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Teaching Children with Autism SelfInitiations as a Pivotal Response

Koegel, Lynn Kern PhD; Carter, Cynthia M. PhD; Koegel, Robert L. PhD

Topics in Language Disorders:
Children and Young Adults with Autism Spectrum Disorder

The purpose of this study was to assess whether children with autism could be taught a child-initiated query as a pivotal response to facilitate the use of grammatical morphemes. Data were collected within the context of a multiple baseline design across two children who lacked the use of temporal morphemes. Results of the study indicated that both children learned the self-initiated strategy and both acquired and generalized the targeted morpheme. Additionally, generalized use of the self-initiation into other question forms and concomitant increases in mean length of utterance, verb acquisition, and diversity of verb use occurred for both children. These generalized effects and the applications of this procedure across linguistic targets are discussed.

The communication of children diagnosed as having autism is marked by a lack of verbal and nonverbal social initiations (Mundy & Stella, 2000; Weiss & Harris, 2001). Initiations, such as question asking, have been recognized by researchers as important in prompting language acquisition (Hung, 1977; Taylor & Harris, 1995). They occur infrequently or are absent in children with autism (Koegel, Camarata, Valdez-Menchaca, & Koegel, 1998; Koegel, Koegel, Shoshan, & McNerney, 1999; Wetherby & Prutting, 1985). Through self-initiation, a child may spontaneously elicit teaching interactions from the surrounding environment. Furthermore, longitudinal outcome data from children with autism suggest that the presence of initiations may be a prognostic indicator of more favorable long-term outcomes and therefore may be “pivotal” in that they appear to result in widespread positive changes in a number of areas (Koegel, et al., 1999). Thus the importance of comprehensive programs that include systematic teaching of child initiations are being discussed in relation to increasing the likelihood for positive long-term outcomes (Koegel, et al., 2001; McClannahan, MacDuff, & Krantz, 2002)

A number of studies have focused on teaching question asking to children with autism (Hung, 1977; Taylor & Harris, 1995). Question asking may be especially useful for speech and language specialists or other special educators who have large caseloads because question asking allows the child to evoke learning opportunities outside of the clinical setting. One investigation into teaching question asking was provided by Koegel and colleagues (1998) who designed a self-initiated strategy to increase noun vocabulary in three children with autism. Within the context of a multiple baseline design, the participants were taught to use the query, “What's that?” by prompting its use with highly desired items hidden in a bag. After the query, the experimenter removed a desired item from the bag and labeled it. The prompt was then gradually faded until children were asking the question spontaneously. At the same time, unfamiliar items were added until the self-initiated query was being used in response to only unknown labels of items. Results of the study indicated that all children learned to use the self-initiated strategy and all children made substantial gains in their vocabularies. Furthermore, participants demonstrated generalization of question asking to their home environments with their mothers. Other areas that have been shown to improve as a result of teaching child-initiations are prepositions, pronouns, and assistance and attention-seeking utterances (e.g., “Help me!” and “Look!”) (Koegel & Koegel, 1995; Koegel, et al., 1999).

Another area in which children with autism have demonstrated difficulties is verb use. Tomasello (1992) asserts that verbs are responsible for much of the grammatical structure of language, and hence the acquisition of verbs marks a major turning point in children's passage to adult-like grammatical competence. It has even been argued that children's initial verb lexicon is a strong predictor of other aspects of early grammatical competence (Bates, Bretherton, & Snyder, 1988). However, it is well-documented that all children have more difficulty acquiring verbs than other linguistic items such as nouns (Bloom, Lightbown, & Hood, 1991; deVilliers, & deVilliers, 1978; Gentner, 1978; Gleason, 1993; James, 1990; Smith & Sachs, 1990; Tomasello, 1992, Tomasello & Kruger, 1992). However, in contrast to typical language developers, studies investigating morphologic development in children with autism have suggested that the use of grammatical morphemes in children with autism is delayed and the order of acquisition can be atypical (Menyuk & Quill, 1985; Paul & Alforde, 1993; Swisher & Demetras, 1985). This may be because particular difficulty is recognized in areas such as temporal morphemes, as it is in other children with language disorders (Broen & Santema, 1983; Wiig & Semel, 1980). A study by Bartolucci and Albers (1974) found that the production of the regular past tense was notably less frequent in children with autism compared with that of control groups. Similarly, a study by Bartolucci, Pierce, and Streiner (1980) discovered that children with autism lacked mastery of verb tense markers and uncontracted copula and auxiliary verbs, and that this atypical acquisition was inconsistent with other measures of syntactic complexity such as mean length of utterance (MLU). Moreover, children with autism often do not make overgeneralization errors on morphemes such as the regular past tense ending -ed, which is so illustrative of typically developing children (deVilliers & deVilliers, 1978; Kuczaj, 1977).

Methods to facilitate children's acquisition of morphologic and other linguistic structures are prominent in the literature, and intervention procedures have moved increasingly toward naturalistic learning contexts (Baker & Nelson, 1984; Camarata, Nelson, & Camarata, 1994; Conti-Ramsden, 1990; Farrar, 1992; Kaiser & Hester, 1994; Koegel, O—Dell, & Koegel, 1987; Pemberton & Watkins, 1987; Valdez-Menchaca & Whitehurst, 1988). Naturalistic interventions have been shown to be important because they are more apt to produce generalized changes in children's vernacular (Kaiser & Hester, 1994). Most interventions are based on conversational techniques that adults naturally employ in their everyday interactions with children, such as recasting, expansions, and negative evidence. Although these processes generally have been successful in facilitating correct language use with different populations of children, they are limited in that they rely on the child's production of words that are then repeated by the adult but corrected in some fashion (i.e., grammatically, semantically, or otherwise). Unfortunately, because of the generally lower levels of conversations and initiations in children with language delays, and especially children with autism, fewer opportunities exist for remediation (Koegel, 1995; Paul & Shiffer, 1991). Thus it would be helpful if children with autism were able to increase their rate of initiations, so that opportunities for linguistic feedback increase outside of the speech therapy or special education classroom. Therefore, the purpose of the present investigation was to assess whether children with autism could be taught a self-initiated query, and once learned, whether this query would facilitate acquisition of temporal morphemes.

Author Information

University of California, Santa Barbara

Corresponding author: Robert L. Koegel, Counseling/Clinical/School Psychology Clinic, Graduate School of Education, University of California, Santa Barbara, CA 93106-9490. E-mail:

This research was supported in part by PHS research MH28210 from the National Institute of Mental Health and by US Department of Education grant 5830-257-LO-B. We would like to extend our sincere thanks to Paul Yoder for his advice contributing to the design of the intervention program of this study. We would also like to thank the undergraduate and graduate students, including Emily Kiedman, Laura Williams, Danny Openden, and Monica Reyes, for their assistance with data collection and analysis. Finally, we are most grateful to the children and their families who participated in this investigation.

© 2003 Lippincott Williams & Wilkins