Interview with Martha Gabler

Why did you decide to write this book?
When my son was younger, during the time I think of the dreadful early years, his behavior consisted almost solely of running, screaming, making noises hitting himself and sometimes others. I was desperate to do something as simple as go for a walk, go to the playground, and get a few hours of uninterrupted sleep. By the time Doug was eight we were physically isolated, exhausted and frustrated. As many autism families do, we met with massive bureaucratic and financial obstacles to get the scientifically-based, professional help that we required. I realized that we were on own and it was up to me to figure out a way to help Doug. I discovered a method called TAGteach, about 8 years ago and found it to be a simple, inexpensive way for us to implement proven procedures to help Doug be calm and confident and able to engage in normal family activities. I wanted to share my experience and protocols with other autism parents so that they too can work with their children at home during those times when a professional behavior is therapist not available.
What is TAGteach and How is it Different?
At its heart, it is a communication method, a way to let a person know that he or she has done something right. TAGteach is based on the science of Applied Behavior Analysis, or ABA, which is familiar to many autism parents. With Applied Behavior Analysis you use positive reinforcement to increase desired behaviors. It is a gentle and effective way to teach a child, and it is highly recommended for children with autism. There is no punishment with a positive behavior approach. What TAGteach does is add in an acoustical signal, a click, a flash of light, or a hand clap, to “mark” the behavior that will earn the positive reinforcement. The click or mark provides very specific information to the child about what will earn the reinforcement. It’s a communication method. It tells your child: “You did this right. Now you are getting a reward.” Or, technically speaking, a reinforcer. Once your child knows WHAT to do, he will do that thing more often to get more rewards. That is how you start to build good behaviors.

TAGteach also provides a framework for parents to use in thinking about their child’s behavior and coming up with a plan to increase positive behaviors in tiny increments.
What is a common problem that autism families face that you addressed with this method?
Well, one common problem for many autism families is that their children with autism makes lots of loud, random, annoying noises. Many children engage in what we call “verbal stimming.” They buzz, drone, hum, beep, squeal or repeat words and phrases over and over. My son continually said, “Deeee, deee, deee,” all day long while running around the house. It is very tough for the family to live with that non-stop noise. The child often seems very agitated and has trouble calming himself.

Naturally, autism families would love for this behavior to stop. But how do you stop a neurologically driven behavior? The child is not doing this to be difficult or to annoy the family. He is doing it because his neurological system is driving this behavior.
How does TAGteach fix this problem?
What I did when confronted with this problem was to look for another behavior to reinforce to replace the verbal stimming. With TAGteach I am supposed to always think about behavior that I want to happen as opposed to what I want to stop. There are two alternative behaviors to verbal stimming. One is Quiet Mouth, pretty easy to understand. The other behavior is when the child speaks an appropriate word, sound or phrase—something other than the verbal stim.

With TAGteach, my first step was to observe my son. The moment he had a split second of either Quiet Mouth or Saying An Appropriate Word/Sound, I “marked” the behavior by clicking or flashing a light. Immediately thereafter I handed him a treat, which is the reinforcer. The treat can be anything the child likes, candy, money or tokens for a special privilege, but it must be something the child prizes. This is not the time to hand over a chunk of broccoli.

Then, I settled back and waited for the next split second of Quiet Mouth or Saying An Appropriate Word. I kept marking and reinforcing all instances of the desired behavior and paid no attention to the verbal stimming—I just looked away. My smart, sensitive child with autism quickly caught on that his environment was changing. He was now experiencing lots of treats and attention for doing Quiet Mouth or Saying An Appropriate Word/Sound. As a logical being, he started producing more of those nice verbal behaviors.

The first time I tried to do this, it took eight minutes and it was actually funny. My son was sitting on a big bouncy ball in the living room yowling and screeching at the top of his lungs. I sat next to him and started marking (with the clicker) and reinforcing (with the candy pieces) every possible moment of Quiet Mouth, even if it was just a split second. Eight minutes later he was looking at me, in complete silence, with his lips pursed together as though to show me, “Look Ma! Quiet Mouth!” I have to tell you, I was amazed. But I was also thrilled. And encouraged – so this was even positive reinforcement for me to keep doing this!

Naturally, I had to keep reinforcing this on a daily basis, but that was easy to do. Now we have very little verbal stimming, and when it pops up, I just pull out the clicker and start marking Quiet Mouth or Appropriate Words.
Published 2013-10-03.
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