Communications Series: Stuff in a Jar

Communications Series: Stuff in a Jar


This is one of the earliest forms of communication and I am currently using it at work – so it seemed quite fitting to start with this.

This is a pre-AAC method of establishing the idea that other people can be a source of assistance and communication. Some autistic children can be independent to the point of just not seeking out help from another person at all, and whilst independence is a valuable skill there are going to be times where it is not possible or it is dangerous for the autistic person to get something themselves. This is a basic form of asking for help to get something.

What we used:

  • a tub that the child cannot open whether that is screw top, clip on, or something else. This should be plastic as it is both see through and less likely to be broken than something like glass.
  • something physical that the child really enjoys (also called a high motivator), whether that is food, a toy, or some other object.
  • ideally a second person – it does not have to be an adult as this stage is easily explained to another child

The object used should not be something the child uses to self-regulate or which fulfills a specific sensory purpose. It is important that an autistic child or person can later request these types of objects if they are unavailable but at this stage they should be available to the child/person at all times.

Ideally you should have a variety of reinforcers which are a mix between food and non-food items. In terms of health giving biscuit after biscuit in the name of teaching communication can have concerns – but with a mix of other reinforcers and the fact that biscuits can be broken into halves or quarters and stretched further these can be minimised.

Some children will have good fine motor skills, which will make finding a container they cannot open difficult. There are different methods that can be used to help teach early communication of help skills and I will write about one in the next post.

What we did:

The child is allowed a ‘taste’ of the item. In the case of food they are given a small piece, in the case of a toy or object, they are given it for a short period of time.

The remainder of the food is placed in the jar and sealed. For non-food items, the object is taken back from the child and placed into the container. It has to be said that this is an easier task to carry out with objects that don’t have to be taken away from the child (such as bubbles, or shaving foam), as the taking of the object can be upsetting and that’s really the last thing we want to do to any child. What I’ve found to be quite effective is to have high motivators and mid motivators. So basically – things the child really wants and things they quite like. This way I can swap a high motivator for a mid-motivator and it is less upsetting. Two high motivators doesn’t work as easily but it’s possible to have two jars and swap between them.

Once the object or food is in the container right in front of the child, they are probably going to grab it and attempt to open it. Let them try to open it themselves unsuccessfully for a few seconds and then have one person (physical prompter) gently physically prompt them with hand-over-hand support to pass the jar to the other (communication partner). Don’t let the child become distressed before physically prompting them.

The communication partner then takes the jar and, to the understanding level appropriate to the child, tells them what they are doing. With a child I worked with this meant simply saying “Help. Banana”. For others there may be more speech but generally keep it fairly simple.

  • “I’ll help open that”
  • “Let me help, here you go, oranges!”
  • “Help. Open it. Car!”
  • “You want some help. I will open it for you”

Then simply repeat. Generally, the physical prompter can be faded very quickly as most of the children I have worked with on this skill have started to hand over the jar very quickly without prompting. Try and carry this out once an hour(ish) with different objects throughout the day. Once the child is secure with handing you the jar when you are sat next to them then put some distance between you. The physical prompter may be required to help establish the new skill of traveling before being faded out again.

A bit on the subject of the physical prompter and tactile sensitivity. Some autistic people do not like to be touched. Obviously this makes physically prompting quite difficult. It may be possible to vary amount of contact to be acceptable for the autistic person – sometimes a firmer touch might be preferable as feathery touches can be quite painful. In other instances they might accept the physical prompter holding and guiding their sleeve. You could also hold and gently move the jar itself towards the communication partner so you are not touching the autistic person at all. If all of that fails then verbal prompting might be appropriate but it tends to be less effective in the long run.

Disclaimer: The opinions and information provided in this post are my own, and based on personal, educational, and work-based experience. They do not reflect the opinions of any of the authors of the content referenced in this post. I am not affiliated or supported by any organisation, and this is meant to be an educational series of posts. The information posted here is not a substitute for advice and information provided by your own GP, speech and language therapist, occupational therapist or other professional in the field of autism, and should not be taken as such.


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