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Dr. Chris’ Autism Journal
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The Importance of Generalization


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main1.jpgIn our teaching and learning endeavors with children, we often are driven by the ultimate outcome and functionality of a skill without even realizing it. Behind this motivation for teaching is the value and importance of generalization, we want our students to be able to learn something in an instructional setting and apply it in a functional setting. Think back to the days when you learned the alphabet. Now think of how easily you were able to learn that A is A, no matter what color it is, how tall it is, what kind of paper it is on, if it was on the fridge or in a book, or who might be asking you about it. And notice how you did not forget that A is A once you mastered the skill. This is generalization.

            Difficulties with generalization of skills are well-known in individuals with autism spectrum disorders (ASD) and to those who work with them. These difficulties often will mean that generalization will not just occur, but rather will need to be explicitly programmed and planned for in educational and therapeutic settings.  Thus, it is important to think of generalization issues as being the responsibility of the teacher, rather than as a deficit in the child.   Individuals with ASD frequently cannot functionally use what they have learned in a structured teaching situation and be able to apply it to other similar settings or with different materials and people. Often times children with ASD will need specific planning for maintenance of a skill and programming that can naturally embed learned skills into functional activities so that the skill is constantly and systematically reinforced over time.  It is absolutely essential to program and plan for generalization, the “train and hope” approach (just teaching the skill and hoping it will generalize), is not sufficient.

            If you are interested in more information on generalization, start with this article: Stokes, T. F., & Baer, D. M. (1977)Gen Webinar Photo 15.JPG. An implicit technology of generalization. Journal of Applied Behavior Analysis, 10, 349-367, available for purchase at http://seab.envmed.rochester.edu/jaba/. Please note that this website has lots of full text articles available as well as abstracts for their articles going as far back as 1968. They have a great search feature so that you can get right to the information you are looking for. For example if you search for autism, you will get a list of links to abstracts and full text articles having to do with studies conducted relating to autism all the way back to 1968.  Here are some strategies for programming for generalization from the Stokes & Baer article:
1) Use naturally reinforcing and occurring materials - Seek to change behaviors that receive reinforcement in the student’s natural environment. For example - learning colors because the child has a favorite color of Popsicle, M&Ms, and ice cream flavor is likely to be more maintained and generalized than learning colors by sorting colored blocks into color bowls.
2) Train Loosely - Adding variety to skills being taught. This will include using a variety of materials in a variety of ways and in a variety of situations. Ideas and approaches used in incidental teaching or naturalistic ABA tend to foster better generalization because these instructional environments more closely resemble the ultimate outcome. Studies have shown that the more naturalistic instructions and presentations of SDs tend to have better learning outcomes to intensive instruction.
Gen Webinar Photo 11.JPG3) Train Sufficient Exemplars - Providing many examples of the target response. An example of this is the computer-assisted instructional program, TeachTown: Basics , which has many examples incorporated into every lesson.  You will notice many examples of one particular vocabulary word. You will also notice that pictures used in the pretest and posttest are different from the pictures used in the training lessons. Additionally, in the off computer activities there are many ideas that include the use of materials found around the house or classroom.
4) General Case Programming – Use many examples of stimuli, use many teachers, try different settings, and lots of materials.
-Using a vending machine at local community center, using similar vending machine at school, using another similar one at the grocery store…
-When teaching car, you would consider pictures of cars, different cars, toy cars, riding in family’s cars, labeling cars on the street, etc.
-When teaching social skills like saying hi, saying hi to people where you know a name for them, saying hi to people when you don’t have a name for them, pretending to say hi to stuffed animals, pretending to say hi to pictures of friends, having dolls say hi to each other, etc.
 

            Generalization should not only be planned for in the teaching situation, but measurement of generalization is critical so plans should be made up front for how to assess it.  This can be 31212475_thb.jpgdone by taking a skill that was taught and try it with new materials, go on an outing into the community (the zoo, park, beach, grocery store, etc.), and most importantly try it with mom, dad, and/or siblings. It is critical that generalization is assessed everyday with each newly acquired skill. If the child isn’t showing functional use of the skill in naturally occurring activities and routines, stop adding new programs and goals and focus planning and programming for generalization for his/her recently acquired skills.  If the skill has not generalized, the skill cannot be considered truly mastered!

