If you read my article last week, you heard the story of how I moved to Ireland to work in an ABA autism program in a sheep field. I have an endless supply of funny stories from that adventure. Here’s another one.

This was a real-life, “if you were going to a foreign country and you could only bring one toy, what would it be?” situation. I brought my Mr. Potato Head. Obviously. It was the best choice because you can do almost any speech, language, and communication goal with that toy. The kids loved it; the therapists loved it more. They didn’t love it because it was an exciting toy, however. They loved it because every child who worked with me and Mr. Potato Head developed an American accent! Of course, I didn’t notice it at all. It wasn’t until someone said, “ha ha ha, he said arrrrrrmmmm,” imitating me saying ‘arm’ like a pirate! Everyone thought that was hilarious, and it was a running joke. All the cute, little Irish children walked around with their beautiful Irish accents all day until Mr. Potato Head came out, and they turned into growling, American pirates! It was hilarious.

You don’t need a lot of sophisticated “stuff” to be great at your job. Kids respond mostly to YOU, not the toy or activity. If they are not responding to you, that means you need to up your game. Children with autism don’t need to learn how to interact more to iPads or electronic devices. They need to learn to interact with people: family members, friends, people in their community. If you don’t inspire them to communicate with you, how are they going to do that in daily life? Show them PEOPLE are fun. What is the magic trick to this? It’s simple. Be fun. If you act like that activity is the greatest thing ever invented, children will believe you. You do not need to be as loud and excited as you possibly can! Please, don’t do that. I’ve seen that; it is not fun for many children. Just show enthusiasm (at a reasonable volume) for what you are doing, no matter what it is. If you can do that, kids will love you and be motivated to learn.


Using your imagination and enthusiasm with a bucket and some pumpkins can go a long way. This is true in any setting for any child working on any goal with any therapist or teacher. There is one everyday thing that every therapist or educator should have: a bucket with a lid that easily opens and closes. The one I have in mind is that yellow and blue Purina Tidy Cats kitty litter bucket. If you or your friends do not have a cat, buy this bucket, then give the kitty litter to your aunt, who has a cat. Cover it in white contact paper. Decorate it how you want and voila! This is a magic bucket. If you are short on time, you can use any bin with a lid. However, kids enjoy putting things in this particular bucket with the flip-top.

Along with your bucket, you will need ten tiny pumpkins. I like to have things in 10s because it helps me keep track of trials. I know if I did this activity three times with a child, he got 30 trials. Also, it works with any data tracking system. Here are some activity ideas for different skill levels:

Manding (requesting) with Augmentative and Alternative Communication (AAC)

For a child who is working on requesting with a picture exchange system, signs, or electronic device, you can have them ask for a pumpkin, and they can put it in the bucket. That’s it. That’s the activity. I know it sounds crazy, but you can get a lot of mileage out of this! After all ten pumpkins are in the bucket, they can request to take one out of the bucket. You hold the lid down, and after the child initiates, you open it, and they get the pumpkin. There you go. Twenty trials right there. You can reinforce and shape up initiating communication, eye contact, turn-taking, vocalizations; you name it. If this is a hit, you can use it as a reinforcer for other goals!

Phoneme (sound) or word imitation and requesting (manding)

If this activity motivates a child and his or her goal is phoneme (single-sound) imitation, have the child say the target sound before putting in or taking out a pumpkin. Depending on the skill level of the child, this can be just one sound /p/ the entire time or maybe a different sound for each pumpkin /p/, /k/, /m/ or /n/. You can increase the difficulty level as needed. Suppose the child is working on imitation of /p/ or imitation of the whole word “pumpkin.” Once they can imitate the word, you can pause to prompt the mand (request) for the pumpkin, and then they get the pumpkin and put it in the bucket.

Tacting (labeling)

You can set this up a number of different ways depending on the child’s skill level and the target. For a table activity, you could put three pumpkins out at a time and put a picture of an item under each one. These would be of items you want them to practice (i.e., animals, clothing items, household items). Lift up a pumpkin to reveal the picture, have the child label the picture, and then they get to throw the pumpkin in the bucket. Having the “to do” pumpkins visible can be motivating in itself. If a child sees there are seven more pumpkins left to go in the bucket, he or she might be motivated to say the word and get another one!

Game with peer

If a child can successfully do the activity above, you can step it up a notch and add a peer. Then you have a turn-taking game! Make sure both children have a designated place to sit: a chair or a carpet square. Place six or ten pumpkins out at a time on the floor or big table. Place one picture under each pumpkin. Have the children take turns discovering what is under the pumpkin, labeling it, and putting it in the bucket! What picture is under the pumpkin?! Wow! Cow! That is amazing! You can always step it up a notch. For children who are working on two or three-word phrases, you can have them add a carrier phrase, like “I see + item name” after they see the picture. Or maybe let the child be the teacher, and you get a turn! You don’t know what to do, so they will have to mand (request) for you to “pick up pumpkin.”

‘Where’ questions and spatial concepts

I know setting up activities for ‘wh’ questions can be challenging. This one is super easy and can be modified in many ways to fit the needs of the child. Still, you have that magic bucket and your ten pumpkins visible. Have the child close their eyes and count to ten while you hide a pumpkin. When she or he opens his eyes, prompt the child to say, “where’s pumpkin?” If that is too difficult, you can do a more general question like, “where is it?” Then you both go in search of the pumpkin. Once the pumpkin is found, guess where it goes? Yes. That bucket. Now you have nine more trials! If you have a more advanced learner, you can step this up and add spatial concepts like on, under, or behind. Set up the game exactly how I described above. After the child finds the pumpkin, you say, “where was it?” and the child says “under the box” or “behind the shelf.”

Pumpkin challenge anyone?

Are you ready for the pumpkin challenge? I am genuinely interested in whether or not anyone will actually do this. If you do, please comment and talk about your experience. It would also be fun to see what other activities you do with this. If you think of something good, share it with the group!

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