Academic journal article The Psychological Record

Improving Memory to Promote Maintenance of Treatment Gains in Children with Autism

Academic journal article The Psychological Record

Improving Memory to Promote Maintenance of Treatment Gains in Children with Autism

Article excerpt

Children with autism display a variety of severe behavior problems: They have little or no language, attachment to caregivers, play, or self-help skills. They also may be extremely inattentive to their environment, preferring to occupy themselves with self-stimulatory behaviors, such as repetitively arranging objects into neat rows or flapping their hands. In addition, they may exhibit dangerously high rates of tantrums and aggression toward themselves or others.

Research has indicated that behavioral treatment is the most effective intervention currently available to children with autism (Smith, 1993). However, a major drawback of this treatment is that improvements made by clients often show poor generalization, disappearing when clients end treatment or their situation changes (e.g., Lovaas, Koegel, Simmons, & Long, 1973). Since the 1970s, when this problem began to attract widespread concern, researchers have identified a number of effective techniques for promoting generalization. Nevertheless, it remains true that generalization frequently fails to occur and that the reasons for such failures are often unclear (cf. Horner, Dunlap, & Koegel, 1988).

Some researchers have approached this problem by conducting research on generalization strategies developed by teachers and therapists in applied settings (Baer, 1982; Stokes & Baer, 1977; Stokes & Osnes, 1988). Others have searched the laboratory literature for findings that may be applicable to behavioral treatment (Kirby & Bickel, 1988; Lindsay & Stoffelmayr, 1982). The present study grew out of the second approach. The laboratory literature contains many topics that might relate to generalization but have not yet been considered in that connection (Smith, 1990). An example is memory. In behavioral terms, memory (or its synonym retention) may be defined as correct responding to a request after a period of time in which the request has not been presented (cf. Palmer, 1991).

Memory is particularly relevant to one form of generalization, namely generalization across time (maintenance). Maintenance refers to correct responding over a period of time, whether or not a request for the response has been presented during that time. Thus, memory is involved in a subset of maintenance situations: those in which the request has not been presented during the maintenance interval.

Memory research has produced many consistent findings on how to increase retention rates (Baddeley, 1990), and these findings may assist efforts to promote maintenance. A particularly robust finding is the spacing effect (Dempster, 1988): When training involves multiple presentations of a new request, spaced trials (presentations of the request that are separated over time) yield a higher rate of retention for the correct response after training than do massed trials (presentations that come one after the other). This is true even though spaced trials often produce a lower rate of correct responding during training than massed trials (Bjork, 1988). The spacing effect has been described as "one of the most dependable and replicable phenomena in experimental psychology" (Dempster, 1988, p. 627). Moreover, the effect is large, often doubling the retention obtained after massed trials.

Landauer and Bjork (1978) found that the spacing effect is optimized if training consists of presenting requests at expanding intervals - that is, if the intervals between each presentation start out small and get progressively larger. Two subsequent studies have confirmed the efficacy of expanding trials (Rea & Modigliani, 1985; Schacter, Rich, & Stampp, 1985). The expanding trials procedure is intended to "shape" memory (Landauer & Bjork, 1978): The training starts with very short retention intervals, and it more and more approximates long retention intervals as the subject progresses.

In the literature on behavioral interventions, several studies have focused on spaced trials. …

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