When and How to Teach Colors for Children with Autism

When and How to Teach Colors for Children with Autism


In the autism world, there seems to be a big
push to teach a child to label colors, so today, I’m going to talk about when and how
I recommend teaching colors. Hi. I’m Dr. Mary Barbera, autism mom, board-certified
behavior analyst, and best selling author. About 15 years ago, a local mom who’s a friend
of mine brought her young son to my house, so I could assess him and give her some tips
on how to help him. I remember I pointed to a chair and asked
him, “What’s this called?” And he said, “Yellow chair.” Mom and Dad looked so proud, since he not
only labeled the chair, but also threw in the color. They were upset and confused, then, when I
told them that since I didn’t ask the color of the chair, this was actually not a great
response, that I would have much preferred his response to just be, “Chair.” So you might be thinking, “What’s the big
deal, Mary? Labeling colors shows more cognitive ability,
so shouldn’t we just celebrate yellow chair like his parents wanted to?” When should you teach colors? In typically-developing kids, colors often
are not identified until about 30 months of age, so you don’t want to be teaching a child
with very low, limited language skills to label colors. It will just confuse things. Sorting by color, so putting the yellow bear
in the yellow cup and the red bear in the red cup, those are all VB-MAPP level two skills,
and labeling and receptively identifying colors are actually level three skills, which are
30 to 48 month typical development. So if a child can’t say any words, or they
can’t identify dozens of nouns, like bed, and shoe, and marker, then we don’t want to
teach them colors. Some kids will naturally learn to identify
colors by parents or preschool teachers using color activities, such as red day, or find
all the things in the room that are green. This is ideal, not to teach or hyper-focus
on colors, and let kids learn them naturally. But for kids with moderate to severe autism,
who need systematic instruction on language, this is how I recommend teaching colors. What we want to do is we want to get construction
paper, and identify the three colors we want to teach. If your child knows any colors to start with,
maybe yellow is their favorite color and they can identify yellow, then certainly we want
to add yellow into the mix, because it will be nice to have one of the colors be a known
skill. You also may need to consider articulation
with these skills. So, when in doubt, I would pick red, yellow,
and green to start with. I would not pick orange and red at the same
time, for instance, or orange and yellow at the same time, because they’re too close. But sometimes, articulation gets in the way
with something like yellow, so we might have to substitute something that the child can
say more clearly. Also, we want to watch out for pastel colors,
because they look a little bit different, and I’d pick primary colors to start with,
and avoid teaching brown, black, and white, and certainly gray and pink would wait, unless
pink happens to be a favorite color. So, those non-primary colors tend to be taught
later. So once we have our construction paper, what
you want to do is you want to cut it up so you have basically four to six pieces, all
in squares that kind of match are fine, of red, yellow, and green. And then we would start pairing, red, red,
and they would put it with the other red object, red construction paper. We don’t want to start teaching colors with
items, such as, “This is a red firetruck,” because that’s too complicated. What we want to do is we want to teach colors
with these sample swatches, and then once the child really knows colors, we can start
combining the color plus the item name, which is much later down the line. While you’re teaching these skills, these
color skills, until the child is very fluent with red, yellow, and green without any prompts,
I would hold off trying to pair the colors, and trying to generalize it into the natural
environment, and that may be tough, because I’m telling you, parents and professionals
really hyper-focus on colors, because that’s kind of what preschoolers learn, and like
Mason’s parents, they felt like, oh, this was a good sign to add a color. So, there may be some undoing of colors you
need to do. So, three things you can do starting today,
to teach colors more effectively. Number one, I would stop focusing on teaching
colors to early learners. If you’re a parent or professional, you may
need to spread the word about this, why teaching colors and focusing on combining colors with
nouns too early is not a good idea. Number two, you do want to begin pairing colors
when the child is ready, with sorting activities. I would use construction paper. And number three, when it is time to teach
the child to label and receptively identify colors, we want to teach two or three colors
at the same time. We never want to just pick one color, because
we want to build conditional discrimination from the start. Colors are a great thing to teach when the
child is up at level three of the VB-MAPP, needing to learn other, more advanced language
skills, and they’re functioning at a typical language development of a 30 to 48 month old
child. Getting the colors mastered should be easy,
and if it’s not, it’s probably that you’re starting too soon, without the prerequisite
skills in mind. If you’d like to get more helpful advice,
where to start, or how to revamp your child or client’s ABA program, and join me on my
mission to turn autism around for two million by 2020, go to marybarbera.com/join, or click
the link in the description right below to download my free, three-step guide. I hope you enjoyed this information about
colors, and I hope you’ll begin to teach colors a little bit differently going forward, and
I’ll see you next week.

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One Reply to “When and How to Teach Colors for Children with Autism”

  1. Why don't you tell the parents that their child will loose the skills of telling a color eventually. Brain rebuilding will allow in the 3rd stage to copy a color, but not identify it. It will keep the kid in the forever baby stage.

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