Teaching Non-Vocal Learners to Imitate Sounds and Words

September 4, 2013 1:08 pm Published by Leave your thoughts

A defining feature of autism spectrum disorder is a lack of age appropriate language and communication skills. When trying to teach children who have autism how to communicate appropriately, one of the most important categories of language to consider is vocal imitation. In her blog on echoic/imitation, Behavior Analyst Angela Benitez-Santiago describes the echoic (vocal imitation) as “a type of language in which one repeats, or echoes, the words of another speaker”. For example, a child says, “bye-bye” after hearing his mother say “bye-bye”. It is easy to see why vocal imitation is important; if a child can vocally imitate others, teaching mands (requests), tacts (labeling), and intraverbals (answering questions) can be made much easier.

The first step in teaching a child to vocally imitate is to choose a valuable reinforcer. For help understanding what a reinforcer is and how to choose one, see my previous blog here. The reinforcer can be edible, tangible (e.g. preferred toy), or some type of action (e.g. tickles).

Next, it is helpful to evaluate your child’s repertoire. Do they babble frequently or infrequently? Do they spontaneously say a wide variety of sounds or say the same few sounds over and over? What sounds have you heard them say? Writing all of these down ahead of time can help you determine which strategy or strategies to focus on.

Now, choose one or more strategies from the following list:

1. Stimulus-Stimulus Pairing

Goal: To pair or associate speech sounds with a reinforcer so that, over time, the speech sounds themselves will become reinforcing and fun to the child.

To run: Begin by choosing sounds that you have heard your child babble or sounds that are easy to say (“buh”, “mm”, etc.). Hold up a reinforcer and say the sound. If your child approximates or says the sound, give the reinforcer immediately. If there is no sound, give the reinforcer after a 1s pause. Remember, the goal here is to associate the sound with reinforcement, so no sound is technically required. If you do hear a sound, however, make sure to give much more reinforcement than you would if there was no sound.

Reinforcers: Good reinforcers for this program are things that you don’t have to continually take back from your child such as small bites of a favorite food or enjoyable actions like tickles. Avoid choosing reinforcers that you have to take back (e.g. toys) unless they have limited reinforcers from other categories. Some children will get upset if their favorite toy is given then taken away every 5s for the next trial.

Note: You may need to run hundreds of trials before your child is able to successfully imitate a sound. Take data on what your child says to help determine what sounds to target.

To see how stimulus-stimulus pairing can be incorporated into teaching requests, see Behavior Analyst Wayne Sager’s blog on increasing speech sounds and vocal requests here.

2. Vocal Play

Goal: To pair or associate speech sounds with fun activities that your child already engages in.

To run: Engage your child in a preferred activity and make frequent sounds and vocalizations that are associated with the activity (e.g. “Beep beep! Whoa….ck…ck…ck…crash!” for playing with cars). If your child imitates any sound spontaneously or babbles, make sure to give a lot of praise and reinforcement. However, we are not asking or requiring the child to say any sounds. Over time, your child should associate fun sounds with the activity and will be more likely to imitate or spontaneously say those sounds in the future.

Reinforcers: The preferred activity that your child is playing with. You can also have some additional reinforcers on hand (e.g. preferred snacks) to reinforce any spontaneous sounds.

Note: It is helpful to set a timer for a specific amount of time and tally the number of sound your child makes so that you can see their progress over time.

3. Pair signs with words during mand teaching (Total Communication)

Goal: To associate sounds or words with specific reinforcers while teaching sign requests for those reinforcers.

To run: As you are teaching sign requests, make sure you are saying the name of the item during each step of the process. If it is a sign that your child has already knows, say the name of the reinforcer when you deliver it. If your child is learning a new sign, say the name of the reinforcer as you are prompting the sign and again when you deliver the reinforcer. Over time, your child will learn to associate the word with the reinforcer, and approximations of the word as well as spontaneous vocal requests will be more likely.

Reinforcer: The item your child is requesting.

4. Reinforcing all sounds

Goal: To reinforce all sounds your child says so that he or she will be more likely to say sounds in the future.

To run: Give your child a reinforcer and a specific praise statement (e.g. “Great saying ‘ah’!”) each time he or she says any sound. Run continuously throughout the day.

Reinforcers: It may be helpful to choose a variety of different reinforcers from different categories (e.g. some foods, some actions, some toys) to prevent satiation.

Once children are readily imitating (or attempting to imitate) basic speech sounds and vocalizations, there are two procedures can be used to shape up the articulation and intelligibility of words. Stay tuned for a follow-up blog on how to shape up articulation in children who can now vocally imitate others!

Final note: Some children acquire vocalizations faster than others. Children who babble frequently are more likely to pick up on sounds quicker than children who don’t. If you have tried some or all of the strategies listed above with limited success, contact Behavioral Consulting to set up a more comprehensive evaluation of your child’s verbal behavior repertoire.

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