Children with autism generally do not converse well with others. Because of this they may have problems communicating with other students in school, and they may also have difficulties in making any kind of close relationships with peers and others. While many autistic children never form any close physical attachments with other individuals, they can learn the fundamental verbal communication skills needed to continue in school and to function on a satisfactory level.
In order to do this though, the children have to be taught different ways of communicating from an early age. This is where ACC comes in. For some children with autism, learning speech and other forms of communication is often quite problematic and ACC is one of the ways that can allegedly help in this process. However, there are many who feel that ACC actually delays the progress that these children must get through, to get the ability to verbally communicate with whomever they wishes to communicate with.
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There has not been an excessive amount of study into this, so it is hard to determine whether AAC is actually more helpful to a child than simply working with them in the usual tactic, which is to teach them speech and language. The purpose of the study is to show that it is essential for children with autism to learn ACC at a young age as possible, that way; they will be able to communicate and will develop better verbal communication skills at a faster rate than those children that are taught standard speech. As a result of this, their communications with others will be less problematic and as they see that they are able to use different methods of communicating and others will understand them, they will become more comfortable communicating with other individuals. This will in turn lead them to verbal communication skills and the use of language that they might have not previously been able to. There is still much discussion on how to best teach an autistic child. There are some that believe autistic children cannot be taught verbal communication skills that will help them to function, but many others believe that AAC is the key to teaching these children how to best communicate.
Research Questions and Hypothesis
In a study like this, it becomes necessary to examine the actual questions that one is trying to answer and the ideas that are being presented for consideration. The desire to answer specific questions and validate or invalidate specific hypotheses there is no logical way to determine whether the study in question has been successful in determining the answers to any specific issues that it set out to undertake. It is for this reason that this section will briefly state the research questions and the hypothesis that will be used throughout the rest of the study to make a determination as to whether the literature review and methodology have given sufficient information towards a study that will find answers to the questions and work with the hypothesis in such a way as to validate or invalidate it. The two specific research questions to be answered in the study are as follows:
Does the age at which AAC is first taught affect the verbal communication skills of children with autism?
Does the fact of AAC being taught at all affect the verbal communication skills of children with autism?
It is the goal of this study to answer these specific questions as well as make a determination as to whether or not the following hypothesis should be deemed valid or invalid:
Autistic children, who are taught AAC early on, develop better oral and verbal communication skills than those children who are only taught speech.
Whether this is accurate, remains to be seen and will be the focus of discussion during the literature review and other chapters of this document. The desire is to answer both research questions and validate or invalidate the hypothesis based on the information gleaned from other studies and writings about this subject. The literature review chapter will provide much insight into what others believe is correct about the above hypothesis and the research questions that are being addressed here.
Definition of Terms
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The terms used in this paper needs to be defined in order for a comprehensive understanding of the information and argument contained in the following pages. These definitions are presented here so that there will not be cause for confusion in the rest of the information.
Autism ââ‚¬" A child with an Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) is a child with a developmental disability significantly affecting verbal and non-verbal social communication and social interaction, generally evidenced by the age of three. It is defined as a psychiatric disorder of childhood. (http://www.cde.state.co.us/cdesped/SD-Autism.asp)
Verbal communication skills ââ‚¬" these are the skills necessary for language and communication on an expected level for the age and developmental abilities of the person in question.
AAC ââ‚¬" Augmentative and Alternative Communication. - This is often used to as a precursor to verbal communication and language skills. It can be used for children with autism and children that have other cognitive disabilities and impairments that make their learning of normal language at an early age very difficult.
Rationale of the Study
Autism is a disorder that is marked generally by a very significant struggle with the development of speech and social functioning. It influences three important areas of development. These three areas are verbal and nonverbal communication, social association, and recreational play. Although many students with autism have an idea about communication, as do students without disabilities, autistic students consistently are not able to discover relevant means that they can use to communicate. Frequently, the ideas of communication give rise to behavioral problems such as oppressiveness, self-destruction, and frequent fighting.
For this particular reason learning communication assets is the most significant issue for students who have autism. This will work to boost their social cooperation skills and also to reduce the difficulties that many of them have with problematic behaviors. Without having a concise communication system, opportunities for helping these autistic children are greatly reduced. Preference-creating opportunities are important to these children, and if these opportunities are constrained there is a higher likelihood of difficult behaviors (Kern et al., 1998).
For this particular reason, a basic goal for these autistic children is to find a way for them to get an enhanced communication system. The most convenient and socially open communication system of course turns out to be speech (Bondy & Frost, 1994). However, when children with autism are taught communication skills directly their proportion of speech attainment is generally underdeveloped. Even when the attempt does not reap any result, a vast chunk of deliberation is needed from both children and staff (Carr, 1982). It becomes very difficult for teachers to make much progress at all when teaching speech to an autistic child and most autistic children become frustrated and angry when they are pushed too much by an adult who is trying to force them to learn.
