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Applied Behavior Analysis: The Role of Task Analysis and Chaining

Contributed by:  Dr. Cathy Pratt, BCBA-D
Director, Indiana Resource Center for Autism

A task analysis is used to break complex tasks into asequence of smaller steps or actions. For some individuals on the autism spectrum, even simple tasks canpresent complex challenges. Having anunderstanding of all the steps involved for a particular task can assist inidentifying any steps that may need extra instruction and will help teach thetask in a logical progression. A taskanalysis is developed using one of three different methods. First, competent individuals who have demonstrated expertise can be observed and steps documented. A second method is to consult experts in performing the required task. And finally, those who are teaching the skill can perform the task themselves and document steps.

As task analyses are being developed, it is important to remember the skill level of the person, the age, communication and processing abilities, and prior experiences in performing the task. For those on the autism spectrum, also remember their tendency toward literal interpretation of language. For example, students who have been told to put the peanut butter on the bread when making a peanut butter and jelly sandwich have literally just placed the entire jar on the bread. Here is an example of a tasks analysis for putting a coat on:

1. Pick up the coat by the collar (the inside of the coat should be facing you)
2. Place your right arm in the right sleeve hole
3. Move your arm through until you can see your hand at the other end
4. Now reach behind with your left hand
5. Locate the left sleeve hole
6. Put your arm in the left sleeve hole
7. Move your arm through until you see your hand at the other end
8. Adjust the coat so it is ready to zip

Again, the number of steps involved and the wording used will differ depending on the individual. Once an individual tries the task analysis, it may need to be adjusted. You will also notice that thesteps are operationally defined.

After a task analysis is developed, chaining procedures areused to teach the task. Forward chaining involves teaching the sequence beginning with the first step. Typically the learner does not move onto the second step until the first step is mastered. In backward chaining, the sequence is taught beginning with the last step. And again, the previous step is not taught until the final step is learned. One final strategy is total task teaching. Using this strategy, the entire skill is taught and support is provided or accommodations made for steps that are problematic. Each of these strategies has benefits. In forward chaining, theindividual learns the logical sequence of a task from beginning to end. In backward chaining, the individual immediately understands the benefit of performing the task. In total task training, the individual is able to learn the entire routine without interruptions. And they are able to complete any steps that have been mastered.

Regardless of the strategy chosen, data has to be collected to document successful completion of the entire routine and progress on individual steps.  How an individual progresses through the steps of the task analysis and what strategies are used have to be determined via data collection.


Cooper, J.O., Heron, T.E, and Heward, W.L. (2007). AppliedBehavior Analysis (2nd Edition). Upper Saddle River, NJ: PearsonMerrill Prentice Hall.

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