Overview of Skill Acquistion
Although each of our learners is individual, many of our learners share the following similar learning traits. It can be helpful to understand the following terms and learning issues so that you can recognize that they are normal phases of learning, but should be considered and addressed while you are teaching specific skills.
Learning issues for Autistic Children
Many of our learners when they first learn a skill will overuse it in situations when it is not appropriate. For example, when teaching "HOT" to an early learner when teaching them not to touch something, they may say "HOT" every time they are not supposed to touch something, regardless of its temperature. (Note: Neurotypical children do this as well, but out-learn it more easily and usually without special planning.)
For another example, with intermediate learner, you may teach them to answer a social question such as "What is your name?" and start getting them saying their name in response to other questions such as "How old are you?"
To learn how to address overgeneralization, it is helpful to understand the concept of stimulus control.
- Stimulus Control
Stimulus control can be described as the ability of something (someone else's speech, a picture, an internal need or desire) to evoke a response from somebody else. For example, if I ask my son, "What is your name?" it should evoke the correct response (Evy). If I ask Evy, "What is your dog's name?" and he answers "Evy", then the response is under poor stimulus control. So when teaching we must remember to both pair the answer "Evy" with the correct language cue "What is your name?" and also teaching listening descrimination to prevent him using the answer for the wrong question.
- Listening Discrimination
Listening skills are well honed when we alternate our teaching cues with others that require a different answer. For example, alternating the social question "What is your name?" with the social question "How old are you?" (any alternating questions will do) helps the listener discriminate better the question that you are teaching. The closer the two questions are to sounding alike, the harder it is for the child to discriminate. So you might try starting with two questions that sound very dissimilar, and after they master that set of alternating questions, pair one of the questions with a more similar sounding question. For example, when the example above is mastered, swap out "How old are you?" replacing it with "What is your (mother's, father's, cat's, dog's) name?" until they have achieved good listening discrimination and stimulus control. Another example of two similar questions are "What is your favorite number?" and "What is your phone number?"
- Teaching Multiple Cues
Let's assume we taught Evy to correctly respond "Evy" when asked "What is your name?" We cannot assume that he will then know that he is supposed to answer "Evy" when asked "What is your first name?" or "Who are you?" or "And you are...?" Most autistic kids will not recognize that these variations of identity questions are all asking for the same response.
What does this mean for our teaching environments? Whenever possible, we recommend randomly alternating common variants of questions they are likely to encounter in everyday life. Prompt the answers when needed using a most to least prompting heirarchy (see the Early Learner movie for examples) until they understand that a specific answer might be appropriate to a certain set of questions, but not EVERY set of questions (e.g overgeneralization).
- There Can Be More Than One Right Answer
Sometimes, in our zeal to teach our learners how to correctly respond, we unwittingly give them the impression that there is only one right answer to a specific question. We can do this by only prompting one answer, or by failing to reinforce novel answers because they aren't what we expected or wanted them to say. When we don't reinforce novel speech, or create an atmosphere that suggests that there is only one answer to something, we unwittingly damper spontaneous speech. We also might be impairing the development of problem solving skills and promoting rigidity in conversation and social situations. We can promote problem behavior (e.g Tantrum) when other people's speech doesn't follow their predictions due to our one-track teaching.
We are really big on choice here at Autism Teaching Tools and we want you to know why. We find many parents relating that promoting choice and child directing within teaching settings encourages spontaneous speech, promotes confidence, and helps teach listening discrimination. Please refer to the Pivotal Response Manual for an excellent training guide on how to promote choice in your therapy sessions. The following articles show how research has supported the use of choice and preference in teaching our learners.