Apart from speech, there is another section of learning Augmented and Alternative Communication skills as a functional communication skill. This has been seen as comprehensive and viable in gaining communication. However, most parents believe that teaching this type of functional communication skill may actually hinder the development of verbal communication in autistic children. That is why this study is being conducted. There is a desire to investigate this topic and to show that teaching AAC actually has a good impact on increasing verbal communication skills in children that have autism.
Significance of the Proposed Study
The study is significant in that it will look at the ways that AAC can help children with autism and will examine whether children who have autism and are taught AAC at a young age develop better verbal communication skills and learn language easier than children that have not received any type of training other than in speech and language. The implications from a study like this could be wide-ranging as there are many children with autism and other cognitive learning disabilities that might also benefit from the information gleaned from this study and others like it.
Autism is not the only type of disability that causes a delay in speech, and that might be helped by other ways to teach children about language and how to express themselves. However, autism to be the only form of these problems discussed during this particular study, as the focus of it is narrow.
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The results of this study will help to show other researchers in the field what type of issues they should be looking at, and may help to clear up some of the questions that have been around in the past as to whether this type of teaching actually helps these autistic children to learn language easier or whether it becomes a barrier to the learning of verbal communication skills.
By examining this and making a determination as to whether this type of teaching is beneficial, researchers and educators can both benefit from the information presented herein. Educators can take this information and use it to help the children in their care. Researchers can take this same information and use it to indicate that further study into this area needs to the conducted so that children that deal with autism can be taught skills early in their lives that will allow them to communicate as they grow older.
REVIEW OF THE LITERATURE
Literature into this idea is somewhat sparse, but there is enough information to present here and provide an idea of the types of issues that are being examined when discussing autism and AAC. There are many ways to help children that have autism and other learning disabilities, and many of those ways do not deal with teaching them speech directly, but rather with teaching them ways to communicate that they can feel more comfortable with. Once they are comfortable with these issues then they will be more likely to work their way up to normal verbal communication at a time that they feel ready for.
Many studies suggest that students who are autistic and lagging behind their peers may benefit from yearly instruction in AAC (Blischak, Loncke, & Waller, 1997; Mirenda, 1990). One way that AAC is sometimes conducted is by teaching children to match pictures to objects on a communication board. The child can then use these objects to make requests and to ask for what they need (Kozleski, 1991). A system of prompting that remains mostly nonintrusive has also been used in an effort to teach children with autism to use and practice communication skills (Dyches, 1998).
Another AAC system that is sometimes used is sign language (Venn, et al., 1993). Children with autism, as well as hearing-impaired children and children with other disabilities, can be taught to use sign language during lunch and snack times, and during other times of the day when they can feel comfortable using and practicing this type of communication. While it may not be appropriate for all times and places, it is important that these children find some way to communicate with their peers and with other individuals. Sign language can sometimes allow them this type of communication and help them to feel more secure and comfortable throughout their day because they feel like there is always someone that they are able to communicate with (McNaughton & Light, 1993).
Another way that AAC can help with autistic behavior is by working to control behavior that is becoming problematic. This is often called by the term functional communication training (Carr & Durand, 1985; Durand & Carr, 1991). Throughout several studies it has been indicated that researchers have taught students to curb their problematic behavior and instead use some form of sign or symbol to indicate what it is that they need. Students have been taught to request the attention of a teacher by assigning that they need help (Horner & Day, 1991). They have also been taught to press a button that indicates they need assistance rather than using sign language (Horner, Sprague, O'Brien, & Heathfield, 1990).
Other studies have shown that autistic children can request that they would like to take a break (Bird, Dores, Moniz, & Robinson, 1989), or they can request an object that they need by using sign language (Durand & Kishi, 1987). This may help them work of their way into mainstream classrooms more often than they have been able to do in the past. Other studies have shown that students who receive instruction into AAC training and the way that they should treat their peers often tolerate autistic children and other disabled children in the classroom much better than students that have not previously been taught about different ways of communicating with other individuals (Mirenda & Calculator, 1993). Some research suggests that autistic students can do much with AAC training, some studies have shown that there is mixed reaction from teachers and mixed levels of implementation as well (Agran & Alper 2000; Agran, Alper, & Wehmeyer 2002). Many still have the idea that autistic children are not helped by training that does not directly relate to speech and oral communication skills. Yet, studies that have been discussed in the prior pages show a conflict to that opinion. Students have done well with what the researchers have taught them, but there still has been little discussion about whether these children bettered their communication skills and picked up language faster and/easier than autistic children that have not received this type of communication training.
This is one area where the literature is sadly lacking. Since there have not been many studies into this type of information, there is not a great deal that can be said about it at this point. However, it is important to consider that there is still much work to be done and that studies such as this one will help to encourage other researchers and educators to look into this issue further and attempt to find an answer as to whether this type of training and communication skills information is best for autistic children.
