International Meeting for Autism Research: Comparing Preference and Reinforcer Assessment Methods for Children with ASD

Comparing Preference and Reinforcer Assessment Methods for Children with ASD

Thursday, May 20, 2010
Franklin Hall B Level 4 (Philadelphia Marriott Downtown)
9:00 AM
A. J. Margol , Psychology, University of Miami, Coral Gables, FL
A. Gutierrez , Psychology, University of Miami, Coral Gables, FL
M. Pawlowski , Nova Southeastern University, Davie, FL
M. N. Hale , Psychology, University of Miami, Coral Gables, FL
J. S. Durocher , Psychology, University of Miami, Coral Gables, FL
M. Alessandri , Psychology, University of Miami, Coral Gables, FL
Background: Children with Autism Spectrum Disorders (ASDs) show impairments in social functioning, most specifically in relating to others (DSM-IV-TR, APA, 2000).  For many children, social consequences may not function as reinforcers (Dawson et al., 2002). Therefore, assessing preferences for social consequences may be important in developing interventions for children with ASDs.  Currently, two methods for assessing social motivation have recently been described: a forced preference assessment for adult attention (Dube et al., 2004) and a single operant reinforcer assessment (Smaby et al., 2007).  These procedures have not been systematically investigated in independent laboratories.

Objectives:  The purpose of this study was to compare results of these two social motivation assessment methods with one another; it was hypothesized that these measures would be positively correlated. 

Methods: Participants included a sample of 2 to 5 year old children with previous diagnoses of an ASD; all met cutoffs for ASD or Autism on the ADOS and were part of a larger study on the effectiveness of an intervention targeting initiating joint attention skills.  Children were administered a Forced Choice Preference Assessment for Adult Attention (Preference Assessment, based on Dube et al., 2004), and a Single Operant Reinforcer Assessment for Social Consequences (Reinforcer Assessment, based on Smaby et al., 2007).  During the Preference Assessment, children are exposed to a forced-choice procedure whereby they must choose between spending time on the side of the room where an examiner is both interactive and playful or on the side where the examiner is not interactive. For this procedure, the coding was modified to include duration of time spent engaged with either examiner (vs. duration of time spent on the “interactive” side of the room as described in Dube et al.).  During the Reinforcer Assessment, the child presses a micro-switch in order to access 5 different social consequences (e.g., tickles, hugs, clapping, etc.), which were previously selected by their caregiver.  This procedure measures the frequency of micro-switch presses during a one minute session for each consequence (5 minutes total).

Results: Preliminary findings indicated that results across the 2 procedures were not significantly correlated, although results were in the expected direction (r= .519, p= .062).  Findings further revealed variability across participants in their preference for adult attention, although a majority appeared to favor the non-engagement condition.  Results from the Reinforcer Assessment also varied across participants.

Conclusions: The relationship between scores on the 2 procedures suggests that it may be particularly important to assess social motivation across different contexts for children with ASD, as results may vary depending on how assessments define and measure this construct.  Further, results point to the importance of measuring the child’s active “engagement,” as this may be an important aspect of social motivation.  Given the recent emphasis on developing and evaluating interventions aimed at improving core social symptoms of ASD (such as joint attention), measures of social motivation may play an especially important role as predictors of a child’s ability to positively benefit from intervention, as well as outcome variables themselves.

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