Video Self-Modeling for Autism: Overcoming Common Barriers

video self-modeling

I have been using video self-modeling (VSM) with children who have developmental disabilities for 27 years with successes that have shocked parents, teachers, and therapists.

How It Began

In 1999, I was granted a six-month sabbatical to work in a small private school that had a disproportionate population of children with autism. While my official role was that of a classroom aid, it was agreed that I could make videos with informed consent from all who would be participating.

Our first participants were two second graders with autism who were having daily tantrums. The teachers, teacher aides, and I collected baseline data on the duration and occurrences of the tantrums. We also determined several triggers for tantrums. These included line-jumping, not being called on when they raised their hands, and getting things wrong on their homework. We then set up similar scenarios for the children to act out. We told them they wouldn’t be called upon, but to smile at the camera.

We acted out line jumping scenarios with our participant tapping the jumper on the shoulder and asking him to go to the back of the line. When the person would not move, our participant went to the teacher and reported what happened, and the teacher then corrected the situation. We edited the “movie” by removing any adult prompts and inappropriate behaviors, leaving a three-minute video in which our starring participants responded appropriately to challenging situations. The children watched it and did not have another tantrum for the entire school year—after previously averaging 30 minutes a day of tantrums.1

No other instruction was needed.

No reinforcement was needed.

The same level of results was achieved by a boy who would not eat his lunch, a kindergartner who was pushing his peers, and even a teenage girl who needed help with learning a form in karate.

I have seen the same level of results repeatedly across a wide range of behaviors, and it has worked with almost everyone, except those who could not or would not attend to the video. Because effective measures for working with children with autism are often rare or time consuming, I have focused my efforts on this population.


Why Isn’t VSM Used More Broadly in Education and Therapy?

I have spoken extensively with teachers and administrators to find out why VSM is not used more widely in schools. The reasons I’m most often given include:

  • Concern about liability related to video recording—Some schools have blanket bans on taking videos in school.
  • Individualized education programs (IEP) determining what methods will be used with each student—It’s widely believed that an IEP is a concrete agreement that cannot change or requires too much effort to change.
  • A lack of time for teachers to devote to filming and editing videos
  • A lack of technical ability by school personnel to edit videos

Let’s examine each of these arguments.

1. Liability

Concerns about liability and the right to privacy are legitimate concerns; however, the banning of filming in school takes away a powerful teaching tool that has many applications, including student presentations, portfolio assessment, and the use of all video modeling techniques, such as point-of-view, peer, video priming, and self-modeling.

It would make more sense to have a comprehensive plan in place that defines proper and improper use of video. This would include an emphasis on obtaining informed consent from parents and students prior to appearing on video.

2. IEPs

In some schools we have had to make amendments to IEPs in order to use VSM. This shouldn’t be necessary, as the IEP focuses on objectives rather than methods; however, specific treatments such as applied behavior analysis (ABA) can be written into the IEP. Adding an amendment to an IEP is an easy process if the people involved understand the VSM method and potential benefits.

3. Time

There is no doubt that a teacher’s time is precious, and it is sometimes hard to fit one more thing into the daily schedule. However, when one considers the cost/benefit ratio of VSM, it becomes clear that it does deserve a place in the schedule.

Therapists probably have a schedule that is slightly more flexible than teachers, and when VSM is attempted, it often becomes a front-line strategy in the therapy toolkit. The same could be true for guidance counselors. There may be nothing more powerful for improving self-concept as well as social, academic, and language skills than watching one’s own self succeed.

4. Tech Skills

While this used to be a legitimate argument, it no longer applies in today’s modern world. User-friendly apps are available for tablets and smart phones, and just about anyone can be the star of their own videos today!

When I give presentations, I can create a VSM movie in three minutes using only my index finger while holding the tablet in my opposite hand. The only skills that are needed are touch, drag, and swipe. Participants can pick this up in minutes and start creating their own movies.

Improving Awareness of VSM

I was once approached by a psychologist who was also the editor of a journal on ethics in psychology and had seen the results of my studies first hand. He asked me to write an article for his journal on the ethics of not using a method that was clearly evidence-based and sometimes produced startling results after more conventional methods had failed. I thought about this but decided against it. What’s truly needed is more education and exposure to VSM. There also needs to be more research carried out across various behaviors, age ranges, and types of disabilities as well as more case studies of VSM use in classrooms and clinics—and we need to share the outcomes.

I urge professionals and parents to become more aware of the potential of VSM and to experiment with video editing to remove any apprehension before applying it. There are many treatments used with children with autism that do not rise to the level of claims they make. I strongly believe VSM can provide results that go beyond claims made by any other technique.

  1. Buggey, T. (2005). Video self-modeling applications with students with autism spectrum disorder in a small private school setting. Focus on Autism and Other Developmental Disabilities, 20(1), 52–63.