Participants or Subjects
The participants in the study will be both children and parents. The parents will be considered participants because they will be filling out the questionnaires as well as giving consent for their child to participate in the study. The children in the study will be kindergarten, and first grade only, as teaching these alternative communication skills to children at a young age is the focus of the study. Ideally, preschool or younger children would be a better choice, but the researcher feels that children that are slightly older will be somewhat easier to work with, and parents of these children may be more likely to give consent for the study because they will be more comfortable with the disabilities and individual achievements of their children, and will therefore not be as uncomfortable with the idea of a stranger studying their children in the hopes of helping future generations.
The more children involved in the study the better it will be, but the study can be conducted with as few as 10 children. It would be better to have 20 or even 30 children because a larger number would give a more accurate result. However, the study will work with a small number, and this is likely what will be used because it will be difficult to find that many autistic children at a given school or schools in the local area that will allow the researcher to come in and study the children as well as request the teacher to make some changes to what particular students learn in order to determine whether alternative communication training makes a difference in that particular child's verbal communication abilities.
Measures or Instrumentation
Two separate measures will be used in this study. The children will be measured on whether their verbal skills have changed any at the end of the study, and they will also be measured by their parents' perception of whether their verbal skills are any different. Between the opinions of the researcher and the opinions of the parents it should be likely that a measurement based on fact can be reached as to whether these children have actually increased their verbal communication ability due to the alternative training that they have received or whether it has made little to no difference in how well and how often the children actually speak when they want something.
As for instrumentation of the study, the surveys will be the only instrumentation that the parents will need. The children will be given other methods of communication and will be shown how to use these methods. By giving half of the children the option of learning these methods and the other half the option of only learning the standard way it can be seen at the end of the study whether there is any difference in the verbal communication abilities does either group of students.
This is somewhat a question based on perception, but it is also measurable in that the students can be tested beforehand and also tested at the completion of the study to see if their abilities and their willingness to use these abilities have increased. This is important because it is not only whether the children can verbalize better but also whether they are interested in doing so and willing to do so to ask for what they need and want during their daily routine at school. If the children are still unwilling to use these new skills it will be much more difficult to determine whether they have acquired them.
The design of this particular research project will be a twofold process. Surveys will be given to the sample group of parents who have decided to allow their kids to participate in the study. These parents will complete a questionnaire about how their child or children expresses his or her feelings and needs, and state whether the child/children has been taught some other way to communicate. These parents will also complete a questionnaire when the second part of the process has been completed, in order to determine if there has been any marked effect on the children that were taught an alternative way to communicate. Some of the children in the study will be taught with alternative methods and others will not. The parents will not know which children are receiving training so that their answers on the questionnaires will not be skewed by the impression that their child is or is not learning how to do something else.
Since the time constraints and research budget do not allow for a long and involved study the time spent with the autistic students will take place in the classroom with permission from the parents, the teacher, and the principal of the school. Since the students will be in their classrooms, they will likely feel comfortable enough not to act unduly different than they would on a normal day. This will allow for observation of the students and will allow the researcher to discuss issues with the teacher that might become important for the study results.
The procedure used for this study will be one of surveying the parents, giving their children a test to see how much they verbalize and how willing they are to do so, and then allowing half of the children to undergo training that deals with alternative forms of communication while the other half of the children do the normal training and speech work that they would do on any given day. After this has been done, the students will be retested, and the parents will be re-surveyed to see whether there is any significant difference between the two groups that was not already present at the beginning of the study.
Every effort will be made to balance out both groups so that the children in one group do not have an unfair advantage over the children in another group. Factors such as the verbalization ability of the children before the study begin must be taken into account, or the results of the study will end up skewed and inaccurate. The information from these surveys and from the tests that the students underwent will then be collected and analyzed so that a determination of whether the alternative training had any effect can be made.
Data Analysis Procedures
The data will be analyzed in a simple and uncomplicated way. The test results before and after the alternative communication training will be looked at from both groups separately. From those tests, it will be determined whether there has been any improvement in either group while the study was being conducted. In addition to this, the surveys from the parents will be looked at for both groups separately in order to determine whether the parents perceived any change in their child between the start of the study and the end of it. The results that were actually collected from the students and perceptions that were made by the parents will then be matched up together to determine whether parents who thought that the child had improved in verbal skills were actually correct or whether they simply assumed this was the case because the child was participating in a study.
Limitations of the Study
Like any study, this one has its limitations. The main limitation of this study is that it is mostly subjective. The opinions of the parents are largely subjective, and much of the beliefs of the researcher are also subjective. It is possible that a group of students will do well or not do well on a test on any particular day even though they may or may not have actually improved in verbalization skills. If particular children simply feel more like talking on a particular day they could skew the results of this study while this will certainly be unintentional it will be problematic, and there is no actual way in the present study designed to avoid this on the part of the children or the parents.,
Time constraints and funding constraints do not allow for a study that is more exact or in-depth at this point. However, it is the hope that other research can be conducted in the future that might build on this research and allow for more subjects and a more controlled environment in which it can be studied. The lack of a controlled environment is also a limitation of the study but finding autistic children to participate in such a study is often difficult, and the school setting is the easiest and most common place to find a group of these children that can be used, with their parentsââ‚¬â„¢ consent, as study participants.