and he would read the words out loud. Once he was able to do this successfully, I started covering up individual words (maybe at rate of one word every day or two) until he had memorized the phrase. See the following pictures for examples.

An index card that reads, "Good morning! How are you?"

An index card that reads, "Good morning! How are you?" The word "you" is covered up by a small piece of paper.

An index card that reads, "Good morning! How are you?" The words "you" and "morning" are covered up by a small piece of paper.

An index card that reads, "Good morning! How are you?" The words you, are, and morning are covered up by a small piece of paper.

Another option that I've used is to cut away parts of the prompt (gradually, over days or weeks):

An index card that reads, "Good morning! How are you?"

An index card that reads, "Good morning! How are " The word "you" is cut off with scissors.

An index card that reads, "Good morning! How " The words "you" and "are" are cut off with scissors.

Prompt fading can be a bit of a complex process in order to make sure that you're fading the prompts quickly enough that the student doesn't become dependent on them, but slowly enough so that the student is still successful. I would recommend consulting with a Board Certified Behavior Analyst® (BCBA®) to be trained on effective prompt use and also read this blog post on prompt fading from The Autism Helper:


Finkel, A. S., & Williams, R. L. (2001). A comparison of textual and echoic prompts on the acquisition of intraverbal behavior in a six-year old boy with autism. The Analysis of Verbal Behavior, 18, 61-70. Link: Another article of interest might be: Thiemann, K. S., & Goldstein, H. (2001). Social stories, written text cues, and video feedback: Effects on social communication of children with autism. Journal of Applied Behavior Analysis, 34(4), 425-446. Link:

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