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teaching w picture exchange article

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A PRELIMINARY ANALYSIS OF TEACHING IMPROVISATION WITH
THE PICTURE EXCHANGE COMMUNICATION SYSTEM TO
CHILDREN WITH AUTISM
JULIE M. MARCKEL, NANCY A. NEEF, AND SUMMER J. FERRERI
THE OHIO STATE UNIVERSITY
Two young boys with autism who used the picture exchange communication system were taught
to solve problems (improvise) by using descriptors (functions, colors, and shapes) to request
desired items for which specific pictures were unavailable. The results of a multiple baseline
across descriptors showed that training increased the number of improvised requests, and that
these skills generalized to novel items, and across settings and listeners in the natural
environment.
DESCRIPTORS: improvisation, problem solving, picture exchange communication
system, augmentative and alternative communication, autism
_______________________________________________________________________________
Language and communication are major
areas of concern for children with autism
(Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental
Disorders, American Psychiatric Association,
2000). Research has shown that augmentative
and alternative communication (AAC) systems,
such as sign language, electronic communica-
tion aids, and the picture exchange communi-
cation system (PECS), can increase the com-
municative interactions of children with autism
and enable them to exercise control over their
environments (e.g., by making requests) (Char-
lop-Christy, Carpenter, Le, LeBlanc, & Keller,
2002; Frost & Bondy, 1994; Schepis, Reid,
Behrmann, & Sutton, 1998; Sundberg &
Partington, 1998; Wacker, Wiggins, Fowler,
& Berg, 1988). When a child is beginning to
develop skills with AAC systems, however,
communication may be limited to a relatively
small number of signs or symbols. On the other
hand, as a child’s language repertoire expands,
communication with some selection-based AAC
systems may require more time and effort to
locate and select individual symbols from a large
array (Sundberg & Partington, 1998) and the
number of pictures or graphic symbols that can
be accommodated may eventually surpass the
system’s capacity for efficient use. In either case,
the range of stimuli in the environment might
exceed the number of corresponding symbols
that are available for children to express
momentary needs or wants.
To use AAC systems efficaciously in such
situations, children may need to learn problem-
solving strategies. According to Bijou (1976),
‘‘problem solving refers to interactions in which
a person cannot respond immediately either to
reduce ongoing deprivation of reinforcing
stimuli, or to escape or avoid aversive stimuli
and therefore sets about to alter the situation so
that he can make a reinforceable response’’
(p. 70). As applied to AAC systems, one
problem-solving strategy would be to identify
alternative symbols that could be used to
generate a reinforceable response (e.g., a mand)
when a single specific symbol for a stimulus is
not readily available. For example, ‘‘purple’’ and
‘‘drink’’ might be used in the absence of
a symbol for grape juice.
This research was based on a thesis submitted by the
first author in partial fulfillment of the requirements for
the MA degree at The Ohio State University. We thank
Jacqueline Wynn for her collaboration and support, and
Robin Ludwig, Anjenette Santelli, and Lorie Zimmerman
for their assistance with data collection.
Requests for additional information concerning this
study can be sent to Julie M. Marckel, c/o Nancy A. Neef,
PAES, College of Education, The Ohio State University,
1945 N. High St., 367 Arps Hall, Columbus, Ohio 43210
(e-mail: neef.2@osu.edu).
doi: 10.1901/jaba.2006.131-04
JOURNAL OF APPLIED BEHAVIOR ANALYSIS 2006, 39, 109–115 NUMBER 1 (SPRING 2006)
109
Parsonson and Baer (1978) taught 5 pre-
school children a similar problem-solving
strategy that involved improvisation (i.e., ‘‘find-
ing an effective, possibly unconventional, sub-
stitute to replace some specifically designed but
currently unavailable item,’’ p. 364) as applied
to the use of play tools. The children were
taught to identify the essential characteristics of
the unavailable tool to solve the problem and to
search for an effective alternative. For example,
in the absence of a hammer, the child could use
a brick to pound a peg. Training involved
a diverse array of exemplars within one or more
of three classes of tools (hammers, containers,
and shoelaces). Only novel improvisations were
reinforced with descriptive praise. The results of
a multiple baseline design across tool classes and
participants showed that training increased
generalized improvisation within the tool classes
trained, although improvisation did not occur
across untrained tool classes.
We sought to extend the literature on
problem solving by teaching young children
with autism to improvise when communicating
with PECS. The purposes of the study were to
examine (a) the effectiveness of training the use
of descriptors in enabling children to make
a wide range of requests with a limited number
of symbols and (b) the extent to which training
resulted in generalized use of improvisation to
request items for which specific individual
symbols were unavailable.
