Unit V: Learning Characteristics and Styles

1. Selective Attention

2. Motivation

3. Generalization & transfer

4. Uneven cognitive profile

5. Visual vs Auditory learning


1. Selective Attention

In order to interact meaningfully with the world around us, it is vital that we have  the  ability  to  focus  on  particular  aspects  of the  environment  while  ignoring others. Defined as ‘selective attention’, this ability is crucial given that the brain has limited sensory and information-processing systems which are constantly bombarded with  an   excess  of  information  (Broadbent,  1958).  “Without   selective  interest, experience  is  an  utter  chaos.  Interest  alone  gives accent  and  emphasis,  light  and shade,  background  and  foreground  -  intelligible  perspective,  in  a  word”.

Selective attention refers to the ability to pay attention to a limited array of all available sensory information. Selective attention, as a filter to help prioritize information according to its importance, is adaptive. If attention is too selective, however, it is maladaptive. Excessively selective attention has become known as “stimulus overselectivity,” which is prevalent in autism. Its cause or causes are assumed to be brain organic. Because overselectivity has serious implications for impairment of learning at many levels, including social, emotional, and language learning (all key features of autism), it is suggested that an evidence-based treatment should focus on the normalization of attention patterns as early as possible to take advantage of the young brain’s plasticity. Behavior analysis can provide such evidence-based treatments. Until a true cure for autism is found, behavior analysis remains the treatment of choice.

Much of the research on attention has focussed on the ability to prioritise the processing  of  one  aspect  of  the  environment  over  another.   As  James   (1890) remarked, “Millions of items of the outward order are presented to my senses which never properly enter my experience. Why? Because they have no interest for me. My experience  is  what  I  agree  to  attend  to.”  Initially,  selective  attention  was  studied within the auditory modality following observations that, despite a barrage of noise, people  at  a  party  could  successfully  focus  on  the  conversation  that  they  were involved  in  without  being  distracted  by  other  guests.  Cherry  (1953)  used  dichotic listening  tasks  to  replicate  this  effect  experimentally.  He  used  headphones  to  play different  auditory  streams  to  each  ear  and  asked  participants  to  concentrate  on  the input to one ear only and repeat it back to him. Cherry then investigated what aspects of the message in the unattended channel listeners were aware of, and what affected how  successfully  one  input  could  be  shadowed.  He  found  that  only  physical properties  (pitch,  volume  etc)  of  the  unattended  stream  appeared  to  be  processed. Listeners  were  unaware  of  semantic  content,  individual  words  or  even  when  the language changed (from English to reversed speech). Furthermore, supplying the two streams from different locations (i.e. to each ear) or using physically different voices (male  vs.  female)  was  sufficient  to  elicit  effective  shadowing  of  one  channel  only. Broadbent (1958) took these results and those from a number of other studies and put forward the first detailed theory of attention. He concluded that selection occurs after only basic physical properties of stimuli have been processed.

Since the condition was first identified, there have been anecdotal reports of attentional   abnormalities   within   ASD.   Parents   and   clinicians   have   noted   that individuals  with  ASD  appear  to  fixate  inappropriately  on  apparently  irrelevant stimuli and perseverate on highly specific areas of personal interest. Gold and Gold (1974)  stated  that  “the  clinical  syndrome  of  early infantile  autism  results  from  a malfunction in basic alerting and attentional mechanisms”. The nature of a proposed attentional deficit has been based on various different attentional components and the research   can   be   divided   loosely   on   this   basis.   Within   this   chapter,   literature concerning  arousal,  sustained attention,  orienting and attention  shifting  in ASD  will be  outlined,  before  focussing  on  the  more  relevant issue  of  selectivity  and  filtering ability.  It  should  be  noted  that  a  number  of  studies  on  attention  and  ASD  have included  a  social  component.  The  issue  of  social  attention,  however,  will  be  dealt with separately in chapter six and therefore the discussion that follows here will only include experiments that used socially neutral stimuli.

