Promoting Social Responsiveness with Primary Caregivers and Young Children with Autism.

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Promoting Social Responsiveness within a Developmental Relationship-Based Approach with Primary Caregivers and Young Children with Autism.

By Elizabeth (Libby) Mary Maher, B.A.Dip.Ed. M.A.Spec.Ed.
Faculty of Education and Social Work
University of Sydney

Difficulties in the development of the capacity and desire to reference others’ emotional states, to communicate to share subjective experiences and to establish joint attention are core characteristics of autism. Evident in very young children with autism, these deficits have profound effects on the development of cognition, communication and social relating, throughout the lifespan. There is significant interest in programs designed to address these deficits, however, more research designed to examine the effect of specific intervention on these core characteristics of autism is needed, so as to better inform parents and service providers.

The study involved the implementation of a parent and staff training program conducted over a 6-month period, derived from a developmental social pragmatic orientation, and using the Relationship Development Intervention (RDI) Program model (Gutstein, 2009) as a framework. The study took place within an autism-specific school setting with intact class groups. Three groups of children took part in the study involving two treatment groups and one comparison group. A total of 16 children on the autism spectrum, aged between 3.9 and 8 years were involved in the project. The study examined the effects of instructing caregivers to communicate to invite experience-sharing by increasing their frequency of declarative communication initiations. The goal was to determine whether an increase in adult-initiated declarative bids was more successful at facilitating experience-sharing and child responsiveness than bids that were imperative in nature. A comparison group received the usual program provided at the centre.

The ratios of imperative to declarative communication bids of the care-givers were measured pre and post intervention, as were child social responsiveness, communication skills, adaptive functioning and measures of parental stress and coping. The evaluation of collateral effects on the quality of family life was a critical component of the research. Findings suggest that parents and staff were able to successfully modify their communication in the desired declarative manner, as evidenced by video-recorded play sessions; furthermore, adult communicative adaptation appeared to correspond with increased child responsiveness. Other measures conducted at post-test, showed variable results, supporting the need for larger, controlled, longitudinal studies.

Simple Strategies to Encourage Responsiveness and Experience Sharing:

Encourage non-verbal communication to get access to items (using eye gaze, pointing, physical positioning and proximity) out of reach and in the vicinity of a child.

Use declarative statements more often and imperative communication less often to seek information (“What day is it?” imperative, “Yesterday was Tuesday, I wonder what day it is today?” declarative).

Use facial expressions and gestures to indicate approval (smile and nod head) or disapproval (frown and shake head).

Offer frequent bids for joint attention to share interest by coordinating attention and affect through pointing, gazing or showing (exaggerated affect to build anticipation and sustain and extend joint interactions of interest).

Use more wait time and pause strategically during interactions with children (using a pause accompanied by an expectant look and/or body language to indicate a response is expected).

Offer face-to-face and turn-taking games to promote facial gazing, sharing affect and regulation of actions.

Engage in playful obstruction (playfully get in the way of a child, for the purpose of facilitating a social interaction)

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