            Although the term “generalization” is often heard in the ABA (Applied Behavior Analysis) literature, there is no intervention in which generalization is not important, regardless of the philosophy.  In seeking interventions for a particular child, it is essential to ask the treatment providers how they will program for and measure generalization, or real outcome.  Regardless of the impressive statistics of a treatment program, if the children do not demonstrate generalization in the real world, the results of the treatment program may not be as impressive as they seem.  A good resource for learning more about generalization, the research, and strategies for various interventions is Real Life, Real Progress for Children with Autism Spectrum Disorders: Strategies for Successful Generalization in Natural Environments (Whalen, 2009). 

Real Life, Real Progress for Children with Autism Spectrum Disorders Strategies for Successful Generalization in Natural Environments


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Real Life, Real Progress for Children with ASDReal Life, Real Progress for Children with Autism Spectrum Disorders. A book edited by our own Christina Whalen, Ph.D., BCBA has been released this month. To order your copy today click on the book icon.

“The best hands-on guide to the most important part of intervention for children with autism spectrum disorders: helping the children take the skills they learn in intervention and use them whenever and wherever they need them.” —Tristram Smith, Strong Center for Developmental Disabilities, University of Rochester Medical Center

Generalization is the key to effective autism intervention—when children can apply new skills across settings, they’ll make broad, long-term improvements in behavior and social communication. The first how-to guide to generalization is finally here! Practical and reader-friendly, this is the book that helps professionals take today’s most popular autism interventions to the next level by making generalization an integral part of them.

Pre-K–Grade 8 special educators, early interventionists, SLPs, and other professionals will

  • enhance 6 widely used autism intervention models with specific, evidence-based generalization strategies
  • get dozens of easy activities that really help children use new skills consistently—no matter where they are or who they’re with
  • learn about generalization from the experts who know best, with contributions from top autism authorities like Ilene Schwartz, Carol Gray, Andy Bondy, Laura Schriebman, and Bryna Siegel
  • provide positive, supportive parent education so they can be active partners in promoting their children’s generalization of skills
  • weave generalization strategies into every phase of intervention planning, not just at the end after skills have already been learned
  • modify generalization strategies for different settings, so children can achieve their ultimate goal: applying their skills successfully in school, at home, and in the community
  • assess the effectiveness of generalization strategies at multiple stages of instruction

Case studies and vivid examples bring the strategies to life in every chapter, and forms and checklists help professionals plan interventions, track children’s goals, and monitor their progress toward generalization. With this urgently needed guide to one of the most important facets of autism intervention, readers will help children generalize social behaviors and communication skills—and ensure better lives and brighter futures.

Make generalization strategies a part of these popular interventions:

  • Pivotal Response Training
  • Discrete Trial Instruction
  • Picture Exchange Communication System (PECS)
  • Social Stories™
  • Computer-Assisted Intervention
  • JumpStart Learning-to-Learn

The Hidden Curriculum and Unwritten Social Rules


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photo_BrendaSmithMyles.jpgI attended the Geneva Centre for Autism conference last week and saw many interesting presentations and one that I found inspiring was a talk by Brenda Smith Myles.  She is the author of a book called The Hidden Curriculum: Practical Solutions for Understanding Rules in Social Situations.  There are a great deal of good books on autism and several with pracial information for intervention.  Few of these books, and few interventions, focus on what is not obvious but what might be extremely important. 

thomas and dash.jpg“The hidden curriculum refers to the set of rules or guidelines that are often not directly taught but are assumed to be known (Garnett, 1984; Hemmings, 2000; Jackson, 1968; Kanpol, 1989)” (from Brenda’s book on page 5).  This curriculum includes things like unspoken rules, slang, metaphors, body language, etc.  Most of us pick up on these things instinctively but it is often difficult for those with autism and other special needs to do this.   

