If you work with learners with Autism Spectrum Disorder, you probably know that there can be a great deal of variability in the communication profiles of these individuals.
Some learners may have little or no spoken language, while others may have lots of language but may be unable to use that language to communicate effectively.
According to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders 5th edition (DSM-5), ASD is characterized by “persistent deficits in social communication and social interaction across multiple contexts,” it may include: Deficits in social-emotional reciprocity, ranging, for example, from abnormal social approachs and failure of normal back-and-forth conversation; to reduced sharing of interests, emotions, or affect; to failure to initiate or respond to social interactions.
It may also include; Deficits in nonverbal communicative behaviors used for social interaction, ranging, for example, from poorly integrated verbal and nonverbal communication; to abnormalities in eye contact and body language or deficits in understanding and use of gestures; to a total lack of facial expressions and nonverbal communication.
The third deficit could include; Deficits in developing, maintaining, and understanding relationships, ranging, for example, from difficulties adjusting behavior to suit various social contexts; to difficulties in sharing imaginative play or in making friends; to the absence of interest in peers. Let’s start by talking about individuals with ASD who might be considered “emerging communicators.”
Some learners with ASD do not use any spoken language, or only occasionally use sounds or single words.
If these learners do not have an alternative or augmentative communication system such as pictures, signing or voice output technology, they may not have any functional way to communicate.
They may not be able to tell others what they want or need, initiate or respond to a social interaction, labeling things in their environment, or comment on something they find interesting, unusual, or frightening.
If you work with a learner with this type of communication profile, you may have wondered how to help that individual build the most basic communicative skills.
What type of communication system is best-suited for that learner? And where do you even begin? While we can’t provide you with all of the information you will need to support the emerging communicator in one short video, we will suggest some considerations that could be helpful and provide some strategies that may support your learners.
When working with a learner with ASD who has limited communication skills, it is important to consult with a Speech Language Pathologist. These professionals have specific training and expertise in communication disorders and intervention.
They can assess communication skills, make recommendations about skills to address and how they can be taught. They may also identify appropriate modes of communication and any augmentative communication systems that may be beneficial.
When beginning to teach communication skills to emerging communicators, using their interests/motivation is the most effective strategy. When a learner has very limited communication skills, it can be helpful to focus on teaching the learner to make requests for things they want, because this is the only type of communication that directly benefits the learner.
For example, if an individual is thirsty and requests a drink, they receive the immediate benefit of a highly valuable reinforcer when they receive their preferred beverage.
If a learner loves to listen to music, and makes a request to listen to a particular song, there is an immediate pay-off for their requesting behaviour when they get access to the song they like.
Teaching a learner to make requests, also known as “manding”, is a great place to start because motivation and reinforcement, two essential components for teaching communication skills, are automatically built into the interaction.
Let’s take a look at some examples of what this type of requesting might look like. In the following video examples, you will notice that the teacher takes advantage of the learners’ natural motivation for a particular item by arranging situations for the learners to make requests.
As you watch the video clips, keep in mind that requesting can take many different forms. Depending on the learner’s skills, they may request using vocal language, sign, gestures, pictures, augmentative communication, or a combination of communication systems. "Top" Teacher - "Hey it's snack time!" "What do you have?" "oh, yumm!" Student - "Spoon?" Teacher - "Yes, there you go!" "Good asking!" Student 1 - "Help." Student 2 - "Help."
In each of the previous clips, you may have noticed that the learners appeared to be highly motivated to get the items they were requesting.
As I mentioned, motivation is an extremely important factor when it comes to learning to communicate.
It is essential to do some work up front to figure out what the learner’s most highly-preferred items and activities are; in other words, what are their most valuable reinforcers? One way to do this is through the completion of an informal or formal preference assessment.
You may want to take a look at the earlier Take Flight videos on “The Power of Reinforcement” and “Identifying and Selecting Reinforcers” for some ideas on how to assess learner preferences and identify potential reinforcers.
Even when you have identified the learner’s most powerful reinforcers, or the items and activities the learner will be motivated to request, you also want to think about setting the stage for effective teaching of these skills.
You want to think about WHEN the learner’s motivation for a particular item will be strong.
