Learning to ask for what you want and need starts young.

April 30, 2018

Learning to ask for what you want and need is important in life, is it not? Being able to communicate functionally allows others to understand what is needed, and decreases frustration and subsequent behaviors.

But where to start? How to make the switch between nonfunctional or maladaptive behaviors to communication that is functional? Might we suggest using a preferred item or activity to reinforce the child when he or she asks in the most functional way he or she is able. This might be by pointing, using PECs (Picture Exchange Communication System), using assistive technology or verbally requesting, and depends totally on meeting the child’s present ability. Use of a preferred reinforcer can help the child to learn to ask, because he or she will be reinforced with something he or she really likes when and only when he uses the skill.

“That makes sense,” you say, “but how do you know what he really likes?” Or, “What if she’s crying and engaging in tantrum behaviors but I don’t know what she wants?” It can be tricky, we agree. But maybe learning about preference assessments can help.

At Crossroads Center for Children preference assessments are a common and foundational aspect of individual programming. They are important because when the teacher or therapist knows what to use to reinforce a student for good working, it is powerful in making progress that lead to goal achievement.

Mrs. Carolyn, Clinic BCBA at Crossroads writes, “Preference assessments are observations or trial-based evaluations that allow practitioners to determine a preference hierarchy. A preference hierarchy indicates which items are a child’s highly-preferred items, moderately-preferred items, and low-preferred items. Preference assessments can be used to determine hierarchies for toys, edible items, social interactions, activities, caregivers, locations, and more.” Carolyn further provides this helpful link:  https://opwdd.ny.gov/opwdd_community_connections/autism_platform/parents_corner/conducting_preference_assessments_on_individuals_with_autism_and_other_developmental_disabilities


It’s so important for children to learn to ask for what they need or want. This is why preference assessments are the foundation of establishing which reinforcers to use in teaching and therapy sessions. At Crossroads several different formats of assessing preferences are used. With assessment in place, a preferred reinforcer can be strategically chosen by the teacher or therapist according to the task at hand and the child’s individual response to the task.

Using a certain preferred toy or treat to let the child know that he or she did what was wanted will increase the chance of that behavior or skill happening again. This is why reinforcers are often used as a method of teaching children to “mand,” or ask for things. Important things like water, bathroom and help.

When you walk around and observe sessions here at the school, it is quite common to hear students learning to ask for items they want.  Students learn to communicate in a variety of ways. Some are working on pointing to an item or picture that is named by the teacher, while others are working on labeling items.  Some are working on selecting pictures or icons in order to request specific items or activities. Some are learning to verbalize “I want (item),” while others are learning to say “more please.”


Check out one of our amazing Speech therapists, Mrs. Kelly as she works with a student. She is holding up bubbles, having already determined that this is a preferred reinforcer for this little cutie. She holds up the bubbles and animatedly – with a smile and an expression of anticipation – waits for the child to make the request. Over time, he has learned this skill of asking for what he wants, and of saying “I want bubbles,” and “more bubbles” and he’s learned that in order to get the bubbles, he needs to use his words and ask for them.


Having made the request the bubbles are happily delivered by Kelly. Later on, the bubbles can be used to reinforce other skills too. He will be able to ask for them in wider circles. He’ll ask for other items as well.

Yes, learning to ask for what you want and need is important in life.  Here at Crossroads Center for Children, students learn and practice their skills of  communicating their needs and wants in every classroom and with every therapist. There are many steps and skills that our therapists and teachers work on to teach children to communicate functionally. Perhaps he needs to learn to point first, showing what it is preferred from a choice of 2 items offered. Maybe she has to learn to identify the item of desire by name, and is working on labeling objects, or foods, and so on. Maybe it is putting together a simple string of words and then expanding upon it as time and progress go on. It’s so important to reiterate that every child is an individual and that learning is highly individualized at Crossroads, where we work according to the child’s progress soundly based upon data.

Read more about ABA methods that help!

Discrete trial training works by making the skill more manageable for the child


Earth Week Recycling Sculptures at CrossroadsAutism Awareness is all year here