METHOD
Participants, Setting, and Materials
The director of a clinic for young children
with autism had referred 2 boys (Ike, age 5, and
Khan, age 4) who met the DSM IV-TR
diagnostic criteria for autism and the inclusion
criteria of (a) color, shape, and action matching-
to-sample skills and (b) independent use of
PECS stimuli to make requests (although we
did not specifically assess participants’ indepen-
dent use of the particular symbols for the
preferred stimuli used in the study). The
experiment was conducted in the participants’
homes. Teaching materials included preferred
stimuli and the participant’s PECS book.
Preferred stimuli were initially identified during
interviews with the children’s parents and
therapists. Stimuli that were confirmed as
preferred during baseline were then randomly
divided into two sets designated for training and
generalization probes, respectively. The partic-
ipants’ PECS books were altered by removing
the symbols for identified preferred stimuli and
inserting pictures of descriptors (see Table 1).
Experimental Conditions
Baseline probes. Baseline probes were con-
ducted to determine whether the children
would improvise to request items for which
specific pictures were unavailable in their PECS
books. During each of the 10 trials per session,
the therapist displayed two to five preferred
Table 1
Descriptors and Examples of Improvised Requests
Ike Khan
Functions Eat, drink, play Eat, drink, read, watch, listen
Colors Red, blue, green, pink, orange, purple,
black, white, brown, yellow, gray
Red, blue, green, pink, orange, purple, black,
white, brown, yellow
Shapes Circle, square, triangle, rectangle, heart,
moon, star, oval, line, diamond, hexagon
Circle, square, triangle, rectangle, heart,
moon, star, oval, line
Preferred stimuli Crackers, chips, pretzels, water, sandwich,
cookie, granola bars, cantaloupe, toys,
balloon, books, balls, CDs, tapes
Sausage, cupcakes, milk, bread, pancakes,
waffle, chicken nuggets, banana, hot dogs,
french fries, water, videos, CDs, books
Examples of trained requests ‘‘I want eat white square’’ for a sandwich ‘‘I want watch green rectangle’’ for a video
Examples of untrained requests ‘‘I want play green circle’’ for toy coins ‘‘I want eat brown rectangle’’ for sausage
110 JULIE M. MARCKEL et al.
stimuli in a clear bin in front of the child. Once
the child demonstrated interest in one of the
stimuli (e.g., by pointing or reaching toward it),
the therapist placed the item alone on the table
and looked expectantly at the child. If the child
did not begin to scan the PECS book within
10 s, the therapist gestured toward the PECS
book and asked, ‘‘What do you want?’’
Irrespective of the response, the child was given
access to the item for 30 s, and was told, ‘‘good
trying’’ if he had attempted to request the item.
(In all cases, the child accepted the item,
confirming that it was desired.) The next trial
was then presented with a different set of
stimuli.
Training. Improvisation training was con-
ducted sequentially and cumulatively across
three classes of descriptors (functions, colors,
and shapes), in a different order for each
participant. Training was added for a new
descriptor class after the child met mastery
criterion of independent improvisations using
one or more descriptors from each of the classes
previously trained on at least 90% of the trials
across three consecutive sessions. Once the child
met criterion for functions and training was
initiated on colors, for example, the use of color
as well as function descriptors was required for
an improvised request to be reinforced with
provision of the item.
The set of stimuli designated for training was
presented in the same manner as during
baseline, except that the child was not prompted
with ‘‘What do you want?’’ After placing the
desired item on the table, the therapist
physically prompted use of the appropriate
descriptor using the delay procedure described
by Frost and Bondy (1994). Prompted or
independent correct responses were followed
by praise and brief access to the item. Once
prompts were faded, an error-correction pro-
cedure was used. Following an incorrect re-
sponse, the child was told to ‘‘try again.’’ If the
child again made an incorrect response, the
therapist prompted the next response and gave
the child access to the item, ending the trial.
(Temporary adaptations were made for Khan,
such as interspersing mastered imitation tasks
with training trials; see Frost & Bondy, 1994.)
If the child made an improvised request for an
item that was not one of the training stimuli,
the item was provided and the request was
scored as an occurrence of generalization (data
not shown).
Generalization probes. After criterion was met
for each descriptor class, generalization probes
with untrained items were conducted in the
same manner as baseline. All descriptors were
available during probes except in one case for
Ike (shape and color descriptors were inadver-
tently left out during the probe that followed
training criterion for functions). To document
the occurrence of improvisation outside exper-
imental sessions, parents and therapists were
asked to record any requests the child made (as
was done with requests for nontarget stimuli
during training).
Measures and Experimental Design
A multiple baseline across descriptors was
used to examine the effects of training on the
number of requests made independently with
a correct improvisation to training and gener-
alization stimuli. An improvised request was
scored as correct if the child independently
constructed and handed to a listener a sentence
strip that contained ‘‘I want’’ and one or more
descriptors corresponding to the desired item
from each descriptor class. For example, if the
child used ‘‘eat’’ and ‘‘circle’’ to request an
OreoH cookie during a generalization probe,
a correct response was recorded for functions
and shapes but not for colors. A changing
criterion design was used to examine the effects
of successive increases in the number of
descriptors required for reinforcement on the
number of unprompted descriptors per in-
dependent request. A correct response was
scored for every descriptor corresponding to
a desired item that the child independently
IMPROVISATION WITH PECS 111
selected and placed on a sentence strip following
the ‘‘I want’’ icon (in the aforementioned
example, two improvisations were recorded).
