A Guide To Discrete Trial Training For Autism

June 27, 2024

Understanding Discrete Trial Training

Discrete Trial Training (DTT) is a structured approach that has been widely utilized in the field of Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA) to teach skills to individuals, particularly those on the autism spectrum. DTT breaks down complex skills into smaller, more manageable components, providing repeated opportunities for learning and reinforcing correct responses. This section will explore the basics of DTT and highlight its effectiveness.

Basics of DTT

DTT involves breaking skills into small, discrete steps, allowing for repeated practice and reinforcement of each step before moving on to the next. The therapy sessions are structured and typically take place in a one-on-one setting between the therapist and the individual receiving the intervention. Each trial consists of a discriminative stimulus (the instruction or cue), the individual's response, and a consequence, which is usually a tangible reinforcement such as candy or small toys.

The structured nature of DTT ensures that skills are taught systematically, focusing on one skill at a time. The therapist provides prompts and guidance to help the individual respond correctly. With repeated practice and reinforcement, the goal is for the individual to acquire the skill and be able to respond independently.

Effectiveness of DTT

DTT has been one of the very first interventions developed for autism and has extensive research supporting its effectiveness in teaching skills to children with autism [1]. The structured and individualized nature of DTT allows for targeted instruction and tailored interventions based on the specific needs of each individual.

Research studies have shown that DTT can be effective in promoting skill acquisition, generalization, and behavior management. By breaking down complex skills into smaller, more manageable steps, DTT provides individuals with multiple opportunities to practice and reinforce each step, leading to improved learning outcomes.

DTT also provides a framework for effective behavior management strategies. By utilizing positive reinforcement and clear instructions, DTT helps individuals understand expectations and learn appropriate ways to respond in various situations. This structured approach can be particularly beneficial for individuals with autism who may struggle with communication and social interaction.

Overall, the evidence supports the effectiveness of DTT in promoting skill acquisition, generalization, and behavior management for individuals with autism. By utilizing the principles of DTT and providing individualized instruction, therapists and educators can help individuals with autism reach their full potential.

Contrasting Early Intervention Approaches

When it comes to early intervention approaches for children with autism, there are various methods available. Two popular approaches that are often contrasted with Discrete Trial Training (DTT) are the Early Start Denver Model (ESDM) and Pivotal Response Treatment (PRT). While all three approaches are based on Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA) principles and aim to support skill development in children with autism, they differ in their structure and delivery.


The Early Start Denver Model (ESDM) takes a less structured approach compared to DTT, focusing on naturalistic teaching methods. ESDM incorporates social skills and natural play-based interactions while teaching specific skills like identifying colors. It aims to teach multiple skills simultaneously in a natural environment, building on the child's interests and motivations. This approach allows for flexibility and encourages generalization of skills to real-life situations.

On the other hand, DTT is a highly structured ABA technique that breaks down skills into small, "discrete" components. It focuses on teaching these skills one at a time using clear prompts and reinforcements such as candy or small toys. DTT provides a systematic framework for teaching skills, with an emphasis on repetition and reinforcement.


Pivotal Response Treatment (PRT) is another early intervention approach that contrasts with DTT. Like ESDM, PRT is based on ABA principles and takes a more naturalistic approach. PRT places a strong emphasis on the child's motivation and interests. During PRT sessions, the child is encouraged to indicate preferences and is rewarded with activities related to their interests, such as playing with a preferred toy or engaging in a preferred activity. This approach aims to increase the child's motivation and engagement in learning, while targeting specific goals.

In contrast, DTT focuses on breaking down skills into discrete components and teaching them systematically. It utilizes clear prompts, repetition, and reinforcement to encourage skill acquisition. DTT often uses tangible reinforcements, such as small toys or edible treats, to motivate and reinforce desired behavior.

Each of these approaches has its own strengths and may be more suitable for different children based on their individual needs and learning styles. It's important to consult with professionals and caregivers to determine the most appropriate intervention approach for a child with autism.

Components of Discrete Trial Training

Discrete Trial Training (DTT) is a widely used intervention approach for individuals with autism. It consists of several key components that contribute to its effectiveness in teaching new skills and reducing problematic behaviors.

