Association for Behavior Analysis International

The Association for Behavior Analysis International® (ABAI) is a nonprofit membership organization with the mission to contribute to the well-being of society by developing, enhancing, and supporting the growth and vitality of the science of behavior analysis through research, education, and practice.


32nd Annual Convention; Atlanta, GA; 2006

Event Details

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Invited Symposium #385
CE Offered: BACB
International Symposium - Intersections Between Joint Attention and Social Referencing in Children With Autism and Typically Developing Children
Monday, May 29, 2006
3:00 PM–4:20 PM
Centennial Ballroom II
Area: DEV; Domain: Applied Research
Chair: Rebecca P. F. MacDonald (New England Center for Children)
Discussant: Jacob L. Gewirtz (Florida International University)
CE Instructor: Rebecca P. F. MacDonald, Ph.D.

Joint attention and social referencing have received increased attention in developmental psychology and behavior analysis because of their relation to the development of autism. Joint attention involves the coordinated attention between a social partner and an object in the environment and has been identified as one of the earliest emerging social behaviors in typically developing children. Social referencing involves the child searching or looking for cues in the facial expressions of the caregiver to determine how to act in the context of ambiguity. Deficits in joint attention and social referencing are apparent in very young children with autism. The development of operant models for the analysis of joint attention and social referencing are seen as important to the treatment of these deficits. The purpose of this symposium is to describe several research projects in which the authors are using an operant analysis of joint attention and social referencing to develop protocols for evaluating and treating children with autism. Data that support the etiology of social referencing with 18 very young infants will be reported. The implications of these analyses will be discussed as they relate to a behavioral analysis of this very important developmental phenomenon.


Analysis and Treatment of Joint Attention in Young Children with Autism.

REBECCA P. F. MACDONALD (New England Center for Children), William V. Dube (University of Massachusetts Medical School, E.K. Shriver Center), Jennifer L. Klein (New England Center for Children), Sally N. Roberts (New England Center for Children), Krista Smaby (New England Center for Children), Emily E. Wheeler (University of Massachusetts Medical School, E.K. Shriver Center)

This paper will describe a contingency analysis of joint attention in which the characteristic gaze shifts, gestures, vocalizations, are shaped and maintained by conditioned socially mediated reinforcers. According to this analysis, joint attention deficits in children with autism spectrum disorders may be related to failures of socially mediated consequences to function as conditioned reinforcers. Profiles of child performance will be shown using data from a concurrent choice procedure used to determine the value of social reinforcers, as well as, assessment data on joint attention initiations and responsiveness to joint attention bids. The assessments were administered to both children diagnosed with autism spectrum disorders and typically developing children, aged 2 to 4 years. Interobserver agreement was high for all behavioral measures. Case examples of intervention procedures to establish joint attention initiations will be presented. Results will be discussed in the context of the posited behavioral contingency analysis of joint attention.

Dr. Rebecca MacDonald is a Licensed Psychologist in Massachusetts and a Board Certified Behavior Analyst who serves as the Director of Intensive Instructional Preschool Program for children with autism at the New England Center for Children. She is an Adjunct Professor in the Masters in Applied Behavior Analysis (MABA) Program at Northeastern University. Rebecca received her doctorate in Developmental and Child Psychology from the University of Kansas in 1983. Dr. MacDonald began at The New England Center for Children as the Clinical Director in 1983. She then taught for three years in the Graduate School of Education at Simmons College in Boston (1992-1995). In 1995 she returned to the New England Center for Children in her current position. Dr. MacDonald was a past Program Chair for the American Psychological Association for Division 25. Rebecca has presented her research at numerous conferences over the past twenty years and published studies that have appeared in the Journal of Applied Behavior Analysis, Research in Developmental Disabilities, and Analysis and Intervention of Developmental Disabilities. Dr. MacDonald’s research interests currently include; assessment and teaching joint attention, teaching play and social reciprocity to children with autism, and measuring clinical outcomes of early intensive behavior intervention.
Infants Learning to Reference Maternal Facial Expressions of Emotions.
MARTHA PELAEZ (Florida International University)
Abstract: The assumption that infant social referencing behaviors can result from contingency-based learning processes was tested. In a context of ambiguity or uncertainty, maternal emotional expressions can be learned by the infant as cues for positive and aversive events. Eighteen 4- to 5-month-old infants and their mothers participated in a repeated-measures reversal design. Infants were trained differentially to reach for an ambiguous object following joyful maternal expressions and not to reach following fearful maternal expressions. During baseline, none of the infants responded differentially to the joyful and fearful maternal expressions. After training sessions, however, infants learned to reach differentially following presentations of joyful and fearful cues. During a subsequent extinction (reversal) phase, the pleasant and aversive contingencies on reaching for the ambiguous object were discontinued producing extinction of the differential reaching response. During the last phase, infants were retrained differentially to respond again to the two maternal expressions. This study provides the basis for the alternative hypothesis that infant social referencing may result from contingency-based learning.
Dr. Martha Pelaez is a Professor of Psychology. In 1992, she received her Ph.D. in Developmental Psychology, winning the International Dissertation Award from the International Society for Infant Studies (ISIS) on "Infant learning to reference maternal emotional expressions." In 1994, she completed a postdoctoral Fellowship at the University of Miami, School of Medicine. She has studied mother-infant interactions, maternal depression and its effects on infant behavior, and early social-learning processes like attachment, fears, and social referencing. Her theoretical contributions include the creation of taxonomy of rules and a behavior–analytic approach to moral development. Dr. Pelaez has published more than 40 articles in refereed journals (including the American Psychologist and the journal of Child Development); co-authored 11 chapters, published 1 textbook (with G. Novak) on child development, and edited several monographs. Martha Pelaez was the past Program Chair for the American Psychological Association for Division 25 and past Program Co-Chair for the Association for Behavior Analysis. She is the founder of the Behavior Development Bulletin and has served as its editor since 1990. She was awarded Fellowship status by the American Psychological Association. Currently, she serves in nine editorial boards of refereed journals, including The Behavior Analyst and is a member of the Florida Board of Governors--the board that rules the State University System.
The Role of Joint Attention in Verbal Operants.
PER HOLTH (The Behavioral Center, Oslo)
Abstract: Research on joint attention, the synchronizing of the attention of two or more persons, has progressed mainly outside of behavior analysis. Research within the cognitive-developmental tradition has shown that deficient joint attention skills are strongly correlated with later developing ‘language abilities’ and that children diagnosed with autism may display a syndrome-specific joint attention deficit. The present paper focuses on the role of joint attention phenomena in verbal operants, such as tacts, mands, verbal behavior controlled by verbal stimuli, and autoclitics. An operant analysis of joint attention skills and how they are interwoven with verbal operants may point directly to suggestions for effective intervention strategies.
Dr. Per Holth is currently a researcher at the Norwegian Center for the Studies of Conduct Problems and Innovative Practice and associate professor at Akershus University College. He is interested in behavior analysis in general; basic research as well as conceptual issues and various areas of application. His interest in an operant analysis of joint attention arose while he was the program director at the Center for Early Intervention in Oslo, working with children diagnosed with autism (2000-2003). His interest in verbal behavior extends back to his early study days, when he came across a copy of Skinner’s (1957) book (some people are lucky), and he teaches courses on verbal behavior at the Masters Program in Learning and Relational Competence at Akershus University College, Norway.



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