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Autism Spectrum Disorder: Promoting Communication & Socialization Skills
Autism: Teaching Parents How to Prompt Communication & Socialization

Section 23
Assessment of Graphic Symbol Combinations by
Children with Autism

CEU Question 23 | CEU Test | Table of Contents | Autism
Psychologist CEs, Social Worker CEUs, Counselor CEUs, MFT CEUs, Nurse CEUs

Augmentative and alternative communication (AAC) techniques and strategies have provided communication opportunities for children with autism who are unable to use speech. Previous research has indicated that some children with autism are able to communicate using graphic symbols. A goal for many children with autism who have learned to communicate using single graphic symbols will be the transition to multisymbol use. This article offers potential teaching strategies that can be used during dynamic assessment that may help a speech language pathologist to assess the potential for acquiring and using multiple graphic symbol combinations for communicative purposes by children with autism.

Language milestones play an important role in the assessment and diagnosis of autism in children. Most parents report that something is wrong with their child when they notice delay or regression in development of communication skills (Short & Schopler, 1988). Often the delay is obvious; for example, approximately 50% of children with autism fail to develop expressive language skills or useful speech (Lord & Paul, 1997). Other communication, speech, and language differences may be subtle. For example, research has demonstrated that compared to typically developing children, verbal children with autism show similar developmental patterns in lexical growth (Tager-Flusberg, 1985) and acquire grammatical abilities in the same order (Tager-Flusberg, Calkins, Nolin, Baumberger, Anderson, & Chadwick-Dias, 1990; Tager-Flusberg & Calkins, 1990). However, when matched by language level, significant differences are apparent in the communicative abilities of children with autism (e.g., initiation of joint attention and showing or pointing; Mundy, Sigman, & Kasari, 1990).

Clearly, children with autism present communicative impairments requiring intervention. For many of these children, augmentative and alternative communication (AAC) systems may promote communicative competence. This article provides a brief review of AAC applications with persons with autism and discusses dynamic assessment as an innovative clinical practice with this population. It also presents matrix strategy and milieu teaching as useful tools for examining the potential for emergent, multisymbol combinations during dynamic assessment.

AAC and Children with Autism
Children with autism have been successful using unaided AAC systems such as gestures (Webster, Mcpherson, Sloman, Evans, & Kuchar, 1973), American Sign Language (Fulwiler & Fouts, 1976), and Signed English (Schaeffer, Kollinzas, Musil, & McDowell, 1978). In addition, various studies have provided empirical evidence supporting the usc of aided AAC systems with this population. Schuler, Prizant, and Wetherby (1997) reported successful application of concrete visual-spatial systems (e.g., line drawings, magazine pictures, written words, photographs) by children with autism for the expression of communicative functions such as requests for objects and comments on observations. Further, children have been taught activity schedules using a combination of verbal instructions and photographs (Krantz, MacDuff, & McClannahan, 1993; MacDuff, Krantz, & McClannahan, 1993). Finally, AAC interventions for children with autism that focus on developing receptive and expressive communication skills have used Picture Communication Symbols (Mayer-Johnson, 1994), Pictogram Ideogram Communication Symbols (Maharaj, 1980), and traditional orthography (Bondy & Frost, 1994; Hamilton & Snell, 1993; Mirenda & Santogrossi, 1985; Reichle & Brown, 1986). For more information on the usc of AAC with individuals with autism, please refer to Mirenda (this issue).

Development of effective AAC systems for children with autism requires extensive, ongoing assessment. Light, Roberts, Dimarco, and Greiner (1998) presented a theoretical model for AAC assessment and intervention through a case report of a 6-year-old boy with autism who had severe expressive and receptive language impairments. This model recommended the assessment of skills specific to AAC, such as receptive language, expressive communication, natural speech, symbol representation, literacy, cognitive organization, positioning and access, and sensory perceptual skills. Beukelman and Mirenda (1998) noted that these types of abilities are best evaluated through a dynamic process. Such a process results in the selection or modification of the AAC system only after considerable exposure to the potential user and after significant periods of trial teaching. Recently, the field of speech-language pathology has embraced the notion of trial teaching in evaluation. This process has been referred to as "dynamic assessment."

