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Language and Communication Intervention for Children with Autism
Approaches for Teaching Early Multisymbol Combinations
The matrix strategy has been successfully used as one of the intervention procedures to teach generalized word combining skills to children with mental retardation and other developmental disabilities. Trained semantic relations using a matrix strategy include action-object (e.g., Striefiel, Wetherby, & Karlan, 1976, 1978; Karlan, Brenn-White, Lentz, Hodur, Egger, & Frankoff, 1982; Romski & Ruder, 1984), object-location or preposition-object (e.g., Bunce, Ruder, & Ruder, 1985; Ezell & Goldstein, 1989; Light, Watson, & Remington, 1990), and descriptor-object (e.g., Remington, Watson, & Light, 1990). Although attempts have been made to teach word combining skills to children with little or no functional speech using a matrix strategy with unaided systems such as Signed English (Karlan et al., 1982), speech + sign (Romski & Ruder, 1984), and manual signs (Light ct al., 1990; Remington et al., 1990), more research is needed to develop strategies for incorporating matrix training strategies into language interventions in naturalistic contexts (Goldstein, 1993). An example of a 4 x 4 matrix with action-object combinations is shown in Figure 1. A row represents an action and a column represents an object. Each cell of the matrix represents a unique action-object combination with the possibility of 16 action-object combinations. A clinician trains a subset of symbol combinations, and once the child has learned the subset the training starts on the next subset. The stepwise progression in the matrix provides the discriminative stimuli, and the child's response to the items of the matrix that are not in training subsets determines the generalization.
The matrix strategy is clearly an effective way of teaching manual sign (Light et al., 1990; Remington et al., 1990) and graphic symbol combinations (Nigam, 1999) to children with disabilities, but there is insufficient empirical evidence to support the efficacy of the matrix strategy for teaching children with autism. To date, only Nigam (1999) has demonstrated the efficacy of matrix instruction with children with autism, and his small sample (n = 2) prevents the generalization of findings. Further systematic replication studies are needed to determine the effectiveness of the matrix strategy to teach word, manual signs, and graphic symbol combinations to children with autism. Because each child possesses different strengths and weaknesses, the case study method and single-participant design would be suitable approaches to strengthen the existing knowledge base regarding the use of the matrix strategy.
Milieu Language Teaching Strategies
Milieu language teaching has been effective in teaching children with language disorders who do not speak frequently and who are learning early vocabulary and early semantic relations (Kaiser, Yoder, & Keetz, 1992). Early semantic relationships taught using specific milieu teaching approaches include agent-action, action-object, modifier-noun, and agent-action-object (Cavallaro & Bambara, 1982; Charlop, Schreibman, & Thibodeau, 1985; Hart & Risely, 1974; Warren & Gazdag, 1990; Warren et al., 1994). Specific training techniques such as incidental teaching, time delay and the mand-model procedure have been integrated into systematic approaches for early communication intervention. Strategies investigated have included the following:
Incidental Teaching. Incidental teaching has strong empirical support to validate its effectiveness in developing generalized communication skills in children with autism (McGee, Daly, Izeman, Mann, & Risley, 1991; McGee, Krantz, Manson, & McClannahan, 1983; McGee, Krantz, & McClannahan, 1999). Incidental teaching and the mand-model procedure are similar except that incidental teaching is child initiated, whereas the mand-model procedure is adult initiated through open-ended questions (e.g., "What is this?") or mands (e.g., "Tell me what do you want?"). The incidental-teaching strategy uses the naturally arising interactions between an adult and a child (e.g., play activity), and the adult systematically provides language instruction to develop communication skills (Hart & Risley, 1975). The child controls the incidence or activity in which language teaching occurs. A single, incidental-teaching episode with a child using graphic symbols might work like this:
(Context: During snack time, a child points to the symbol for "juice." The goal is to teach the graphic symbol combination with an action [verb] and object [noun].)
Child: Gains attention of an adult by vocalization and
points to the symbol for "juice."
Mand-Model.The mand-model strategy is a variation of incidental teaching in which teaching interactions are adult or clinician controlled rather than child initiated. The adult chooses a time to approach the child and request verbal behavior by using mands (a non-yes/no question) and if the child's response is incomplete or incorrect, provides a model (imitative prompts). A typical episode using the mand-model procedure with a child using graphic symbols might work like this:
(Context: Child is washing face after a snack activity. The goal is to teach the graphic symbol combination with an action [verb] and object [noun].)
Adult: "What are you doing?" (an open-ended question
that requires more than a "yes" or "no" answer).
