International Meeting for Autism Research: Acquisition of Requests, Labels, and Answers to Questions Through Sign Exposure In An Individual with Autism

Acquisition of Requests, Labels, and Answers to Questions Through Sign Exposure In An Individual with Autism

Thursday, May 12, 2011
Elizabeth Ballroom E-F and Lirenta Foyer Level 2 (Manchester Grand Hyatt)
11:00 AM
A. L. Valentino and M. A. Shillingsburg, Marcus Autism Center, Children's Healthcare of Atlanta, & Emory School of Medicine, Atlanta, GA
Background: Children with autism may not develop vocal language and may require specific teaching with alternative communication systems such as sign language.  In the absence of vocal language, sign language may serve as a main form of communication.  Therefore, when teaching sign language, it is important to examine the situations under which sign can be acquired without direct instruction.  A practical problem exists in teaching language if each individual word must be directly taught.  However, if language can be acquired through incidental observation, language may grow quickly.  Children who communicate with vocal responses have the opportunity to observe language outside of the teaching environment.  However, children who communicate with alternative systems are at a distinct disadvantage because it is unlikely that others in the environment consistently communicate with those same systems outside of direct teaching situations. 

Objectives: The purpose of the current study was to assess the effects of sign exposure only without direct teaching on the emergence of language in a child with autism. 

Methods: Jethro was 7- years old.  The dependent variable was a correct independent response, which was recorded if Jethro emitted the corresponding sign for the targeted item when the opportunity was presented.  Requests, labels, and answers to questions were targeted. A multiple baseline design across activities was used.  Three activities with corresponding items were included: playing with bubbles (bubble wand), balloon play (balloon), and playing with shaving cream (shaving cream). During baseline and probe sessions, the activity was initiated.  Ten opportunities for Jethro to emit signed requests, labels, or answers to questions were provided. During sign exposure sessions, the targeted activity was initiated.  During the activity, the therapist modeled the sign with the targeted item 10 times for each component of language.  One sign exposure session was always conducted prior to a probe session. 

Results: Results showed that all signs were emitted across requests, labels, and answers to questions during post-sign exposure probes.

Conclusions: These results had particular significance for Jethro.  Specifically, caregivers were instructed to use sign language in their interactions with Jethro in order to expose him to sign language experiences and promote future emergence of untrained language.  Jethro acquired sign language the way many typically developing children acquire vocal language.  These results led to specific recommendations regarding the importance of modeling sign language outside of direct teaching sessions. During sign exposure sessions, Jethro engaged in some imitative responses.  He engaged in the most imitation during sign exposure sessions with the first targeted activity and with subsequent activities his imitation occurred only initially, yet he still acquired signs.  This imitative behavior may parallel the function of self-talk responses that occur when vocal children engage in expressive language that then becomes more covert. Procedures to observe the effects of sign exposure in individuals with autism who communicate with alternative systems is an exciting avenue for future research and may have significant benefit to this population. 

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