The Three Key Elements

Each discrete trial in DTT consists of three essential components: the discriminative stimulus (SD), the response, and the consequence. These components work together to create a structured learning environment and promote skill acquisition.

  • The discriminative stimulus (SD) is a cue or prompt that signals to the learner what behavior is expected. It provides information about the desired response and helps the learner understand the specific task or instruction. The SD can take various forms, such as verbal instructions, visual cues, or gestures.
  • The response refers to the behavior that the learner engages in after the presentation of the discriminative stimulus. It can be a specific action, a vocal response, or any other observable behavior. The response is the learner's opportunity to demonstrate their understanding and mastery of the targeted skill.
  • The consequence serves as feedback to the learner, reinforcing correct responses and providing guidance for improvement. Positive reinforcement, such as praise, tokens, or rewards, is often used to strengthen desired behaviors and increase the likelihood of their recurrence. Immediate and consistent feedback is crucial in DTT to reinforce correct responses and help the learner understand the consequences of their actions.

These three key elements work together to create a structured and predictable learning environment, enabling individuals with autism to learn and generalize new skills effectively. For a deeper understanding of DTT and its applications, refer to our articles on the basics of DTT and the effectiveness of DTT.

Data Collection in DTT

Data collection and analysis play a vital role in DTT as they allow instructors to track the learner's progress, identify patterns, and make data-driven decisions. By systematically collecting data during DTT sessions, instructors can measure and monitor the learner's performance, ensuring that the intervention is tailored to their individual needs.

Data can be collected on various aspects, including accuracy, response latency, and the prompt level required. Accuracy refers to the percentage of correct responses given by the learner during the trials. Response latency measures the time taken by the learner to respond to the discriminative stimulus. The prompt level required indicates the amount of assistance or guidance needed by the learner to produce the correct response.

Collecting data provides valuable insights into the learner's progress, allowing instructors to analyze trends, identify areas of strength and areas that require additional focus. This data-driven approach helps instructors make informed decisions about instructional strategies, modify interventions, and set appropriate goals for future sessions.

To ensure accurate data collection, instructors use various methods such as written notes, checklists, or digital data collection systems. The data collected is not only useful for immediate instructional decisions but also aids in long-term progress monitoring and evaluation.

By incorporating data collection into the implementation of DTT, instructors can effectively track the learner's progress, make informed decisions, and continuously adapt the intervention to maximize the learner's success.

Implementing Discrete Trial Training

To effectively implement Discrete Trial Training (DTT), structured sessions and positive reinforcement play key roles in creating a conducive learning environment for children with autism.

Structured Sessions

The foundation of DTT lies in the structure it provides for learning. During a DTT session, each trial begins with a discriminative stimulus or instruction that remains consistent, such as "Touch circle" to describe the intended behavior. The therapist's tone during the cue delivery may be slightly louder to draw the child's attention.

The structured nature of DTT allows therapists to focus on specific skills and break them down into smaller, more manageable parts. This approach helps children with autism to grasp new concepts and build upon their existing knowledge. By gradually increasing the complexity of tasks across sessions, children can develop a sense of accomplishment and enthusiasm for learning.

Positive Reinforcement

Positive reinforcement is a fundamental component of DTT. During a DTT session, therapists provide immediate positive reinforcement and enthusiastic social praise for correct responses. This can include verbal praise, high-fives, or other forms of acknowledgment. Tangible reinforcers, such as favorite toys or treats, may also be used to motivate and reward the child.

By pairing positive reinforcement with correct responses, children are motivated to engage and participate actively in the learning process. This positive experience helps to create a positive association with learning and encourages the child to continue developing their skills. Additionally, therapists handle incorrect responses by offering an informational "No" or by waiting a few seconds before repeating the cue and prompt [3].

By utilizing structured sessions and positive reinforcement, DTT provides a clear framework for learning that is effective for children with autism. This approach facilitates skill acquisition, promotes attention and focus, and fosters a positive learning experience.

