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.


31st Annual Convention; Chicago, IL; 2005

Event Details

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Symposium #149
CE Offered: BACB
Towards a Behavioral Analysis of Joint Attention in Young Children with Autism
Sunday, May 29, 2005
9:00 AM–10:20 AM
Continental B (1st floor)
Area: AUT; Domain: Applied Research
Chair: Rebecca P. F. MacDonald (New England Center for Children)
CE Instructor: Rebecca P. F. MacDonald, Ph.D.

Joint attention is recognized as one of the earliest forms of communication in young children. Joint attention involves the coordinated attention between a social partner and an object in the environment. For young children, episodes of joint attention provide the context for communication with others. These reciprocal interactions are characterized by glances and gestures and are viewed by many as critical to the development of symbolic language. It has been demonstrated that children with autism often manifest deficits in joint attention skills. The development of behavioral assessment procedures for identifying deficits in joint attention and effective teaching procedures to teach these skills is critical to our ability to provide effective treatment for these children. The purpose of this symposium is to describe several research projects in which the authors are using the principles of applied behavior analysis to develop protocols for evaluating joint attention in children with autism. The implications of these analyses will be discussed as they relate to a behavior analysis of this traditionally developmental phenomenon.

An Analysis of Responsiveness to Joint Attention Bids in Children with Autism
REBECCA P. F. MACDONALD (New England Center for Children), Gretchen O'Sullivan (New England Center for Children), William V. Dube (E.K. Shriver Center, University of Massachusetts Medical School), Jaime Cohen (New England Center for Children), Renee C. Mansfield (New England Center for Children), Jennifer L. Klein (New England Center for Children)
Abstract: This paper describes a highly structured assessment protocol with objective behavioral measures for evaluating children’s responsiveness to the joint attention of an adult. The assessment was 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. Results showed that children with autism responded to joint attention bids when the object of interest was within their field of vision but showed deficits when these objects were outside this area. In addition, differences in performance were also seen between the structured assessment sessions and a more naturalistic assessment setting. Typically developing children showed high levels of responsiveness regardless of setting or position of stimuli. These results extend previous research and have implications for the behavioral treatment of joint attention.
Joint Attention and Socially Mediated Reinforcers in Children with Autism
WILLIAM V. DUBE (E.K. Shriver Center, University of Massachusetts Medical School), Rebecca P. F. MacDonald (New England Center for Children), Renee C. Mansfield (New England Center for Children)
Abstract: This paper will describe a contingency analysis of joint attention initiation in which the characteristic gaze shifts, gestures, vocalizations, and so forth 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. This paper will present data from concurrent choice procedures that can be used determine the value of social reinforcers for the child. Applications for research and intervention will be discussed. Key words: autism, joint attention, social reinforcer
Teaching Children with Autism to Respond to Bids for Joint Attention
BRIDGET A. TAYLOR (Alpine Learning Group), Hannah Hoch (Alpine Learning Group)
Abstract: This study used a multiple baseline design across three children with autism to assess the effects of prompting procedures to teach the children to respond to an adult’s bid for joint attention. During five minute play sessions, an adult referenced a novel or interesting object in the environment by pointing and commenting. During play sessions, the children were taught to look in the direction of the point and to make a comment about the object referenced by the adult. Generalization was assessed to non-trained stimulus items and to novel environments. Data were collected on three responses: 1. looking in the direction of the adult’s point, 2. making an appropriate comment about the object, and 3. if the child initiated any bids for joint attention. Interobserver agreement data were collected by a second observer during 30% of the sessions. Results will be discussed in terms of the social relevance of teaching children with autism to respond to bids for joint attention and the effects of intervention procedures to teach these responses.
The Etiology of Infant Social Referencing: A Learning Paradigm
MARTHA PELAEZ (Florida International University)
Abstract: When human infants begin confronting ambiguous or uncertain situations, they also begin to search their mothers’ reactive facial expressions to cue their approach or avoidance responses in those contexts. This behavior pattern, in the literature observed for the most part in 9-to 13-month olds, is known in mainstream child psychology as social referencing. To date, conceptual and research work has focused on delineating the phenomenon, with the only theory advanced being that the underlying process is preformed – that infants are born able to understand the meanings of maternal facial emotional expressions. No attention has been given hereto fore to the possibility that the social referencing pattern is learned. Results from two experiments involving conditioning infants “reaching” responses to maternal facial cues will be summarized and discussed as they relate to an analysis of social referencing as a learned response pattern.



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