Rote learning has its place in skill development. Some skills lend themselves very well to rote learning, think...math, science, and so on. Rote learning helps us memorize facts which can be called upon later and put into use. (Think...acronyms, definitions/terms, other professional jargon).
Most of us learned our multiplications, additions and even subtractions through rote methods. We can easily, and hopefully fluently, compute 2X2, 4X4, 8X8, 10X10, and so on. Some of our parents may have even 'drilled us' with flash cards, taught us rhymes, and so on--as it turns out, thats a pretty effective way to memorize facts!
In addition to having it's place in certain domains (math, science, etc.), rote learning also has its place with particular learning profiles. Linear thinkers tends to like rote learning, while abstract or outside-the-box thinkers tend to find it mindless.
Kids with autism are categorically rote learners; yes, there are always exceptions to this rule, but in my experience--it's a fairly universal characteristic. When you understand HOW a child learns, (i.e. "Little Billy is a rote learner") it gives you insight into how to teach AND how not to teach (which might I add, likely varies by the kind of skill you're teaching).
Consider that autism is a neurological disorder which impacts HOW skills are learned (rather than a neurological disorder which impacts IF skills can be learned). Now also consider that generalization is often an area of significant deficit for our autism kiddos (and adults for that matter). I often remind parents that it takes a lot of work to LEARN generalization of a skill, or skill transference; this is a skill most of us 'neurotypicals' take for granted. For us, skill application/transference is pretty organic, even effortless. For our autism kiddos, this couldn't be farther from the truth.
So what does this mean about skill development, and in particular--rote learning methods?
For the purpose of simplification, I'd like to hone in communication as a target. When we're first teaching communication, traditional applications of ABA often call for a pretty rote approach; can the child label flash cards of items in the home? Of common people? Of individuals performing actions? This is an OK place to start--and remember, I'm coming from ABA perspective--I've seen it work...but I've also seen it cause problems when the knowledge is never extended or applied. Systematic learning is GOOD but failing to fill in the gaps is BAD!
When we fail to produce organic learning, or elicit skill transference we often get skills which were learned by rote, and are unable to be applied functionally. It's not that traditional ABA has missed the mark, it's that providers often neglect their responsibility to extend the knowledge.
There are certain conventions of ABA which call for training 'multiple exemplars'; this means that a good practitioner recognizes that if they teach a child to label 'cup' they use a variety of cups in this task, to ensure the child doesn't somehow think that only that one presentation (the red cup which gets shown to me in a controlled ABA environment) is the only cup in the world. In fact, there cups all over the world and guess what--McDonald's cups look different from Dairy Queen's cups, and the cups at school look different from the cups at home, but...wouldn't you know it--a cup is a cup is a cup!
An obvious extension of this problem is when students get beyond the very basic communication goals (labeling), and venture into the word of intraverbals (answering questions, filling in the blanks, learning feature/function/class of items and so on). For many of our kids who learn by rote, there is tremendous pressure on US as parents and professionals to adjust teaching procedures to ensure learning is MEANINGFUL not ROTE. So, if I can answer "who is that?" in a controlled way that is good...but if I don't understand that "who" refers to a person, how functional/meaningful is the skill?
Unfortunately for parents (or fortunately, depending on how you look at it), almost every interaction you have with your child is a teaching opportunity--even if you didn't plan it that way.
So, in the name of saving you some sanity I am compiling a list of ways be mindful of your child's tendency to learn communication skills in a way that is rote and therefore not yielding skill transference/generalization or natural/organic language use.
1. Be aware of your own speech patterns [and break them].
I always remind parents to 'speak your child's language' (whether that is words, PECs, augmentative communication device, etc.); you want to model good communication for maximum exposure opportunities. You wouldn't teach your child Chinese by speaking English. While you're modeling speech, making requests, generally interacting with your child be aware of your own tendency to use the same words, same sentences, otherwise same delivery; consider, am I being rote?! You don't always have to call the 'phone' a 'phone'; you can call it a 'cell', a 'device', an 'Iphone' and so on; yes, you're right at first your child may be confused but as long as you provide context, you've successfully avoided rote labeling and introduced a new word in the process. Further to this consideration is the following....
2. Be careful not to overuse SDs SDs are those instructions we deliver in ABA: "do this" "follow me" "copy me" "first me then you" "find..." "touch the..." etc. YES your child responds to these instructions, but it's because of the established learning history, the consistency of follow through associated and the context provided by the instruction. You can easily establish new learning patterns, follow through consistently and provide context while using less script-like language. Increase your child's chance of following through by getting his/her attention first to establish joint attention, then use language that is natural and non scripted. You still want to be mindful that you're 'speaking your child's language' (see above). Rule of thumb: If the instruction would occur in a non-scripted situation (school, the park, etc.) and sound natural (while being developmentally appropriate) then go for it!
3. Remember that routines are good--but can easily become dependencies.
Consider those daily routines which are unavoidable: dropping your child off at school, picking him/her up from school, waking him/her up in the morning, brushing teeth, getting dressed, calling them for dinner and so on. Think of what you say to signify those transitions, and appreciate that routines are good (and may be just what the doctor ordered) BUT they often become routine by established context. As a result, you don't actually need to 'always say the same thing' at bed time, or 'always use the same greeting' when you drop-off/pick-up to uphold the routine. In fact, I encourage you NOT to. I can't tell you how many times I worked with kids who rotely greet "good morning" whenever they see their teacher (at any time of day). In order to avoid over-generalization, or rote communication (which doesn't account for nuances like...say, time of day, etc.) make sure you're teaching lots of different ways to greet, say goodbye, signify particular times of day and so on.
4. Intraverbals are a good starting point, but they are not always natural.
Intraverbals are used in early communication to establish comprehension, develop sentence fluency, among other goals. For example, you might say "it's time go wash our ___" and your child will fill in "hands" which lets you know they know what's to come and sets them up to use a complete sentence in the same context next time. This is good, but at some point--CAN become rote and non functional.
A few things to remember AND avoid...
-Intraverbals use a particular formula; sequence of words then pause (which signifies your child to fill in the blank). If you're certain your child knows what word to fill in (i.e. context is established) you might be better off saying "what comes next? what do we do now?" Remember that verbal prompts (even partial verbal prompts like intraverbals) are harder to fade than indirect prompts.
-If you're not certain your child knows what word to fill in (i.e. there is no context, or you haven't told them yet...) DONT use an intraverbal. I often hear parents/teachers getting stuck in the intraverbal format and it sounds absolutely absurd (even to someone who knows exactly what they are trying to do). You DONT want to give an instruction without any context using an intraverbal, rule of thumb--your kid should know how to complete the sentence (assuming they have the skill/language/etc.) or else you aren't using it right AND setting them up not to meet an expectation. (see below)
GOOD: "It's time for snack. Let's go wash our..._____" BAD: "It's time to ...______" (it could literally be time for anything, how would I know?!")
-Consider key words! Lots of times kids respond the same way to "how old are you" and "how are you". Why you ask? Because the person delivering the instruction hasn't put emphasis on the right word to establish meaning. Better to ask a child with communication barriers "how are you FEELING?" and then coach them into using the word you emphasized in their reply to establish connection "I'm FEELING great!" In that sense, there is less risk of them saying "I'm FEELING 6 years old"...though don't rule it out, it could happen ;)