2. Motivation

Most infants, children, teens, and adults are highly motivated by social acceptance, inclusion, and rewards. Tiny babies turn their heads and smile when another person attempts to engage their attention. Toddlers work hard to get the attention and praise of parents and other adults. Tweens and teens spend much of their time imitating and striving for the approval of peers—or hoping for praise from parents and teachers. Adults are motivated by the approval of others as well: most will work harder for peer recognition or for a chance to be selected, included, or advanced in a social situation.

To achieve social acceptance, inclusion, or promotion, most people attend very closely to what others do, want, or approve. At all ages, we imitate our peers and look for clues that will help us gain social prestige. Prizes for social acceptance are everywhere, from selection as "Prom King and Queen" to Employee of the Month, election to office, or acceptance into a fraternity or social club.

Because so much of our lives is bound up in the process of achieving social acceptance, we take for granted the desire to observe and imitate the social behavior of our peers. In addition, we assume that, for example, "grounding" a teen will be a meaningful consequence for poor behavior while supporting social activities will be a meaningful reward.

Social motivation is the driver for learning, achievement, and life choices. We don't strive for acceptance simply because smiles are pleasanter than frowns, but because we actively want the experience of being welcomed and included among our peers.

Social Motivation and Autism

The social motivation theory of autism states that autistic children are intrinsically less interested in social engagement. As a result, they pay less attention to social information. The outcome: impaired socio-cognitive development, which can be described as anything to do with our understanding of other people and their actions.

For example, autistic people often lack:

In addition to these deficits which, not surprisingly, make day-to-day life extremely challenging, people with autism are not motivated to action by the approval of others.

Thus, for example, a child with autism may be perfectly capable of (for example) tying his shoes but may have no particular interest in doing so. The fact that "all the other kids" tie their own shoes is irrelevant.

Lack of social motivation is particularly significant for very young children who learn a great deal in the first few years of life through imitation and imitative play. It can also be disabling as children become teens and adults. Many autistic people "hit a wall" when their social communication skills and social motivations fail to keep pace with their intellectual abilities.

3. Generalization & transfer

Individuals with autism spectrum disorders have many difficulties in learning. One of the consistent characteristics of learners with autism is that they have difficulty transferring skills to new situations and environments and maintaining skills they have mastered. Such difficulties in the maintenance and generalization of skills have been noted since the disorder was first identified, and continue to be a source of clinical concern and a focus of educational programming.

Everyone who has worked with or known many individuals with autism can think of examples of their lack of generalization. For example, a student may be able to respond when someone greets him or her saying “hello,” but not when he or she is greeted with an equivalent but different greeting such as “hi,” “what’s up,” or “how is it going?” Similarly, they may be able to make a sandwich adequately, but fail to do so if the type of bread or brand of jelly is changed.

It is certainly a characteristic of learners with autism that such transfer of skills is a challenge. Such characteristics make it necessary for teachers to train with variability.

Students need to be prepared for the diversity of circumstances that they are likely to encounter in the natural environment. Teachers can use a variety of educational strategies to facilitate the generalization of skills.

As Baer (1999, p. 1) said, “No one learns a generalized lesson unless a generalized lesson is taught.” Since generalization often does not occur without skillful planning, it is imperative that such planning occurs in educational programming for learners with autism.

Instructional Strategies

The field of Applied Behavior Analysis has studied the transfer of skills in individuals with autism for many years. It is clear that generalization is enhanced by incorporating variability into instruction. ABA instruction has emphasized the importance of varying instructions, varying materials, and teaching functionally equivalent responses. Whenever possible, learners are taught with variability from the earliest stages of instruction.

Stokes and Baer (1977) outlined a number of specific strategies to improve the transfer of skills, and emphasized that generalization should not be a “train and hope” approach. They suggested that behavior analysts must plan for generalization in a systematic manner to ensure that the target behavior occurs in similar settings and that desirable responses are strengthened. They suggested a variety of instructional approaches to aid generalization. We will discuss two of these strategies in this article – training loosely and programming common stimuli. One procedure for increasing the likelihood of generalization is what Stokes and Baer refer to as training loosely.

