How do you increase speech intelligibility (articulation skills) or the variability in the sounds produced by children with autism spectrum disorders?
Answered by Tracie L. Lindblad, Reg. CASLPO (SLP), MS, MEd, BCBA
Approximately 30-50% of individuals with Autism Spectrum Disorders (ASDs) remain minimally verbal throughout their lives, with little or no functional speech (National Institutes of Health & National Institute on Deafness and Other Communication Disorders, 2010; Johnson, 2004; Mirenda, 2003). These individuals may rely on more effortful modes of communication such as reaching for desired items, taking another’s hand to gain access, or obtaining the item independent of communication. Attempts to communicate may also take the form of challenging behaviors such as aggression, self-injury, and tantrums.
Parents face a difficult task in choosing a treatment for minimally verbal children with ASDs because a wide range of techniques are routinely used by speech-language pathologists and behavior analysts with varying degrees of success and evidence.
The following table highlights some of the most commonly implemented interventions to target speech skills and the current evidence base for each.
Within the fields of behavior analysis and speech pathology, evidence-based practice (EBP) should shape and guide our treatment decisions. EBP is the integration of:
- external scientific evidence
- clinical expertise/expert opinion, and
- client/patient/caregiver perspectives
Principles of EBP can help any professional to provide high-quality services which reflect the interests, values, needs, and choices of the individuals, and promote the best outcomes possible with the current evidence to date.
Therefore, treatment decisions should take into account a number of factors such as:
- current level of evidence
- learner characteristics (such as initial echoic repertoire)
- motivation of the child
- response to imitation-type programs
- training and background of the professional/team (e.g., early intensive behavioral intervention (EIBI) team, speech-language pathologist (SLP), paraprofessional, etc.)
- intensity of the planned intervention
Working as a collaborative team comprised of behavior analysts, early interventionists, and SLPs will allow the development of appropriate targets by drawing on the specific strengths from each profession. Speech-pathologists are trained in the developmental acquisition of speech sounds and in the selection of appropriate substitutions or simplification of speech sounds in order to help the student progress from easier targets to more difficult ones. On the other hand, behavior analysts are uniquely trained in using shaping procedures effectively, assessing motivation to assist in learning, and collecting of detailed and specific data to guide treatment decisions. With a collaborative team, the child benefits from a well-designed program with appropriate targets.
When guided by the current evidence for treatment and the clinical expertise/knowledge from the fields of ABA and speech pathology, the following sequence may be helpful in designing a program to target echoic/speech production skills:
- Conduct an initial assessment of the child’s sound productions. This may be completed by an SLP using standard articulation or phonological tests or by a behavior analyst using assessment tools such as the Assessment of Basic Language and Learning Skills—Revised (ABLLS-R; Partington, 2006) or Verbal Behavior Milestones Assessment Placement Program (VB-MAPP; Sundberg, 2008), which includes the Early Echoic Skills Assessment (EESA; Esch, 2008).
- Compile a list of items and activities that the child would typically be motivated to request on a daily basis. Determine appropriate word approximations or the shaping steps for each of the words.
- Set up opportunities throughout the day for the child to request these preferred items/activities; in order to practice the target sounds/words. Some of these may be already occurring; however, it is often necessary to create additional opportunities and to ensure that the request is reinforced when it occurs.
- Record the frequency and accuracy of the child’s production in order to determine when a more complex target will be required (i.e., shape the sound/word to a more ‘typical’ production).
- Prompts or cues may be added to the practice trials to help the student meet the targeted production. These prompts will need to be systematically faded so that the student learns to accurately produce the sound/word independently.
- Difficult targets should also be practiced within the context of an echoic program where the child is given additional opportunities for practice. Systematic and frequent teaching, prompting, and reinforcement are key elements in changing the behavior.
- A planned effort to promote the generalization of all targets outside of the structured sessions is critically important.
- Continue to assess the intelligibility of the child in order to ensure that vocal speech is functional. If the child is not understood by an unfamiliar listener at least 80% of the time, then an augmentative and alternative communication (AAC) system such as the Picture Exchange Communication System (PECS, Bondy & Frost, 2001) should be considered while speech skills continue to develop.
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Citation for this article:
Lindblad, T. L. (2012). Clinical corner: How do you increase speech intelligibility (articulation skills) or the variability in the sounds produced by children with autism spectrum disorders? Science in Autism Treatment, 9(3), 3-6.