Academic journal article The Psychological Record

Competing Arbitrary and Non-Arbitrary Relational Responding in Normally Developing Children and Children Diagnosed with Autism

Academic journal article The Psychological Record

Competing Arbitrary and Non-Arbitrary Relational Responding in Normally Developing Children and Children Diagnosed with Autism

Article excerpt

Relational Frame Theory (RFT) proposes that when language-able humans are exposed to particular contingencies of reinforcement over a prolonged period of time, they will produce responding based on derived or arbitrarily applicable relations (Hayes et al. 1996). These relations are defined by contextual cues operating in the environment, rather than by properties of the relata themselves. Stimulus equivalence is one of the earliest reported examples of arbitrary relational responding and was first examined by Sidman (1971). This seminal study attempted to use systematic behaviour analytic methodologies to devise improved methods for teaching reading comprehension to a participant with learning disabilities. The results demonstrated that, following relational training, the participant readily demonstrated the taught relations. More importantly, however, additional derived relations also emerged between stimuli that had not been directly trained. The term equivalence class is used today to describe such classes of mutually substitutable stimuli (Barnes et al. 1995a, b; Fields et al. 1990; Sidman 1994).

There are a number of studies within the behavioural literature demonstrating that the formation of equivalence classes may be disrupted or prevented by introducing a proponent response as a competing source of spurious stimulus control. Proponent responses "are erroneous responses that are called out, either by some salient feature of the environment or by some features rendered salient through previous learning" (Biro and Russell 2001, p. 98). In the case of competing arbitrary relational responses, disruption occurs because stimuli are deliberately chosen that likely participate in pre-experimentally established relations that were in conflict with the to-be-induced relations within the experimental context (e.g., Barnes etal. 1995a, b; Watt et al. 1991).

However, RFT additionally makes the distinction between responding under the control of arbitrary and non-arbitrary stimulus relations. Non-arbitrary stimulus relations are defined in terms of the physical properties of the stimuli, rather than purely by social or verbal convention. Interestingly, there has been relatively little research into the effects of a competing non-arbitrary relational response on derived relational responding. A study by Stewart et al. (2002) demonstrated that the existence of a proponent colour matching response disrupted equivalence class formation in language-able adults. While participants in this study were divided into three groups, the critical condition (the Colour Test condition) involved training participants using stimuli that appeared in black, and then presenting the same stimuli during the equivalence test in various colours. Specifically, during equivalence testing, the predicted equivalence relations involved stimuli that differed in colour, whereas the non-equivalent sample-comparison relations involved stimuli that matched in terms of colour. Results showed that equivalence performance during this Colour Test condition was significantly poorer than in the two control conditions. Another recent study (Kenny et al. 2014) used the same training, and testing procedures replicated the findings of the earlier study.

The aim of the current study is to determine if conflicting non-arbitrary relational responses would disrupt equivalence class formation in populations that have been shown to demonstrate significantly lower levels of responding in tasks that contain a proponent response and require response flexibility. With that aim in mind, populations of normally developing children and children with a diagnosis of autism were exposed to procedures adapted from those used in earlier studies (Stewart et al. 2002; Kenny et al. 2014). There is a significant body of research reporting that normally developing children readily demonstrate equivalence-class formation from a very young age if exposed to conditional discrimination training (e. …

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