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June 14, 2013

Josh Plavnick: Opening communication

June 14, 2013

Joshua Plavnick is an assistant professor of special education, director of the graduate certificate program in applied behavior analysis, and a Board Certified Behavior Analyst–Doctoral. He is currently the principal investigator for a series of studies examining the effectiveness and utility of video-based instruction to teach social behavior to individuals on the autism spectrum.

I sat down across from Joey and showed him the video of a little girl asking an adult to “open” a container and then playing with the toy she found inside. He watched willingly and generally seemed interested in what he saw. At the conclusion of the video, I set the iPod down and placed a similar tightly sealed transparent container containing Joey’s favorite Thomas the Train engine down in front of him. He had an elaborate system of train tracks, bridges and tunnels, but lacked a train. After placing the container in front of Joey, I shifted my body back a little and waited…

Like 1 in approximately 88 children in the United States, Joey was diagnosed with an autism spectrum disorder. This spectrum of disorders includes individuals, often described as high functioning, who are included in society but may struggle to understand the perspective of others or engage in social interaction. At the other end of the spectrum are individuals who share similarities to Joey; they may have co-occurring intellectual or speech and language disabilities, engage in challenging behaviors, and are often excluded from typical social environments.

Joey was 5 years old and I had never heard him say a single word—though I had heard him scream and observed him throwing objects and running away from adults on numerous occasions. Joey was a participant in my research study examining the effectiveness of a procedure called video modeling for teaching initial speech to young children with ASD.

Approximately 25 percent of individuals with ASD remain nonverbal despite intensive speech and language intervention. The inability for a child to ask for basic needs and wants or convey when something is bothering him can lead to the development of severe problem behavior. In a nutshell, social partners will do anything they can to a child engaging in severe problem behavior just to get the behavior to stop at that moment in time; the child then learns that problem behavior is the easiest and fastest way to make basic requests.

…After what seemed like a never-ending pause, Joey finally brought the container over to me, raised it up as if handing it to me, and said “o.” I think he was trying to say the word “open,” but I was not certain. For the time being, I acted as if it were the full word and opened the container for him. He played with the train while smiling. I then showed Joey the video again, placed another train inside the sealed container, and left the container for Joey. Joey grabbed the container, brought it over to me, and said “o—en.” It was the first approximation of a real word I had heard him say. I opened the container, he immediately grabbed the train engine, attached it to the first, and continued to play.

My research involves the application of behavioral learning theory to teaching pivotal life skills to individuals with severe autism and other developmental disabilities. I have been fortunate in my research to observe the power of this approach in such situations as teaching children with severe disabilities to read, teaching adolescents with autism and intellectual disability to play together, and perhaps most clearly, when teaching children similar to Joey to ask for preferred items for the first time.

At the time of the research study, we did not know whether Joey would talk or not. Observing his first request is one of the many events that have shaped my interests as an applied behavioral researcher for children with severe autism.


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