Discrimination Training in ABA Therapy: Beginners Guide to Basic Skills

Reviewed by:
Hannah Andreasen

April 1, 2022

Discrimination training in ABA therapy is based on language skills are used in autism training. Assessing language is an integral part of autism detection, assessment, and therapy. In fact, according to the North American Journal of Medical Sciences, failure to acquire language skills is often one of the first symptoms that a child may be on the autism spectrum.

How does discrimination training in ABA work?

In ABA, or Applied Behavior Analysis, discrimination training is a program for all ages, however, it is particularly helpful and effective for children. In order for discrimination training to be effective, there must be a connection between the therapist and the child — a level of trust and understanding. 

The basic skills required for discrimination training include: 

  • Joint attention (when the child is able to split their attention from their own interests to what the therapist is pointing at/doing)
  • Ability to follow a point from the therapist 
  • Ability to follow simple directions. 

Discrimination training is conducted by the presentation of the desired item to teach, for example; a shoe. The child is then taught to select the shoe when the direction is placed to touch the shoe.  As success shows, the child is then asked to select the shoe when next to a spoon and a toy, for example. The goal of discrimination training is to teach the child to discriminate between items, labels, names, etc. when asked.

By using discrimination training to teach a variety of tasks it becomes a generalized skill.  This means that the child will be able to use discrimination in their day-to-day functioning across items, labels, names, etc., as mentioned above.

Skills involved in verbal behavioral training

The verbal behavior intervention works on developing certain communication skills.  

Verbal operants

According to the journal Analysis of Verbal Behavior, verbal operants are the basic language and communication abilities that children may be trained to apply in any situation. Depending on the severity of a child's autism, these operants can be made as generic or as specific as needed. Mand, tact, echoic, intraverbal, and autoclitic are verbal operants.

This instruction aims to educate children with autism to think in terms other than language. Instead, children can learn to associate a word with a certain function. Rather than thinking of words as labels for things, the objective is to assist children in understanding how to use language to communicate ideas and express themselves.

Mand: a request for an item or activity.  This can be in the form of a verbal approximation, a point/gesture, a whole word, multiple words, sign language, picture exchange communication, or a speech-generating device. 

Tact: the labeling of an item or activity by its name. For example; a red ball will elicit a response of ‘ball’ or ‘red ball’.

Echoic: the repeating of a sound or word when present with the discriminative stimulus (SD) of ‘say’. For example: ‘say cat’--- child says ‘cat’.

Intraverbal: the filling in the blank. For example: ‘the cow says…’ the child states ‘moo’. These can be fun intraverbals to functional intraverbals such as ‘you brush your…’ child states ‘teeth’.

Autoclitic: a complex verbal operant.  An autoclitic provides more information to a statement such as ‘I think’, ‘I see’, ‘I want’, ‘I hear’, etc.

Receptive language

Receptive language is the other component of verbal behavioral training that is necessary for discrimination training. Receptive language is the practice of "responding correctly to another person's spoken language." Simply, this is whether or not the child can follow simple directions — will the child understand that the word "cup" refers to the thing we use to consume liquids if the therapist asks for a cup.

When focusing on receptive language, several crucial concerns are associated with discriminating. While instructing, keep the following factors in mind to help your child learn more rapidly.

The distinction between the possibilities

Be aware of the differences between the objects when training a child to differentiate between them. When teaching a label, for example, you normally want a significant distinction between the objects you're showing. 

As a result, while teaching "vehicle," you may also have the choice of teaching "horse," "chair," or "ball". Then, as the child gains this skill, you may offer more similar alternatives, such as the bus, bicycle, motorbike, or train — objects with less distinction from a vehicle. Once a child correctly identifies the proper object when compared to similar choices, you can be convinced that the child understands the idea of a "vehicle."

The field's complexity

Another thing to think about is what the child will see in their field of vision as they respond to your inquiry. The number of objects, or "distractors," that are out, the scanning area, and the cleanliness of the area all impact the complexity of the task. Always begin with a field of one, meaning that there is only one choice available. As the skill is obtained, the field can be increased to practice scanning and greater discriminating ability.

Material variations

Repetition is essential for learning a new topic, however, it is important that the repetitions have slight variations. For example, during receptive labeling, you should not use the same photo over and over to teach the identification of a dog. This will cause the child to only understand that one specific picture is a dog. By using a variety of photographs with varying dogs, the child can understand a broad knowledge of what constitutes a ‘dog’.

Performing actions

When educating a child to perform activities, you must consider the words you use. Again, you'll want to pick targets that are distinct from one another. For example ‘roll’ and ‘throw’ are different actions, but both can be done with a ball.

Combinations of action and object

You may start with only one item on the table once you've figured out how to connect actions and objects in your instructions. As the child progresses, you will need to work up to having many objects out. As a result, the child must be aware of the proper action to take and the appropriate item to use. For example; ‘tap pencil’ as opposed to ‘touch pencil’.

The fundamentals

Be aware of how the environment is set up before presenting directions.  If the door is completely closed and the task is to ‘open the door’, there is only one choice for the child. Simply to open the door. In this case, have the door slightly open to see if the child can discriminate between ‘open’ and ‘close’.


Discrimination training, like other ABA training methods, requires time. Children with autism generally work with therapists for several hours each week, and progress could take weeks, or even months, to appear. When the therapy does take hold, however, the benefits can be remarkable. The earlier this therapy technique is adopted in life, the better the long-term effects will be — as with ABA training in general. If you need expert assistance with discrimination training for your child, consider reaching out to Songbird today.

Songbird is highly innovative enabling autism care that is elevating the threshold for children with autism. We are designing a society where every child can experience exceptional care at home, personalized to their unique needs.