How to help children with autism reach out more in communicating

How to help children with autism reach out more in communicatingChildren with autism seldom take the lead in conversations or social interactions. Even when they learn to respond appropriately to others’ attempts to communicate with them, they leave it to others to initiate social exchanges.

A new study in the Journal of Research in Special Education Needs says educators need to change the way they interact with children with autism to help them develop their ability for spontaneous communication. Instead of focusing on changing the children’s behaviors, educators can behave in ways that motivate students with autism to take a more proactive role in communicating.

UK researchers developed a set of 21 research-based practices and principles, called the Adult Interactive Style Intervention (AISI), that guide adults in their use of body language, speech and timing when they communicate with children with autism. The practices and principles are intended to elicit a more proactive response from the child. Examples of these practices include offering the child a choice of activity or food without a verbal prompt, or making something inaccessible so the child must ask for it.

Among the most effective changes in adult interaction styles, according to the study, were mirroring children’s movements and responding to all communicative attempts without ignoring, redirecting or trying to model a more “appropriate” communicative method.

Other accommodations or changes in interaction styles include pausing to allow the child to process information or take more initiative in the exchange, “forgetting” something vital in the conversation that the child will then volunteer or using minimal speech and using exaggerated pitch, facial expressions, gestures and body language.

Teachers were a little uncomfortable using some of the adult interaction principles at first, the researchers write. Mirroring children is controversial and criticized by some Early Intensive Behaviour Intervention therapists because of a concern that inappropriate behaviors will be encouraged, according to the authors.

“This was one of the reasons for staff hesitancy in using this principle initially,” the researchers write. “However, this concern seems unrealistic and of secondary importance when compared with teaching children with autism to become independent communicators. Staff eventually embraced this belief and considerably increased the use of imitation post-intervention.”

Coaching approach

Researchers set out to help educators increase their use of research-based communication practices by building on the skills they already had. Teachers’ interactions with children were videotaped before and after the intervention and then teachers and researchers reviewed the clips together. The researchers coached teachers on expanding their use of best practices by discussing video clips that exemplified their own uses of the practices.

Participating in the study were one teacher, two teaching assistants and 6 children, 5 boys and 1 girl with autism and learning difficulties, ranging in age from 4-6 years old. Before the intervention, two hours of footage were collected for each pupil to code interactions in 4 different activities/settings: Snack time, 1:1 work (structured) and sensory room and soft play area (unstructured). Some studies argue that academic activities elicit more response while others argue that unstructured activities are most likely to promote spontaneous communication.

Video of the children and teachers were collected for at least 2 hours across a two-month period. Staff members were coded for their use of AISI practices and principles during 40 minutes of video interactions, both before and after the intervention. Two hours of footage were collected for each pupil as previous research indicates children with autism need to be observed for at least 2 hours across at least two different days.

After viewing the pre-intervention video clips with the researchers, teachers discussed how they could build on these principles by giving examples for each child and discussing challenges and limitations. Then, with coaching, staff practiced use of the principles for a month.

This instructional coaching approach was inspired by Video Interaction Guidance (VIG), an intervention that aims to improve communication between parents and children by building on parents’ existing skills. Parents are shown edited video clips of interactions with their children and the best aspects of their interactions are highlighted within the coaching relationship.

“Training teaching staff to facilitate spontaneous communication in children with autism:  Adult Interactive Style Intervention (AISI) by Lila Kossyvaki et al., Journal of Research in Special Educational Needs, May, 2014.

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