Critical Mass

Teaching to the Level of Critical Mass

When teaching independence skills, it is important to provide opportunities to practice new skills.

As recommended by Brenda Myles, teaching independence skills involves teaching children and young people with autism to their level of critical mass, which can be thought of as spontaneous uber generalisation that happens when purposeful practice occurs.

What is Critical Mass?

Most people with autism are often taught skills to a certain level.  For example, a young person may learn how to read a chart outlining the completion dates of assignments, they have been taught to check the chart the night before their assignments are due, however they are not entirely independent completing this task. 


Because they have not been taught that they need to check their chart more often than the night before an activity such as an test/examination. 

Obtaining Critical Mass Using Deliberate Practice introduces a new way to optimise the progress of learners with autism.  Reaching critical mass helps learners apply information in new ways through the development of spontaneous generalisation.

Critical mass therefore refers to the state of having learned enough about something so that you can take information about this thing or topic and apply it to situations which are similar but not exactly similar. 

As the chart above depicts, the tipping point (i.e. Critical Mass) is when you have been taught sufficiently and the place where momentum takes over and information can be applied in multiple ways, even in situations and under conditions where instructions have not been given. 

Why is Achieving Critical Mass Important?

Achieving critical mass can reduce anxiety as it means that individuals will have a certain level of understanding and knowledge about what will happen and how to act in a situation, even though elements of the situation may be new to them. This will result in a level of preparedness which should reduce their stress and anxiety compared to having no point of reference for the situation and hence teaching this concept helps to support the development of resilience and independence skills.

Obtaining critical mass is about doing things differently to positively impact the child or young person with autism by:

  1. Supporting the development of critical mass in areas that are necessary for successful functioning in home, work, and community
  2. Using the research-based elements of deliberate practice.

How do we Attain Critical Mass?

To attain critical mass, we must incorporate the elements of deliberate practice.

Deliberate practice refers to a special type of practice that is purposeful and systematic. While regular practice might include mindless repetitions, deliberate practice requires focused attention and is conducted with the specific goal of improving performance.

Myles et al (2018) suggest there are four important elements to deliberate practice, based on the work of Ericsson (2006).

These are:

  1. Developing specific goals,
  2. Ensuring focus,
  3. Moving out of the comfort zone, and
  4. Communicating outcomes

These elements can be applied to teaching a range of skills including social, communication, and daily living skills. Understanding the theory of Critical mass and the related science of deliberate practice can have an impact on how we can build independence and hence potentially change the life path of individuals with autism. Incorporating the above-named elements of deliberate practice is a critical step toward helping individuals with ASD to reach their unlimited potential.

  1. Develop Specific Goals

When defining specific goals for child or young person with autism it is important to: Determine what to teach.

  • Understand evidence-based practices-It is important that we understand evidence based practices and that we teach skills that are implicitly learned by others
  • Coordinate goals and instruction –all professionals including Speech and Language Therapist, Occupational Therapist  should work together to support learning for example if the child needs ear buds provide ear buds, if the child needs breaks schedule these and communicate this to each other)
  • Teach skills that are implicitly learned by others
  • Use categorisation-to support achievement of Critical Mass by making connections easier.  We do this by teaching slowly, build slowly and clearly outline connections for greater opportunities for having the right skills in the right social environment.  To listen to Brenda Smith Myles discuss the use of categorisation please click here.

How can the Elements of Deliberate Practice be Adopted for Students With Autism?

The basic elements of deliberate practice can be adapted for students with autism in order to help them to develop their skills and reach critical mass in important areas.

At home – Parents may encourage their children to attain critical mass in everyday activities such as visiting shops, meeting new people, attending extra-curricular activities, completing chores and carrying out self-care tasks.

How? By using the principles of deliberate practice. 

For example:

A parent aiming to help their child attain critical mass in the skill of visiting shops might…

  • First think about relevant goals which will be necessary for mastering this skill. Goals may include being able to follow a shopping list or being able to give the correct money for the items.
  • Ensure focus by making sure the task is motivating, helping the child or young person to attend to the task and putting in enough practice time for their child to master the necessary skills.
  • Help children to move out of their comfort zone by matching the child’s ability to the demands that are made.
  • Goals should be attainable for the child or young person and built on the skills they already have. It is also important to have plans in place to prevent explosions while new skills are being introduced.
  • The sensory environment should be considered, and visuals should be used. The skills being taught should be defined and clearly explained.
  • Finally, feedback should be given to the child as part of the deliberate practice process.
  • Parents can point out what the child did well and how they may improve. They can also reinforce any positive progress made.

In school – if a child has achieved critical mass in the area of communication skills, they will be able to communicate effectively not only within their own class, but to others at break and lunch times, to new teachers, pupils and school visitors and in new environments such as on school trips. This will have the effect of improving the child’s confidence when meeting new people or going to unfamiliar environments, as the child will have skills which they know they can use in these situations in order to effectively communicate.

It is also important that all educators within the school who are involved with the young person are involved in the planning process. This can be achieved through the use of the CAPS model.

2. Ensuring Focus involves:

  • Addressing motivation
  • Promoting Attention
  • Putting in the Time

As educators and parents it is important to take time to assess that the young person is engaged with the activity/skills being taught.  Ensuring that the activity/skill is relevant to their needs will promote their attention and levels of motivation.

Moving out of the comfort zone is important to recognise who the young person works best.  This is a skill we must appreciate and then teach.  If for example a student has a difficulty with handwriting we need to make the necessary modifications to help support them to develop a new skill. 

  • Match ability to demands
  • Match ability to group size
  • Prevent explosions – by supporting the young person to problem solve this can prevent them from presenting with inappropriate behaviours

3. Communicating Outcomes –

  • Feedback and Evaluate
  • Reinforcement -this can involve using the special interests of the young person to reinforce the skill that you are teaching.

To read more about communicating outcomes and reinforcement: click here.

Point to remember

Teach slowly, build slowly, clearly outline connections to allow for greater opportunities for having the right skill in the right social environment.

For further information on Critical Mass: Listen to Brenda Myles discuss how we can support the development of critical mass in individuals with autism.

In this short video, Brenda Myles encourages parents and professionals to make a skill “familiar”, to teach and rehearse a skill until the ‘point of critical mass’ is achieved (i.e. the student is able to generalise their skills to other similar situations e.g. practice buying groceries independently in the local grocery store; then be able to draw on those skills when shopping for the first time in a different grocery store) .

By teaching to the ‘point of critical mass’, we increase the chance that a student will be able to access a skill they have been taught when they really need it.

Deliberate Practice

Building Critical Mass and Deliberate Practice

Critical mass refers to the state of having learned enough about a skill so that you can take the information you have learned and apply it to situations which are similar but not exactly the same. For example, if you are familiar with the process of buying groceries at a supermarket, you will have a good idea of how to purchase clothes in a clothing store or books in a bookshop. You are able to apply the skills you learned in the supermarket to other environments with some differences. Achieving critical mass can reduce anxiety as it means that individuals will have a
certain level of understanding and knowledge about what will happen and how to act in a situation, even though elements of the situation may be new to them. Through hard work building up important skills, individuals can expand their comfort zone, reducing their stress and anxiety when they encounter unfamiliar situations.

Individuals can achieve critical mass through deliberate practice. This is a particularly focussed type of practice designed to optimise improvement which is used by individuals who are experts in their field, such as professional sportspeople or musicians.

To listen to Brenda Myles discuss Excelling with autism click on the video below