Children with autism may need extra guidance when learning to communicate. Today, applied behavior analysts use a blend of augmentative and alternative communication (AAC) interventions, including the picture exchange communication system (PECS), speech-generating devices (SGDs), sign language, and communication boards, to help children with autism learn how to communicate.
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Augmentative and Alternative Communication
Each child has unique needs when learning how to communicate. Applied behavior analysts must consider children’s specific learning, communication, and behavioral challenges when formulating an AAC intervention plan, they must also collaborate with speech-language pathologists to determine the most appropriate means of teaching communication.
These challenges are varied and can correlate to distinct issues. Some of the challenges may include difficulty processing auditory information, limited speaking skills, difficulty understanding the meaning and rhythm of words and phrases, and difficulty deciphering body language.
It’s important for applied behavior analysts to fully grasp B.F. Skinner’s 4 primary functions of communication to meet these challenges. These functions consist of mand (requesting), tact (labeling), intraverbal (associations and answering questions), and echoic (parroting and vocal imitation).
What is Augmentative and Alternative Communication (AAC)?
The Autism Society of Wisconsin defines AAC as “any non-vocal form of communication that supplements or replaces vocal speech in learners with communication impairments.” There are two categories of AAC systems: Selection-based (SB) and Topography-based (TB). While SB systems like PECS may be easier for motor impairments to learn, more response effort is required. Conversely, TB systems like speech or writing are closer to vocal skills, but it requires extensive systematic instruction to generate a response.
Four Forms of AAC
The Association for Science in Autism Treatment defines PECS as “a methodology that use pictures and other symbols to develop a functional communication system for individuals with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) based upon the principles of applied behavior analysis (ABA).” Another type of AAC, SGDs are machines that produce voice output. Communication boards and sign language are two other forms of AAC that can help children communicate.
PECS stars with a request as opposed to a comment of label. It doesn’t require verbal prompts. It’s also considered useful for transitioning to an SGD. The downside is that the selection of pictures and words used for PECS is limited.
Known for their portability and convenience, SGDs increase social interactions in natural settings. They also have a widespread peer acceptance, which is valuable. However, SGDs typically require additional materials for communication.
Communication boards can be used as a bonding experience between parents and children. The communication method is also fairly simple, and there are high-tech and low-tech options available for use. That being said, the expensive high-tech communication tools restrict access to advanced communication.
Sign language works because it facilitates efficient responses, it’s comprehensive, and it’s topography based. At the same time, it poses its own challenges, such as not being universal and requiring a substantial time to learn.
Research and the Rules of Applied Behavior Analysts
Studies have shown the effectiveness of PECS and SGDs in teaching communication skills to students with learning disabilities. Drawing on the results of these studies, applied behavior analysts create personalized intervention programs for each child and collaborate with other professionals to advance the techniques used in the field.
Research Findings: PECS and SGDs
According to a meta-analysis study published in Neuropsychiatric Disease and Treatment, “The first three stages of PECS are effective and teaching children to request preferred items.” This is backed by various forms of data: In a 2007 study, for instance, SGDs when used with naturalistic instructional strategies improved communication in students with disabilities. PECS has also been found to be effective in teaching communication skills involving short phrases or single words that can be applied in everyday settings. A 2013 study found PECS and SGDs to be equally effective in teaching requesting skills to children with autism.
The Role of Applied Behavior Analysts
Professionals working in the field of applied behavior analysts strive to change individual behavior through targeted, evidence-based interventions. Some of the typical duties within the role include: planning, development, and monitoring of treatments for behavioral challenges; maintaining records of client progress and status, consulting with and teaching instructional team members; collaboration with families, related service providers, and other agencies; and conducting with periodic service reviews to evaluate the effectiveness of treatment programs.
Applied behavior analysts have many evidence-based tools and techniques available to them when designing and implementing individualized treatment plans. Research shows that various AAC interventions can be effective in helping children with communication challenges learn how to interact with family, friends, and acquaintances.
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