Excessive standardization of instruction (i.e., having every aspect of the instructional situation the same every time) impedes both stimulus and response generalization. Training loosely involves varying as many noncritical dimensions of the antecedent stimuli as possible during instruction and accepting a wide range of correct responses to increase the likelihood that skills will generalize to the natural setting.

When behavior analysts train loosely, they vary antecedent stimuli in a systematic manner. Baer (1981, 1999) suggested varying such stimuli as position (therapist or student), tone, words, how stimuli are presented (e.g., from different angles), settings in which instruction occurs, clothing worn by the therapist, reinforcers offered, time of day of instruction, and other environmental characteristics such as persons present, lighting, temperature, smells, and noise. To maximize the benefits of training loosely, these variations should occur as unpredictably as possible. When a student is learning how to match pictures, the teacher may change the pictures, the area of the classroom or school in which the skill is practiced, and whether the task is done on a table or on a vertical board. Each variation does not significantly change the task itself, but all of the changes help the learner to tolerate minor changes in the instructional context. In general, this helps to prepare the learner for the wide variety of situations that he or she may encounter outside of the instructional context.

Training loosely is often a challenge for teachers, as it seems counter-intuitive and inconsistent with the emphasis on consistency in instruction. The art of ABA intervention involves understanding which instructional components must be consistently presented and which components can be varied.

Another strategy that can be incorporated into instruction is programming common stimuli. Specifically, programming common stimuli involves incorporating stimuli and typical features of the generalization (natural) environment into the instructional setting to increase the likelihood of generalization. For instance, if a learner is being taught to purchase food in a grocery store, it may be appropriate to teach the component skills necessary for this complex skill in a controlled setting such as a classroom initially (quickly moving into the community). When this is done, it is important to use actual stimuli that the learner may encounter in a store (e.g., real food found on shelves in a supermarket, a counter, real money, a cash register, a cashier). One of the benefits of programming common stimuli is that it allows for repeated practice in a controlled setting. Practitioners need to identify the critical elements and objects present in the target environment to ensure that the learner is exposed to them in training. This eases the process of transferring skills to the natural environment.

Preparing the Learner for the Next Setting

In order to prepare the learner well for other environments, it is important to know information about those environments. Specifically, it is helpful to know how assistance is given to learners (i.e., prompting) and how learners are given feedback on their performance (i.e., reinforcement). For example, if students in an included classroom are never helped to respond with physical guidance, we can ensure that the learner is responds to other types of prompts that are used in that setting (e.g., verbal prompts, gestural prompts).

In addition, it is helpful to know how reinforcement is delivered in the target setting. It is usually the case that learners transition to environments with leaner schedules of reinforcement. Teachers in the current environment can fade the use of extrinsic rewards and provide rewards that are commonly available in the target environment. If these changes are made prior to the transition, it eases the difficulty for the learner. If a student has been reinforced for participating in group instruction with edible treats, the teacher might fade this out and replace it with the kinds of rewards that will be available in the next environment, such as positive teacher attention, and nonverbal gestures of praise). Similarly, if a learner has been used to a rich and predictable schedule of reinforcement, it may be important to thin the schedule and to make it more intermittent and less predictable. It is important to have the natural contingencies of reinforcement available in that environment maintain the behavior. Toward that end, the types and schedules of reinforcement available to the learner can be altered while the student is still in the current environment. In this way, the learner is well-prepared for the kinds of rewards they will be offered.

The Individual as the Source of Change

It is possible to involve the individual him or herself in generalization training by equipping them with skills that will increase their success in other environments. One way to accomplish this is to teach the individual to recruit their own reinforcement. Many learners have been taught to recruit teacher attention. A variety of procedures have been used in this context, including teaching students to request feedback and teaching students to show teachers their work products.