Benefits of Discrete Trial Training

Discrete Trial Training (DTT) in the context of Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA) therapy offers several benefits for individuals with autism. This structured and individualized approach focuses on breaking down skills into small, "discrete" components, teaching them one by one with tangible reinforcements for desired behavior. Let's explore two key benefits of DTT: skill acquisition and generalization, and behavior management.

Skill Acquisition and Generalization

One of the primary benefits of Discrete Trial Training is its effectiveness in promoting skill acquisition and generalization. By breaking skills into small, manageable steps, DTT allows for repeated practice and reinforcement of each step before progressing to the next. This systematic approach enables individuals with autism to develop new skills in a structured and supportive environment [2].

DTT provides a clear structure for learning, which helps increase attention and focus. It allows for the repeated practice of specific skills, ensuring mastery before moving on to more complex tasks. The use of prompts and reinforcement in DTT facilitates the acquisition of new skills by providing clear guidance and motivation for the individual.

Furthermore, DTT promotes generalization, which refers to the ability to apply learned skills across different settings and situations. By teaching skills in a variety of contexts, DTT helps individuals transfer their acquired skills to real-life situations, enhancing their independence and functional abilities.

Behavior Management

Another significant benefit of Discrete Trial Training is its effectiveness in behavior management. DTT incorporates evidence-based behavior management strategies that help individuals with autism learn appropriate behaviors and reduce challenging behaviors.

The structured nature of DTT allows for the identification and targeting of specific behaviors that need improvement. By breaking down complex behaviors into discrete steps, DTT provides individuals with clear expectations and opportunities for success. This structured approach helps reduce frustration and anxiety, which can contribute to challenging behaviors.

DTT also utilizes positive reinforcement, such as tangible rewards like candy or small toys, to motivate and reinforce desired behavior. By providing immediate reinforcement for correct responses, DTT encourages individuals to engage in appropriate behaviors and increases the likelihood of their repetition.

By focusing on skill acquisition and generalization, as well as behavior management, Discrete Trial Training offers a comprehensive approach to support individuals with autism in their learning and development. It provides a structured and individualized framework that promotes skill acquisition, generalization, and positive behavior change.

Success Stories and Research Findings

Discrete Trial Training (DTT) has shown promising results in the intervention and treatment of individuals with autism. Numerous success stories and research findings highlight the positive impact of DTT on individuals with autism, demonstrating its effectiveness as an intervention method.

Impact of DTT Interventions

A study published in the National Center for Biotechnology Information (NCBI) examined the impact of DTT interventions on autistic individuals. The study found that participants who received applied behavior analysis combining DTT, mass trials, and naturalistic environment training demonstrated statistically significant improvement in target behaviors over a three-month period, particularly in the 13-16 years age category [4].

Statistical Analysis of DTT

The same study utilized statistical analysis to evaluate the effectiveness of DTT interventions. A retrospective power analysis indicated that a sample size of n=14 participants would be required to demonstrate a high group effect size (0.80) with an alpha (α) of 0.05 using a mixed (between and within) ANOVA, with a power equal to 0.9938.

The mixed (between and within) ANOVA conducted in the study indicated overall statistical significance, with a large effect size (F (6,674)=45.447, p<0.001, partial eta squared=0.365) across time. There was also a significant interaction effect with time × age category (F (24,474)=2.961, p<0.001, partial eta squared=0.130), indicating a large effect size.

These findings suggest that DTT interventions have a significant impact on target behaviors in individuals with autism. The study's use of a mixed model of DTT, mass trials, and naturalistic environment treatment, along with a large sample size and repeated measures, adds to the robustness of the research [4].

Continued research and success stories support the effectiveness of DTT as an intervention method for individuals with autism. By incorporating DTT into treatment plans, professionals and parents can help individuals with autism acquire essential skills and improve their overall quality of life.


[1]: https://www.autismspeaks.org/expert-opinion/what-discrete-trial-training

[2]: https://www.adinaaba.com/post/discrete-trial-training-in-aba-therapy

[3]: https://www.behaviornation.com/blog/5-reasons-why-discrete-trial-teaching-is-beneficial/

[4]: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC10907925/

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