In her talk, Brenda spoke of obscure social situations such as using087_040_Lara_Neighbor.jpg a public restroom or shower, using an elevator, and everyday conversations.  To many of us, these are situations that we have become accustomed to and we accept the social rules, even though we may not always think about them or discuss them.  She gives practical tips for teaching these hidden social rules to children and to adults and stresses the importance of making these a part of everyday life.

templeartpic.gifAnother good resource for learning about the hidden rules in social situations is a book that I have finally started reading by Dr. Temple Grandin and Sean Barron (click here for a very interesting podcast with Sean) called Unwritten Rules of Social Relationships: Decoding Social Mysteries Through the Unique Perspectives of Autism.  This insightful and intelligent book helps you see into the minds of people with Autism Spectrum Disorders and how they perceive these strange social situations and rules, and how they cope with these situations.  This book is helpful for professional, families, and those with a diagnosis themselves - fascinating book that I will probably recommend to many of my friends that are not in the field, it really demonstrates how different brains process information from various perspectives and that we can not take any knowledge for granted.000_51_Clark_reading.png

The only thing that is missing from this perspective is how to measure success, how to take data and assess what the child or adult has learned and what they have left to learn.  If anyone knows of a good hidden curriculum type of assessment or measurement, please post here, I would be very excited to take a look at something like that! 

B & E 3.JPGFrom looking at these 2 books and listenting to Brenda talk (and Temple on several occassions), I am reminded how important it is for us to look beyond the obvious in education.  This awareness of hidden information in our world can only advance the science of interventions and assist us with developing programs that result in real-world success.

Social Stories Research


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087_040_Lara_Neighbor.jpgAn interested blogger asked the following question and I think it is a great one, so I thought I would respond, and hopefully this will help her, and others:

Educational professionals often teach social skills using social stories in one:one situations, not realizing that these skills do not generalize to the playground, the classroom, the community, etc. Where is there additional research to validate this position?

It is true that educational professionals often use social stories and that the skills do not always generalize to natural settings.  This is actually true about many treatment approaches.  If generalization is not planned, it is likely that it will NOT happen!  This whome_pic1.jpghat we call the train and hope approach and it is pretty common to see that with social stories.  However, if used appropriately and well-planned, this approach can be effective, although it is not clear in the research how effective.

Most studies I have read have shown that social stories are pretty effective for teaching 000_55_Clark_petting.pngspecific concepts to children such as language, social skills, play, vocational, and self-help skills.  The majority of these studies show that the approach is effective, but they also tend to use the social stories in conjunction with other approaches (e.g. modeling, rehearsal, feedback, etc.).  I have not seen many studies that solely look at social stories and those that do tend to show that some children are successful, while others may not be.

The biggest issue with the social stories research is that data on maintenance and generalization are not always reported and when they are, they tend to have modest or no maintenance and generalization.

In clinical practice, I have seen social stories work, but again, they are typicallB & E.JPGy used in conjunction with other practices and generalization of the skills is specifically planned out.

Although there are a large number of studies on this approach, I have not been able to identify a randomized efficacy study or even a study using more than 3-4 children.  If anyone knows of a study like this, please let me know and I will post it here!

000_134_Going_Potty.pngIn sum, I would suggest that if social stories are used that the facilitators do the following 3 things to maximize their success:

1) Make them motivating!  You can do this by doing the social stories in PowerPoint or similar programs on the computer and adding in sound, music, etc. to keep it interesting for the child.  You can also incorporate things that the child likes into the social story to get them interested in it.  I once worked with a boy who loved music, particularly The Beatles.  He had some difficulties with his peers during lunchtime, so we opted to try social stories.  Initially, he hated them, but read them anyway and could answer all of the questions we asked him about the stories.  But alas, he did not generalize at all beatles1.gifto the actual lunch time experience.  Next, we made a PowerPoint slide and incorporated The Beatles music and even some cartoon pictures of the band from their old cartoon.  He found this very amusing and was very attentive.  He did not generalize this initially, but he started to tell his friends about the story.  So, we decided to have the boy sit down at the computer and show the slides to his classmates one at a time and then talk about the social story.  That seemed to work, not sure which part, but it did work, and the behavior was maintained for the rest of the school year.

2) Track Progress!  Often, social stories are just used without any data tracking system.  It is important to figure out what you are trying to change and to objectively measure it.  It is the only way you will know if it works.

000_108_Abby_pushing.png3) Plan for Generalization!  Don’t just wait for it to happen, figure out what your next steps will be to generalize the behavior.  Will you add more social stories?  Will you add more environments and situations?  Will you change the words or pictures to the stories?  Will you do the stories with different people? 

 

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