Academic journal article Communication Disorders Quarterly

Verifying Teacher Perceptions of the Potential Communicative Acts of Children with Autism

Academic journal article Communication Disorders Quarterly

Verifying Teacher Perceptions of the Potential Communicative Acts of Children with Autism

Article excerpt

The authors sought to verify teacher perceptions of prelinguistic behavior in eight children with autism. Teachers were first interviewed using the structured protocol of the Inventory of Potential Communicative Acts. The results indicated that the teachers interpreted many of the children's gestures, body movements, and facial expressions as if these were forms of communication. Naturalistic and structured observations were then undertaken to verify whether these teacher-identified behaviors did in fact seem to serve a communicative function. Observational data provided some evidence that teachers responded to such acts as forms of communication. This suggests that an interview protocol may be one way to document the form and communication function of existing prelinguistic behaviors in children with autism who are at the early stages of communication development.

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Although communication impairment has been listed in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders--Fourth Edition (DSM-IV; American Psychiatric Association, 1994) as a defining characteristic of autism, rarely do children with autism lack any means of communication. These children may have limited speech and lack other formal or conventional means of communication, but some of them do appear to acquire informal and idiosyncratic behaviors that are used to communicate basic regulatory functions such as requesting and rejecting. Their informal prelinguistic acts might consist of facial expressions, body movements, and idiosyncratic gestures. For example, a child may move an adult's hand to the door to request assistance in opening the door (Carr & Kemp, 1989). Other children may develop problem behaviors that serve a communicative function. For example, a child may throw a tantrum to gain access to preferred items (Carr & Durand, 1985).

These acts often are referred to as prelinguistic or nonsymbolic communication (Siegel-Causey & Guess, 1989; Wetherby & Prizant, 1992), but such terms imply that the behaviors do in fact have an intentional communicative basis, which they may not. It could be that some adults, such as teachers, merely attribute a communicative function to the child's behavior when in fact it is not a form of communication. Instead, the behavior could be an orienting response, a postural adjustment, or even an involuntary movement. In addition, these terms do not adequately describe the possible use of seemingly more conventional forms of communication, such as manual signs, graphic symbols, and vocalizations. Although such forms may appear communicative to others, they are not necessarily used by the child with any intent to communicate (Stephenson & Linfoot, 1996).

Recently, the term potential communicative act (PCA) has been used to describe behaviors that others might interpret as communicative but where it is unclear whether the child is in fact attempting to communicate in any intentional manner (Sigafoos et al., 2000). In typically developing children, it is thought that these early PCAs are shaped into intentional forms of communication when parents both interpret and react to the acts as if the child was in fact attempting to communicate, even though these actions may not initially have a communicative function or purpose (Bates, Camaioni, & Volterra, 1975).

Unlike those of typically developing children, the early PCAs of children with developmental disabilities are often so limited, subtle, idiosyncratic, and inconsistent that it may be difficult for parents, teachers, and speech-language pathologists to recognize them as having any communicative potential. As a result, the critical adult response may not occur, and these acts never develop into intentional and more conventional forms of communication. Developing such acts into effective forms of communication has thus become a focus of recent communication interventions for children with developmental disabilities (Drasgow, Halle, & Ostrosky, 1998; Reichle, Halle, & Drasgow, 1998; Sigafoos, Laurie, & Pennell, 1996). …

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