Naturalistic Teaching is one of ABA therapy’s core techniques for helping individuals with autism spectrum disorder and similar mood disorders to learn new skills and healthy socialization habits. It has specific approaches in classrooms as well as in clinical settings to help individuals with autism spectrum disorder to live their best possible life.

The approach behind naturalistic teaching emphasizes contextual learning. It is often used as an alternative to discrete trial training which uses more of a rigid structured approach in a clinical setting. While the concepts behind it are familiar to most educators and mental healthcare professionals, the techniques rely on specific modalities to maximize success.

How Naturalistic Teaching Is Different from Other ABA Techniques

Many applied behavior analysis techniques are specifically data-driven, which might not make them as effective for students and individuals with autism spectrum disorder who are averse to rigid routines. Instead naturalistic teaching uses a more holistic and adaptive teaching approach that incorporates many of the beneficial insights of ABA therapy refreshingly.

Yet naturalistic teaching still retains the data-driven fundamentals of ABA therapy. While still reinventing them for individuals who need more freedom in their learning experience, or who need gentle mentoring as they learn self-regulation skills.

At its core, naturalistic teaching’s approach is adaptive and reactive to the student’s needs. The benefit of this is coupled with a holistic theoretical perspective. It makes it easier for key lessons to be applied globally applied.

After a student learns a specific skill or set of skills, they’re encouraged to apply it to a range of situations that have bearing on their experience. Unlike rigid memorization, naturalistic methods offer up a lot of variation and context where skills can be practiced and integrated into the individual’s life.

Naturalistic teaching is also designed to be easy to incorporate into the existing routines, which makes it helpful for children with autism spectrum disorder. Naturalistic empowers teachers, parents, and other caregivers in the child’s support team in helping them add a new skill to the child’s daily routine.

Naturalistic Teaching and Foundational Motives

Many children with autism spectrum disorder face challenges when it comes to connecting and communicating in a social setting. Traditional ABA techniques tend to focus on language acquisition and interaction. Though they often take place in a specialized context which can sometimes limit the child’s ability to fully apply the newly learned skills.

Whereas naturalistic learning’s loose structure promotes a more relaxed, situational application that can help the child to make their own connections. We discuss several of the most common types of naturalistic ABA approaches.

Incidental Teaching

Incidental Teaching is a sub-variant of naturalistic teaching that uses enhanced methods to create opportunities for children to learn new language skills as they go through their day. It can be used in real-world settings, at home, when playing with friends, at daycare in the classroom or anywhere they interact with non-ASD or other ASD children. It taps into the natural way humans learn social behaviors in a way that promotes social growth and language skills.

Mand-Model Approach

The Mand-model approach is another extension of naturalistic teaching that has grown out of the incidental teaching modality. Anytime the child engages with an item or activity, the caregiver prompts them to request the item using verbal cues, non-verbal gestures, or sign language. In this way, new verbal skills are introduced, reinforced, or generalized. When the correct behavior occurs the caregiver then praises the child which further reinforces the child’s positive behavior in association with the desired toy, item, or activity.

The Time-Delay Technique

The time-delay technique can be especially helpful when teaching children how to initiate verbal contact. It starts with the caregiver identifying a setting or situation where the child wants to request an item. Though they wait for the child to respond or request it verbally before providing it.

When the child responds appropriately, they receive the item and a modest amount of positive praise. If the child responds incorrectly, the caregiver uses another delay. If the child continues to give an incorrect response, the caregiver might switch to a different approach like the Mand-model to help the child.

The Milieu Language Teaching Method

Milieu Language Teaching essentially combines other strategies to elicit appropriate communication responses in children with autism. It takes into account environmental arrangements, responsive interaction techniques, and milieu teaching techniques.

An environment is prearranged in a way that encourages the child’s use of language. There might be a favorite item, toy, or other object of interest staged in the room. The caregiver or therapist uses responsive interaction techniques in a way that promotes conversational interaction. At that point the Milieu teaching method, Mand-modeling, or time-delay technique is used to facilitate language learning.

Pivotal Response Training

Pivotal Response Training isn’t always a mainstay in the naturalistic teaching approach as it tends to use slightly more rigid structures to address the cause of the behavior rather than cultivating an actual targeted behavior. It tends to focus on things that are pivotal to the child’s behavior such as their underlying motivation, how they interact socially, and how they handle emotional responses to situations.

In this way, pivotal response training is largely meant to help the child move away from undesirable behaviors and toward more appropriate ones. Though it’s not that it flies in the face of naturalistic teaching. Instead, it can be used as an ancillary tool to help therapists and caregivers to address negative behaviors that might be obstructing the child’s ability to make the most out of naturalistic teaching strategies.


Naturalistic teaching is just one of several techniques used by ABA therapists, parents, caregivers, and teachers to help children with autism spectrum disorder to learn new skills as they conquer ever-greater milestones.

It’s a positive school of thought that offers intense potential for adaptive growth that offers numerous approaches. While it does differ from some traditional ABA strategies, it is also amenable to include them or integrate them into a much larger care plan.