Dynamic Assessment
One of the goals of language assessment is to make recommendations for possible intervention. To be successful, the clinician needs information about the child's current abilities or performance and her potential for change through instruction. Traditional assessment procedures such as standardized tests do not provide sufficient information about the child's responsiveness to instruction and potential for immediate growth. On the other hand, dynamic assessment enriches the information obtained by traditional assessment procedure through the systematic introduction of adult guidance.
Dynamic assessment is based on the work of Russian psychologist Lev Semenovich Vygotsky (1896-1934) and the concept he referred to as the zone of proximal development (ZPD). Vygotsky was interested in applying the notion of the ZPD, as an alternative to the static assessment of IQ and mental age, to children with developmental delay (Schneider & Watkins, 1996). The difference between a child's actual level of performance without any guidance and the level of performance with the help of adults or more capable peers indicates the ZPD. A child's level of performance under adult guidance is greater than her performance level without adult guidance; therefore, the child's independent level of performance and the level of potential development (i.e., the performance when guided by an adult) constitute the ZPD and develop teaching-learning interactions. By providing prompts, cues, instructions (verbal or physical guidance), corrective feedback, and positive reinforcement, the clinician attempts to assist the child to function at a higher level (Oslwang, Bain, & Johnson, 1992).

Static assessment procedures focus on determining a child's independent performance at a particular point in time. In contrast to static or traditional assessment procedures that often reveal product (e.g., a child's current level of performance), dynamic assessment provides information about the learning process (Lidz, 1991). Dynamic assessment identifies a child's developmental abilities and limitations in relation to her learning context (Missiuna & Samuels, 1989) and encourages enthusiastic participation by both the clinician and the child.

Dynamic assessment provides the child an opportunity to complete a task that would be too difficult to accomplish without guidance. A pretest-intervene-posttest format using instructional and other informal procedures characterizes dynamic assessment. However, the clinician can use sections or certain tasks from standardized assessment tools that are within the child's ZPD. The child should be able to complete these tasks with the clinician's assistance, and the results can be reported descriptively to augment the standardized test scores (Kublin, Wetherby, Crais, & Prizant, 1998). Inclusion of intervention into the assessment procedure is a significant component of the dynamic assessment.

To summarize, dynamic assessment provides information about: (a) the child-as-learner that includes the approach or method used during a particular task, error patterns, and the aptitude to self-correct; (b) the child's inclination to change in response to the intervention and the intensity of effort required to facilitate such changes; and (c) probable effective goals for intervention. Dynamic assessment helps clinicians gather information about the child's learning potential and determine intervention strategies that might improve the child's performance on a task (Lidz & Pena, 1996).

Because traditional assessment procedures using standardized tests do not provide information about the child's learning potential, the concept of dynamic assessment is becoming more common in the field of communication disorders, special education, and other behavioral sciences. Clinicians have long faced difficulties assessing the AAC possibilities for children with little or no functional speech because standardized tests often require either verbal responses or pointing skills. The use of dynamic assessment provides a solution for this dilemma in that assumptions about children's abilities and potential are based upon an ongoing pretest-intervene-posttest paradigm where the child's performance is supported by the examiner.

With fire adoption of dynamic assessment as an evaluative alternative for persons with autism, clinicians are left to determine which informal procedures and intervention strategies might be most helpful within the pretest-teach-posttest paradigm.
- Nigam, Ravi; Dynamic assessment of graphic symbol combinations by children with autism; Focus on Autism & Other Developmental Disabilities, Fall 2001, Vol. 16, Issue 3.

Personal Reflection Exercise #9
The preceding section contained information about assessment of graphic symbol combinations by children with autism.  Write three case study examples regarding how you might use the content of this section in your practice.

Online Continuing Education QUESTION 23
What notion is the basis of dynamic assessment because it accounts for the level of potential development? Record the letter of the correct answer the CEU Test.

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