For example, it is more effective to work on teaching the learner to make requests for snack items when they are hungry. Teaching requesting of items needed to go outside to play may be most successful when everyone in the class is getting ready to go outside for recess.
A learner who enjoys using the computer will probably be more motivated to request that activity at a time when they haven’t had access to the computer for a while. It might also be helpful to increase motivation for a particular item or activity by “enticing” the learner and reminding them how much fun something is or how much they typically enjoy it.
You have probably noticed that a toy that is just sitting on the floor may not seem very interesting to a child until someone else picks it up and starts playing with it.
Or you may not have been thinking about eating chips until you see someone else eating them and hear the characteristic “crunch.” Then all you want is a bag of chips. Enticing the learner by engaging with the preferred item or activity and showing how exciting or interesting it is, or starting to interact with an item, then stopping and waiting expectantly, may increase the learner’s motivation to request that item.
The following video clips will show some examples of strategies for enticing learners to request preferred items and activities.
See if you can identify the strategies the teacher is using to increase the learner’s motivation in each of these situations. Student - "Corina, lets go swing!" Corina - "No." Teacher - "Should we do an underduck?" Student - "No!" [Laughter] Teacher - "Hey! Do you want to swing?" Corina - "Swing!" Teacher - "Alright! ... Vroom!" Teacher- "Mmmm . This is really good!" "Oh, juicy!" "mmm, juicy." Communication Device - "Strawberry." Teacher - "Sure! Have one." When teaching emerging communicators to make requests, it is important to think about, and clearly define, the type of request that will be reinforced.
In the early stages of teaching, acceptable responses should be those that are clearly known to be easy for the learner so that the learner’s communication attempts result in an immediate payoff and the requesting behaviour is strengthened.
If the response the learner must make is too difficult or requires too much effort, they may not respond or may become frustrated and engage in challenging behaviour.
Even if they do emit the communicative response some of the time, it may not be consistent and may not result in reinforcement frequently enough to strengthen the desired response – the appropriate request.
At the beginning, the acceptable request should be one that the learner can easily make, and every communicative attempt by the learner should result in the immediate delivery of the requested item every time. Over time, it will be important to shape the learner’s requesting behaviour and expect more and more complex requests. For example, in the early stages of teaching a learner to request music, you may only require them to look at the music player or to point to it in order to access the music.
However, once that response is established, you will want to shape the learner’s requesting by expecting more complex communication. If the learner can imitate words vocally, this might mean that the adult uses a vocal prompt, “music” and expects the learner to imitate the word before accessing the music.
If the learner does not use spoken language, the adult may prompt them to point to a picture that represents “music,” to point to the printed word “music,” or to sign “music” depending on the mode of communication that is appropriate for the learner.
Depending on the individual learner, you may expect multiple word requests or complete sentences once the learner becomes more skilled at requesting. It will also be important, as learner skills increase, to help them understand and accept that they can’t necessarily have access to everything they request immediately every time they ask for it.
Just like typically developing learners, individuals with ASD need to learn to wait appropriately and to accept being told “No”.
These goals become important once the requesting behaviour is established and is happening frequently and consistently. In the early stages of teaching, reinforcement should happen immediately if we want the learner’s new communication skills to become strong and to be maintained over time.
A final consideration is how to embed as many opportunities as possible for the learner to make requests throughout the day and in every setting.
Think about all of the activities and tasks that the learner engages in each day and in every environment, and make a list of all of the potential opportunities they may have to make requests.
Some opportunities for requesting may emerge naturally within the context of these routines, and there may be other times when you may have to strategically arrange opportunities.
The more opportunities throughout the day, the better. It may seem excessive or overly effortful to expect a learner to request everything imaginable in every environment each and every day, but keep in mind that communication skills do not come easily to emerging communicators with ASD, and the only way to build new skills to the point that they become fluent and last over time is to practice, practice, practice some more.
Taking advantage of naturally-occurring opportunities for individuals with ASD to make requests and initiate interactions, and strategically set up opportunities where they did not previously exist is important.
This will increase the likelihood that emerging communicators develop and maintain important foundational communication skills and lay the groundwork for more complex and effective communication over time.