Academic journal article The Behavior Analyst Today

Selection-Based Imitation: A Tool Skill in the Development of Receptive Language in Children with Autism

Academic journal article The Behavior Analyst Today

Selection-Based Imitation: A Tool Skill in the Development of Receptive Language in Children with Autism

Article excerpt

Receptive language is a basic behavioral repertoire that many children with autism have difficulties acquiring. This difficulty may be caused by several factors suggesting the need for case-by-case analysis and the development of multiple intervention strategies. This paper outlines a strategy that has been effective in establishing receptive labeling in some children for whom conventional methods proved ineffective. The present strategy emphasizes the development of tool skills that are conjectured to subserve receptive labeling. These tools skills are developed by teaching a form of imitation that may be termed "selection-based imitation" (SBI). The present strategy should be recognized as clinically based and may be subjected to more rigorous investigation and further refinements.

Keywords: receptive labeling; "selection-based imitation;" case-by-case analysis

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Receptive language may be defined as a basic behavioral repertoire that consists of responding non-verbally to spoken words in accordance with conventions in a verbal community. Impairment of receptive language or more generally, language comprehension, is prevalent in children with autism (Rutter & Schopler, 1987; Waterhouse & Fein, 1989). A considerable proportion of these children have difficulty acquiring even the basic forms of receptive language such as simple correspondence between words and objects (i.e., receptive object labeling). This difficulty may be caused by several different factors suggesting the need for case-by-case analysis and the development of multiple intervention strategies. Thus, a continuous challenge for clinicians is to apply the concepts and principles of behavior analysis in creative, yet systematic and coherent ways.

This paper outlines a strategy that has proven effective clinically in teaching receptive labeling to some children where common methods were unsuccessful (for a description of common methods see for instance Leaf and McEachin, 1999; Lovaas, 1981). The present strategy emphasizes the development of a form of imitation in which the instructor points to a stimulus (e.g., picture) displayed in one array and where the child imitates by pointing to the corresponding stimulus in a separate array. In this interaction the response topography remains the same across trials whereas the stimulus pointed to changes each time. Since this form of imitation does not involve distinct response topographies, it may be termed "selection-based imitation" (SBI). (1) SBI involves several tool skills conjectured to subserve receptive labeling including sustained attention to task, observation of other people's interaction with stimuli (i.e., pointing), scanning (including shifting of attention between stimulus sets) and inhibition of "impulsive" (prepotent but incorrect) responding. (2) By establishing SBI these skills are strengthened prior to an attempt of teaching word-object relations.

Behavioral engineering and levels of analysis

When attempting to construct a basic behavioral repertoire such as receptive labeling, it may be useful to distinguish between two levels of analysis. One level focuses on the target repertoire as an integrated routine in context, that is, a composite act defined in terms of its functional relation to environmental variables. This may be termed the phenomenological level. The other level is concerned with lower-level strata or sub-components of the repertoire in question (as defined at the phenomenological level). In other words, this level is concerned with the internal structure of the repertoire including the processes and operations sufficient in engendering the relevant properties of the phenomenological level. This may be termed the implementation level. Phenomenological level and implementation level are not proposed as technical terms but as helpful, heuristic concepts with respect to behavioral engineering. (3)

Behavior may not have a necessary structure other than trivial (Baer, 1982) and one often finds that a repertoire may be established through different program sequences, different constellations of components and different instructional strategies. …

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