The adult will wait for another opportunity to use the procedure if the child does not respond to the model. After an open-ended question, mand, and model, an expectant pause of 3 to 4 seconds is provided.
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Table of Contents
Autism, Ahead of Print.
The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends autism spectrum disorder screening at the 18- and 24-month well-child visits. However, despite widespread toddler screening, many children are not diagnosed until school age, and delayed diagnosis is more common among low-income and minority children. Offering autism spectrum disorder screening at preschool well-child checks might reduce disparities and lower the overall age of diagnosis and service initiation. However, screening tools that span the preschool ages and are tailored for primary care are needed.Lay abstractPediatric primary care providers check for autism signs, usually using a standard checklist, at 18- and 24-month well-child visits. When the checklist shows possible autism, children should be referred for additional treatment and evaluation with an autism specialist. However, many children with autism spectrum disorder are not detected as toddlers. Low-income and minority children are particularly likely to have a late autism spectrum disorder diagnosis. Checking for autism at preschool-aged well-child visits might be one way to identify autism spectrum disorder earlier, especially for low-income and minority children.
Autism, Ahead of Print.
Autistic adults commonly experience anxiety and depression. These mental health concerns are often tied to social experiences, such that mental well-being can be supported by social connection and deteriorated by loneliness. The mediating role of social and emotional loneliness (i.e. social isolation and lack of emotional attachment, respectively) between autism features and mental health has yet to be empirically tested among autistic adults. Here, 69 autistic young adults completed self-report questionnaires assessing social contact (Friendship Questionnaire), autism features (Autism Quotient), mental health (Liebowitz Social Anxiety Scale, Social Phobia Inventory, Beck Depression Inventory), and loneliness (Social and Emotional Loneliness Scale for Adults). Positive associations emerged between autism features, social loneliness, family loneliness, social anxiety, and depression. In addition, more social contact was related to less social and family loneliness and less social anxiety but was not related to depression. Mediation analyses indicated significant indirect effects of social contact and autism features on mental health through social loneliness. Indirect effects partially held substituting family loneliness for social loneliness and did not hold using romantic loneliness. In light of these results, the scientific and clinical implications of the role of loneliness for autistic young adults are discussed and recommendations provided.Lay abstractAutistic adults commonly experience mental health concerns including social anxiety and depression, which can have negative effects on their quality of life. It is not completely clear, however, why rates of mental health concerns are so high. Some evidence suggests that social connectedness might play a key role. The goal of this study was to explore links between loneliness, mental health concerns, autism features, and social contact among autistic adults and test whether the links between mental health with autism features and social contact can be explained by loneliness. Researchers in this study collected data using questionnaires completed by 69 autistic young adults. Autistic adults who reported more autism features also reported more social and family loneliness, higher levels of social anxiety and depression, and fewer initiated social contacts. In addition, adults with more social contact initiations were likely to report lower levels of social and family loneliness and social anxiety but not depression. Results showed that the link from social engagement and autism features to social anxiety and depression symptoms could be mostly explained by loneliness. The results of this study expand previous findings by illustrating one factor (loneliness) that might be responsible for the high rates of mental health concerns among adults on the autism spectrum. These findings highlight the importance of studying factors related to mental health concerns among autistic adults and ways to best support social connectedness for the mental well-being of autistic young adults.
Autism, Ahead of Print.
