Incidental Teaching and Autism Ranking: Insufficient/Mixed evidence

Carer and adult with autism

Incidental teaching is a form of teaching in which a teacher takes advantage of naturally occurring 'incidents' or situations to provide learning opportunities for the student.

Incidental teaching is based on the idea that students, including autistic children, are more willing to learn if the teaching is based around their own interests and preferences.

In incidental teaching the teacher organises the learning environment around a set of pre-planned learning objectives but taking into account the student's individual preferences. When the student demonstrates an interest in an item or activity, the teacher encourages that interest by questioning or prompting the student. For example, the teacher may place something that the student wants (such as a green car) just out of reach, so that the student has to communicate with the teacher in order to get it.

Incidental teaching can be used as a focussed (standalone) technique but it is also a key element in many comprehensive, multi-component programmes, such as the Early Start Denver Model, LEAP and the UCLA YAP model. It is also the main technique used in programmes run by the Walden Early Childhood Center at Emory University in Georgia, Atlanta.

Our Opinion

There is enough research evidence to suggest that incidental teaching can increase and improve social communication, including both spoken and sign language, in some autistic children and young people, but only when used as part of a comprehensive, multi-component programme.

There is insufficient evidence to determine if incidental teaching provides any benefits when used as a focused (standalone) technique.  

Future research should use randomised controlled trials to investigate the effectiveness of incidental teaching against active control groups (for example, by directly comparing incidental teaching with other interventions, relative to a no-treatment control group) using larger sample sizes.

It would also be helpful to identify the effectiveness of incidental teaching, where incidental teaching is a part of a wider programme, investigating whether and how incidental teaching adds value to the programme (for example, are there particular skills that are more receptive to being taught using incidental teaching techniques than others).

There is also a need for research which involves autistic people to review the efficacy and ethical basis of incidental teaching including individuals who may be non-verbal.


Please read our Disclaimer on Autism Interventions

17 Jun 2022
Last Review
20 Jul 2016
Next Review
01 Apr 2023