Two therapists independently scored re-
sponses during 33% and 30% of the sessions
for Ike and Khan, respectively. Mean point-by-
point agreement was 99% for both children.
Treatment integrity, scored from a 13-step
checklist for the administration of each trial,
was assessed on 30% of the sessions for each
child. The mean percentage of applicable steps
correctly performed with Ike and Khan was
99% and 100%, respectively. The children’s
parents and teachers (n 5 10 respondents)
anonymously rated the social validity of the
goals and outcomes of training. On a scale of 1
(low) to 10 (high), the mean ratings ranged
from 7.0 to 9.5.
RESULTS AND DISCUSSION
Figures 1 and 2 show the results of the
multiple baseline design for Ike and Khan,
respectively. During baseline, improvised re-
quests occurred rarely, if at all. As training was
implemented sequentially across each class of
descriptors, the number of improvised requests
increased steadily and were maintained at high
levels. In addition, it should be noted that the
mean number of descriptors per independent
request increased successively in correspondence
with the number of descriptors required for the
request to produce the reinforcer (data depicted
in the changing criterion design are not
portrayed but are available from the first
author). Similar to the findings of Parsonson
and Baer (1978), generalization occurred within
stimulus classes but not across classes. Once all
three classes were trained, however, the children
used novel combinations from each class to
make requests for untrained stimuli during both
generalization probes and in their natural
environments (e.g., ‘‘I want eat white circle’’
to request a marshmallow). Thus, both children
learned to solve problems as defined by Skinner
(1968), Bijou (1976), and Becker, Engelmann,
and Thomas (1975). Specifically, when pre-
sented with a problem (the unavailability of
a single specific graphic symbol to communicate
a request for a desired item), the children used
a novel synthesis of responses or precurrents
(selecting descriptors from different stimulus
classes) that generated a reinforceable (current)
response (a mand that produced the desired
item).
Given that within-class generalization oc-
curred with the presentation of multiple
exemplars, it might be predicted that between-
class generalization ultimately would have de-
veloped with additional descriptor classes (e.g.,
size and other characteristics). Establishing
generalization across additional classes of de-
scriptors in the children’s repertoires might
enhance discrimination of the requested item by
listeners who are unfamiliar with the child’s
typical preferences for items that are not readily
visible. Additional procedures also may be
needed to teach children to discriminate an
item’s most prominent characteristics from its
insignificant features.
Preferred items were placed in view so that it
was apparent what the child was requesting.
Improvisations were therefore established as
mand-tacts under multiple sources of control
(the characteristics of an item that was present
as well as the motivating operations that
established it as a reinforcer). Improvisation
skills might be most needed, however, when the
desired item is absent, such that the child has no
other way of communicating the request (e.g.,
by pointing). Therapist and parent recordings
of pure mands (see Bondy, Tincani, & Frost,
2004) in situations in which the items were not
visible (e.g., in a closet) suggest that generaliza-
tion of improvisational skills occurred. Further
systematic analysis of generalization of impro-
visational skills is warranted.
Research is needed to further examine these
and other effects of improvisation training as
applied to communication skills (such as when
specific pictures for items are restored). Despite
112 JULIE M. MARCKEL et al.
Figure 1. The number of independent improvised requests in the multiple probe across classes of descriptors for Ike.
Filled data points represent trained exemplars. Open data points represent untrained requests during baseline and
generalization probes.
IMPROVISATION WITH PECS 113
Figure 2. The number of independent improvised requests in the multiple baseline across classes of descriptors for
Khan. Filled data points represent trained exemplars. Open data points represent untrained requests during baseline and
generalization probes.
114 JULIE M. MARCKEL et al.
several methodological limitations (a possible
increasing baseline for functions and the
omission of a generalization probe following
training on functions for Khan, the omission of
a probe for shapes and colors following training
criterion for functions with Ike), the current
study adds to the growing body of empirical
demonstrations that behavior analysis can be
applied to complex and creative behaviors (see
Glover & Gary, 1976; Goetz & Baer, 1973;
Lalli, Zanolli, & Wohn, 1994; Maloney &
Hopkins, 1973; Neef, Nelles, Iwata, & Page,
2003; Parsonson & Baer, 1978). As noted
by Neef et al., continued research in this area
may make more prominent the potential
contributions of behavior analysis to the
acquisition of complex problem-solving skills
of many types.
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Received September 2, 2004
Final acceptance October 17, 2005
Action Editor, Jennifer McComas
IMPROVISATION WITH PECS 115

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