Insomnia subtypes have not been characterized in severely affected youth with autism spectrum disorder. We examined indices of clinical impairment (i.e. length of hospital stay, autism severity, nonverbal intelligence quotient, and adaptive and maladaptive behaviors) across insomnia subtypes in 427 psychiatrically hospitalized children with autism spectrum disorder (mean age = 12.8 ± 3.4; 81.3% male). Multivariate analysis with Bonferroni adjustment tested for differences in clinical impairment across insomnia subtypes adjusting for age and sex. Per parent report, 60% (n = 257) of children had at least one form of insomnia. The distribution of subtypes was sleep onset (26.1%, n = 67), sleep maintenance (24.9%, n = 64), early morning waking (4.3%, n = 11), and combined (44.7%, n = 115). There was a significant multivariate effect of insomnia subtypes on clinical impairment (Pillai’s Trace = 0.25, F = 2.78, p < 0.001). Sleep maintenance and early morning waking were associated with longer hospital stays. Early morning waking was also associated with greater autism symptom severity. In general, children with sleep-maintenance or combined insomnias scored lower on adaptive behaviors and higher on maladaptive behaviors. Sleep-maintenance and combined insomnias appear to be more indicative of or consequential for impaired behavioral functioning.Lay abstractInsomnia subtypes are not well understood in the most severely affected children with autism spectrum disorder. We examined length of hospital stay, autism severity, nonverbal intelligence quotient, and behavioral functioning across insomnia subtypes in 427 psychiatrically hospitalized children with autism spectrum disorder (mean age = 12.8 ± 3.4; 81.3% male). Per parent report, 60% (n = 257) of children had at least one type of insomnia. The distribution of subtypes was difficulty falling asleep (26.1%, n = 67), difficulty staying asleep (24.9%, n = 64), early morning awakening (4.3%, n = 11), and multiple insomnia symptoms (44.7%, n = 115). Difficulty staying asleep and early morning awakenings were associated with longer hospital stays. Early morning awakening was also associated with higher autism symptom severity. In general, children with difficulty staying asleep or multiple insomnia symptoms scored lower on adaptive behaviors (e.g. communication, self-care, socialization) and higher on maladaptive behaviors (e.g. irritability, hyperactivity, emotional reactivity, and emotional dysphoria). Difficulty staying asleep or having multiple insomnia symptoms appears to be most strongly related to impaired behavioral functioning. Conversely, early morning awakenings may be more closely tied with autism spectrum disorder itself. Further research is needed regarding insomnia subtypes at the severe end of the autism spectrum.
Autism, Ahead of Print.
Self-compassion refers to the extension of kindness to oneself when faced with inadequacies, shortcomings or failures. This study examined the mediating role of self-compassion in the relationship between autistic traits and depressive/anxious symptomatology in the general population. Participants included 164 university students (69 males and 95 females) ranging in age from 18 to 51 years (mean = 23.16, standard deviation = 7.81). Participants completed the Autism Spectrum Quotient, the Self-Compassion Scale, and the Hospital Anxiety and Depression Scale. A series of multiple mediation analyses was conducted using the bootstrapping method, and it was found that Total Self-Compassion and the two subscales of Compassionate Self-Responding and Uncompassionate Self-Responding partially mediated the relationship between autistic traits and anxious/depressive symptoms. The indirect effect of self-compassion accounted for 41.9% of the variance in the relationship between autistic traits and depressive symptoms and 50% of the variance in the relationship between autistic traits and anxiety symptoms. It was also further found that the correlation between autistic traits and self-compassion was significantly stronger in males than females. Although preliminary, the current findings suggest that self-compassion could potentially serve as a target for clinical intervention in individuals with elevated autistic traits who experience anxiety and/or depression.Lay AbstractIn this study, we asked 164 undergraduate students to complete an online questionnaire. The questionnaire measured the students’ levels of autistic traits, self-compassion, and experience of anxiety and depression. We were interested in knowing if self-compassion (defined as the extension of kindness to oneself when faced with challenges) had any influence on the relationship between autistic traits and experiences of anxiety and depression. The results of the study indicated that self-compassion may be an important factor influencing the relationship between autistic traits and mental health, with higher levels of self-compassion being related to more positive mental health outcomes. Although the findings should be considered preliminary in nature, they do suggest that self-compassion could potentially be a target for clinical intervention in people with elevated autistic traits and experience anxiety and/or depression.
Autism, Ahead of Print.
The current study examined the role of informal supports in predicting resilience among families of children with autism spectrum disorder. Participants included 153 caregivers of children with autism spectrum disorder, who were between the ages of 2 and 18 years (M = 10.45; SD = 4.32). Caregivers completed a measure of satisfaction with informal supports as well as the Family Resilience Assessment Scale-autism spectrum disorder. After controlling for demographic factors and child behavioural problems, regression analyses revealed that satisfaction with informal supports significantly predicted family resilience. The findings highlight the importance of specifically strengthening informal support networks when providing services and interventions to families of children with autism spectrum disorder to foster the family’s resilience.Lay abstractThe study of resilience among individuals with disabilities and their families represents a paradigmatic shift from a deficits orientation towards a more holistic and contextualized approach focused on strength and adaptation. The current study investigated whether informal supports could help improve families’ capacity for resilience. We recruited 153 caregivers of children aged between 2 and 18 years who all had a diagnosis of autism. Participants were asked to complete surveys assessing resilience in their families as well as their satisfaction with informal supports (e.g. friends and family). Families more likely to report higher satisfaction with their informal support networks demonstrate greater resilience. The results suggest that informal social supports are a valuable resource for families in strengthening their capacity for resilience. The findings may help inform the development of interventions and services that work collaboratively and innovatively with families and their social networks to provide assistance and support in meaningful and effective ways.
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