Children and adults diagnosed with Autism Spectrum Disorder have persistent deficits in social communication and social interaction across multiple contexts as one of the symptoms. This impairment is usually manifested in lack of social-emotional reciprocity, poor integration of verbal and nonverbal communication and difficulties adjusting behavior to suit various social contexts. Delays in communication usually vary in severity ranging from monotone speech about preferred topic to a total absence of verbal communication. Often individuals with ASD do not effectively perform the single most important task of communication and language, and that is expressing their wants and needs (i.e. making requests, exhibiting mands) and, as a result, they have very little control over what happens to them in their daily lives.
Further, multiple researches has shown that communication impairment is correlated with an increased risk of challenging behavior and reduced opportunities for community involvement and therefore it is understandable why a huge amount of intervention research has focused on developing successful procedures for improving communication skills of individuals with ASD.
In most cases, the traditional developmental model of language represents the basis for teaching communication and language skills, however in this model, the primary unit of communication and language is the word and words, signs, pictures, or symbols are taught without much regard to the circumstances present during instruction. For example, some expressive language is taught as “labels” (“car”, “table”, “spoon”), some as “answers to questions or responses to statements” (“more”, “fine”, “please”, “hello, my name is___ “) and some as “generalized requests” (“eat”, “drink”, and “break”). For children and adults with ASD, the words, signs, or pictures they learn in one circumstance, don’t tend to occur in other circumstances without additional instruction. In many cases, this result in little to no expressive language or communication responses that are useful or important to the person, in other words, the person does not learn how to make specific requests (i.e. “no mands”).
Very often, this also results in problem behaviors. Individuals begin to communicate by screaming, dropping to the floor, hitting, spitting, kicking, biting, etc. and, if these behaviors result in what the individual wants, even intermittently, these same behaviors function as either specific or generalized requests (“problem mands”) and tend to occur again and again…Then, usually a clinician is asked to conduct a functional assessment in order to develop a plan to reduce the frequency of the problem behaviors and replace these behaviors with more appropriate alternatives. Often, these “replacement” behaviors are either a limited array of receptive skills (following directions or completing assigned tasks) or “generalized requests” for attention, escape, or access to categories of preferred items and activities (i.e. eat, drink, play, more, please, etc.)
When the only “replacement” behaviors are receptive skills, we are teaching poor speakers to be better listeners and when the “replacement” behaviors are generalized requests, we are teaching poor speakers to be non-specific speakers.
Neither is adequate…
Ideal practice should include teaching individuals to make specific requests (SPECIFIC MANDS) and expanded array of receptive skills (following directions, completing assigned tasks, waiting, sharing, and accepting no) (GENERALIZED COMPLIANCE).
In other words we should be teaching poor speakers to be effective, specific speakers who have more control over what happens in their daily lives while also teaching them to be good listeners in a wide variety of commonly occurring situations. Under these circumstances we could expect to see that when individuals have more control and power over what happens in their daily lives they tend to exhibit far lower rate of problem behavior.
Nevena Savic, MA