The lack of age-appropriate communication is a common deficit for children on the autism spectrum. Many of the children we work with at Behavioral Consulting of Tampa Bay, Inc., have no means of getting their needs or wants met appropriately and are unable to vocally imitate words and sounds. For these clients, a Total Communication approach is recommended which involves teaching the child to request for preferred items using a combination of sign language and vocalizations. This procedure has been shown more effective, through research, at increasing a child’s vocal skills than teaching sign language alone or vocalizations alone.
The procedure for teaching a child to request for items using this approach is as follows:
1. Prompting with the Item Present
- Make sure that the learner has expressed a desire (motivation) for the item by delivering it freely to them and seeing if they take it.
- Model the sign and say the name of the item (1st vocal).
- Next, use a full physical prompt to make the learner’s hands form the sign while saying the name of the item (2nd vocal).
- Finally, deliver the item and say the name of the item (3rd vocal).
Note: If the learner models the sign, deliver the reinforcer immediately. With some learners, it may be necessary to skip the model prompt on the first few trials. Always say the name of the item with each of the above steps.
2. Prompt Fading
- As quickly as possible, try to fade your full physical to a partial physical prompt (hand-over-hand, wrist, elbow, shoulder etc.).
- You will need to fade the partial physical prompt using a time delay. To do this, wait a few seconds after you model the sign before physically assisting the learner.
- Once the learner is able to consistently imitate your sign under the control of their motivation for an item, it is time to use Imitation to Request Transfers.
- Imitation to Request Transfer - you model the sign, the learner imitates, and you deliver the item (again, repeat the name of the item 3 times during this process). Repeat this step for a few trials and then use the time delay procedure again to see if they will produce the sign on their own.
- Scrolling occurs when the learner is motivated for a particular item or activity, but uses the wrong sign or a combination of signs to request.
- Never reinforce a student for scrolling, even if they self-correct.
- If you know what the learner wants, prompt their hands to a neutral position for 3 seconds.
- Next, prompt the correct sign for the item they want and deliver the item.
- If, while you are modeling the correct sign, the student does the wrong sign again, prompt the hands back to a neutral position and go straight to a physical prompt of the correct sign. Reinforce immediately by giving the preferred item to the learner.
There are also several rules to follow when teaching sign language to a non-vocal learner. Those rules include:
1. Always say the name of the item 3 times with each request (once while demonstrating the request, once while prompting the request, and once while delivering the item requested). This can help to produce vocalizations.
2. Do not teach “more,” “help,” “please,” “potty,” “yes,” “no,” “sorry,” “thank you,” or “give me” as the first signs. The student should have many specific signs for items/tangibles before teaching these general signs.
3. Remember that prompt levels may change from moment to moment with some signs. If yesterday the student only needed a model prompt and today that is not evoking the sign (if you are sure the student is motivated for the item), use a physical prompt. It is important that the student does not become frustrated. Requesting should be easy and produce a high level of reinforcement.
4. Try not to choose signs that rhyme initially. These are signs that look similar in form (example: “muffin” and “cookie”).
5. Try not to use several signs from the same motivational category when you are first teaching sign requests (example: all foods or all things you play on outside).
6. If the learner has weak or no motor imitation, start teaching at least 3 signs and no more than 5 signs. Never teach only 1 sign.
7. If the learner has a fairly strong imitation repertoire, you may be able to begin teaching as many as 8-10 signs.
8. For any items or actions that the student wants which are not specifically being taught, repeat the name of the item 3 times, pausing at 1-2 second intervals in between each presentation of the word, then deliver the item. Do not require any response from the learner.
9. Be sure to never reinforce any problem behavior (or any other behavior) that occurs after the sign request to prevent reinforcing a chain of behaviors.
By following these procedures and rules for teaching a non-vocal learner to get their needs and wants met appropriately, you will not only improve their communication skills but decrease the likelihood of problem behavior. Good luck!