Communication Series: Developing Stuff in a Jar

Developing Stuff in a Jar


If you’ve been working on the first post on Stuff in a Jar, then you might be ready to think about moving on. There are a number of ways to develop skills using this technique, but it depends on what skills you’ve been working on so far. After working on exchanging the jar for a few weeks, your communicator (individual who is learning to communicate) should be comfortable handing over the jar for a variety of reinforcements. Between 5 and 10 reinforcements is a good place to start, but does not have to be a limit. So if your communicator is independently exchanging for a variety of items, how can you push them to develop new skills?



Well the first way was briefly mentioned at the end of the first article; put some distance between the communicator and the communication partner. This is based on the idea of distance and persistence from PECS, that sometimes the communicator will have to travel to make a request to access their wanted item. This distance should start out small and should increase in reasonably small increments:

  1. Simply lean back so the communicator is required to lean forward.
  2. Move back a foot at a time over exchange sessions so that the communicator is slowly required to take more steps.
  3. Remain a few steps away from the communicator (the same distance as the previous step) but move the jar itself so the communicator has to lean to get it.
  4. Move the jar so that the communicator has to take a step, and then a few steps to retrieve the jar, and then walk to you.
  5. Once the communicator is confident in walking a few steps to retrieve the jar and then a few steps to the communication partner, you can slowly increase the distance.
  6. If you feel that the communicator is very confident you can then attempt moving between two rooms (although remember to keep the door open).

These increases may occur relatively quickly over a handful of exchange sessions or they make take considerably longer. If you get to a stage where the communicator fails part way through the exchange, then return the jar to its original position and go back a step so that the communicator can be successful. If they then fail during this step-back, it might be necessary to temporarily reintroduce a physical prompter (who, remember, does not speak, only prompts) to teach the communicator what they need to do.


Swap the Communication Partners

You can work on this before travelling, or at a stage of travelling at which the communicator is already comfortable. Do not try to teach travelling and communicating with different partners at the exact same time. There are times where you will not be the person that the communicator needs to be requesting items from, so it would be no good if the communicator took the jar, looked up and saw you were nowhere in sight, and then didn’t interact with anyone because you were absent. To this end, it’s important to teach the communicator to request from not just other adults, but from other children as well.

The first few times this exchange occurs there might need to be some physical prompting to exchange the jar with a new person. That new person must make the exchange quickly so as to reinforce the fact that the request will be successful with other people. Then fade the physical prompting. Set up opportunities for exchanges at home and at school with different people – you will often find that other children can be especially keen to be involved in new methods of communication but just make sure they can open the jars themselves.

Once there is a degree of security in exchanging with new partners, you want to engineer situations where the usual communication partner (because there will still usually be one or two people that the individual communicates with more than others) is either completely absent or is much further away than a more convenient communication partner. This is why travelling and new communication partners needs to be taught somewhat seperately, to prevent confusion over whether someone should travel or not. We want our communicator to know how to travel to get their requests met, but not to the extent that they bypass other people who can help them.


What if the communicator cannot travel?

If the communicator cannot travel, then you will instead work on the skill of calling a communication partner to them. This might involve the use of another AAC device such as a pre-recorded message button that shouts “Come here!” or it might be something like a bell or shaker that can be used to attract attention. Whichever method is used, physical prompting will be needed to introduce the concept of calling the communication partner to the communicator (e.g hand over hand pressing of the bell, shaking of the shaker, or pressing of the button) before the physical prompting is then faded.

The skill of exchanging with different communication partners can still be taught, but others within the area will need to be made aware that they need to listen out for the communicator’s requests for them to “Come here”.


As I said before, these skills are largely based on ones that are used in Phase 1 and 2 of PECS, just with jars instead of symbols. The next post on Stuff in Jars will be based on how to introduce symbols to Stuff in Jars and move towards the use of a system like PECS. I have used the terms communicator and communication partner within this post as opposed to child or student, or parent or teacher, because these communication methods are not limited purely to within those relationships. It may, however, come across as a bit clinical, so if you have any alternative suggestions then comment below.

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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