International Meeting for Autism Research: Efficient Strategies for Teaching Receptive Language to Students with Autism: Observational Learning and Incidental Teaching

Efficient Strategies for Teaching Receptive Language to Students with Autism: Observational Learning and Incidental Teaching

Thursday, May 12, 2011
Elizabeth Ballroom E-F and Lirenta Foyer Level 2 (Manchester Grand Hyatt)
9:00 AM
C. H. Delfs and M. A. Shillingsburg, Marcus Autism Center, Children's Healthcare of Atlanta, & Emory School of Medicine, Atlanta, GA
Background: Present research and legislation regarding mainstreaming children with autism into classrooms with neurotypical peers have raised the importance of studying whether these children can benefit from observing peers. Observational learning within the autism population has been a focus of research for the past 30 years (Varni, Lovaas, Koegel, & Everett, 1979; Egel, Richman, & Koegel, 1981; Tryon & Kean, 1986).  Previous research has shown that students diagnosed with developmental disabilities can acquire new skills through observation of peer learning (Schuster, Gast, & Wolery, 1988).  One-on-one instruction is commonly recommended for children with autism; however, this instructional format does not provide opportunities for observational learning of peers. Another potentially efficient teaching strategy is the incorporation of incidental information into structured, empirically-supported teaching strategies.  Incidental learning is the acquisition of nontarget information present in the instructional context, but for which there are no programmed contingencies to aid in acquisition (Stevenson, 1972). Few studies have assessed the added potential benefits of small group instruction and incidental teaching with children with autism.

Objectives: The purpose of this study was to assess the efficiency of teaching receptive language skills to individuals with autism and related developmental disabilities. The present investigation examined whether children with developmental disabilities acquired receptive language skills within a small group instructional format when taught via three methods of instruction: explicit teaching, observational learning, and incidental teaching. Maintenance of these skills across time was also assessed.

Methods: Two participants were taught specific receptive identification targets (e.g., “Point to the fish”) presented in an array of three items. Related information about the targets (e.g., “A fish has gills”) was provided, but no responses were required of the participants regarding this information. Each participant was taught different targets. During each dyadic teaching session, trial-by-trial data were collected on the receptive targets taught via explicit teaching procedures. The acquisition of these targets, as well as nontarget information delivered incidentally, was evaluated within a multiple-probe design across behaviors. Concurrently, observational learning of peer targets and nontarget information presented to the peer was also assessed.

Results: Data reported include percentage of acquisition for receptive targets, incidental learning of related nontarget information, and observational learning of peer’s targets and related nontarget information. Both participants acquired 100% of the receptive identification targets taught via explicit teaching procedures and observational learning. Both participants acquired 100% of the related nontarget information taught via observational learning and incidental learning. However, they differed on the average number of sessions to mastery criteria.

Conclusions: These findings indicate that students with autism can acquire receptive language skills through incidental teaching and observational learning; thus small group instructional formats may have added benefits for children with autism. Providing opportunities for incidental learning and observational learning within the instructional context may be important for efficient teaching of children with autism. 

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