This approach has several benefits. It increases the reinforcement delivered to the learner. It also serves to cue the teacher that attention is needed. Perhaps the best element of this approach is that it ensures that teacher attention is given for appropriate behaviors. This is important, as many students receive more attention when they misbehave than they do when they behave. Finally, it is a bridge to other kinds of self-management.

Self-management facilitates the transfer of skills by equipping the individuals themselves with skills in monitoring and managing their own behaviors. Self-management involves making learners aware of and responsible for their own behaviors (Cooper, Heron, & Heward, 2007). Skills taught include planning (e.g., schedules and checklists), self-recording, and self-reinforcement. Self-management allows for more independence and decreases the need for an external agent of behavioral change.

Generalization must be a priority in educational planning. It should impact how we conceptualize and define target skills, how we teach skills, and how we evaluate progress and mastery. We must program, plan, and assess for generalization throughout instruction. The ultimate indicator of successful instruction is the transfer of skills into natural environments and everyday interactions.

4. Uneven cognitive profile

The uneven cognitive profile, also known as splinter skills, is when a person on the autism spectrum may demonstrate great strengths in an area but be severely lacking in skills in another area. An example of this may be great academic or verbal ability alongside a weakness in self-help skills such as personal hygiene. We need to be aware of the uneven cognitive profile because we often make assumptions on a person’s ability when viewing the strength(s).

What the neurotypical population has difficulty understanding is how can someone with a very IQ or exceptional abilities have difficulty with independent living or navigating the social world? Our higher functioning folks on the spectrum often suffer because supports are withdrawn or limited because of their splinter skills. We cannot make assumptions based solely on IQ or a person’s ability that may stem from a special interest. We have to look at the entire picture, not just the parts.

It is often heard educators say they do not use visual supports when a student on the autism spectrum has excellent verbal skills. This may be a false assumption because many people on the spectrum have auditory processing difficulties. If the student reads well, using text supports may be enough but some people do not have the ability to transfer those words into a picture.

The uneven cognitive profile has to be kept in mind as the person enters into adulthood. It may not be feasible to live alone in an apartment because of the amount of responsibility. If this is the person’s dream, then assessment of proper supports need to take place. An example of supports may be someone looking in on them every week, creating checklists of tasks that need to be done, or breaking down the steps to a task on a card such as how to do laundry.

Keep the profile in mind when thinking about employment or higher education. Examine what the weaknesses in a work or university/college setting might be and assess what help might be needed to create success. We can help this population be successful, but we also need to recognize what makes them vulnerable as well.


5. Visual vs Auditory learning

Every individual has a preference for learning. The way a learner predominantly perceives, interacts with, and responds to the environment characterizes one’s style of learning. By understanding a person’s learning style you can help maximize his or her potential, both in and out of the classroom:

Visual – Visual learners typically have strong visual processing skills and learn best by seeing information. Learning strategies include: color-coding, pictures, charts, flash cards, videos and doodling.

In this category, children rely on their sense of sight, and best learn from books, videos, charts, pictures and color coding methods. Children in this learning category also benefit greatly from visual aids, such as visual schedules in the classroom or at home. Labeling is also a great way to assist in care of articles at home, as well as in school. Children with visual learning styles often pursue careers as: data analysts, artists, architects, to name a few.

Auditory – Auditory learners learn best by hearing information. They can typically remember information more accurately when it has been explained to them orally. Learning strategies include: taping lectures, study through discussion, mnemonics, play music (w/o words) while studying.

Children who fall in this realm of learning method benefit greatly from listening or speaking activities, such as talking, audiotapes, role playing, and saying things out loud, or repeating. These children are relying on their sense of hearing and nonvisual stimulation to learn from their environment. This style of learning often gets malassisted in the classroom, because the child often appears not to be paying attention in the classroom, due to lack of eye contact or taking of notes, e.g. Children who learn best from auditory means do not necessarily require other methods of learning a task and are simply able to take in information from auditory means. Job categories that fit well with auditory learners include: judges, lawyers, interpreters, musicians, and salespeople, or other vocations where not tangible processing of vast information is a must.