Generalization: The Key to Successful Learning

Generalization: The Key to Successful Learning

What if you could only drive your car on a familiar road to a single destination? The ability to be flexible about where you go and how to get there is crucial to driving effectively. That is true for every skill: It’s only valuable if you can use it in familiar and new situations. 

The ability to apply skills to new places, situations and people is called “generalization.” Generalization is essential to effective learning for everyone, but it is especially important for children with autism. 

Most neurotypical children generalize automatically. Kids with autism usually need to be taught how to apply a skill beyond the setting in which they learned it. 

Generalization and ABA 

Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA) uses positive reinforcement to help children with autism learn age-appropriate behavior, communication and social skills, and reduce challenging behavior. 

Most parents should look for an ABA provider who helps kids generalize skills in many locations, such as home and the playground, the doctor’s office and so on. Many providers also have therapy centers, which create more opportunities for children to practice social skills with other kids. 

Generalization: The Key to Successful Learning

Generalize for Independence 

Generalization plays a fundamental role in helping kids with autism become more independent. A daily activity such as getting ready for bed may seem simple, but it requires a long list of skills. A child has to put on pajamas, use the toilet, wash their hands, brush their teeth and get in bed. 

Each of these also involves many skills. Take tooth brushing: It requires putting a toothbrush in their mouth, accepting the taste and texture of toothpaste, brushing and rinsing. 

What if a child learns to use only one toothbrush in one bathroom? Brushes wear out and need to be replaced. It’s sometimes necessary to brush their teeth in a different location.

With ABA, a therapist divides the process of tooth brushing into small steps. The therapist teaches the child each step and provides plenty of positive reinforcement for every success. 

Generalization: The Key to Successful Learning

Once a child can brush their teeth with one brush in one place, the therapist will slowly add new elements to the sequence: a new toothbrush, a different color or a new toothpaste. Then the therapist may introduce new locations, such as brushing in a different bathroom and at Grandma’s house. When a child can brush their teeth using various toothbrushes in a number of places, they have effectively generalized the skill.

Start Early for Best Results 

Generalization is another reason to start ABA early. Younger children who have intensive ABA therapy often learn to generalize more quickly and may need to spend less therapy time generalizing skills as they get older. 

It’s impossible to overstate the importance of teaching children with autism to generalize skills to new situations, environments and people. Without generalization, children will learn skills and behavior, but the result may be an age-appropriate version of being able to drive only on a familiar road to a single destination. 

To learn more about how ABA therapy can help your child go to or call 844.356.4049.

*Sponsored. Originally appeared in the October 2019 issue of Tampa Bay Parenting Magazine.