Research: Enhancing Communicative Repairs for Beginning Communicators with DisabilitiesView as a PDF
Dr. James Halle
For more than 30 years, Dr. Halle has been involved in research related to communication and language development of children with autism and other developmental disabilities. He has published more than 50 articles and chapters related to communication assessment and intervention with these children and their families.
His program of research has focused on examining both social communication of young children with significant intellectual disability, and the ecological factors that facilitate or discourage communicative growth. He has also developed interventions from a behavior analytic framework to encourage more effective and efficient communication by these children. His early work was influential in moving the location of communication assessment and intervention from therapy rooms to learners’ natural environments. He has conducted a series of studies on delayed prompting (time delay) that became part of incidental or milieu language training. He possesses methodological expertise in single-case designs and small-N research. His programs of research have been supported by federal grants for the last 25 years. He currently is an associate editor for the Journal of Early Intervention and is a member of the editorial boards for 8 professional journals. Previously, he was the editor for the Journal of the Association for Persons with Severe Handicaps or JASH (now Research and Practice for Persons with Severe Disabilities) and an associate editor for the Journal of Applied Behavior Analysis.
Young children with significant disability have limited communicative repertoires. The means they have available to communicate with others might include natural gesturing, vocalizing, and occasionally challenging behavior. These forms frequently are unconventional, ambiguous, and idiosyncratic and, are therefore, difficult for social partners to understand. As a result of these compromised repertoires, communication breakdowns are the rule rather than the exception and the children’s capacity to repair these breakdowns becomes critical. The term “communication breakdown” refers to situations in which children initiate communication or respond to others and their communication does not immediately result in the apparent desired outcome.
For children with limited communication repertoires, their capacity to initiate communication and repair breakdowns successfully determines the level of control they can exercise over their environment. This capacity strikes at the heart of the communicative enterprise.
Children need to learn to initiate communication as well as repair breakdowns. . The ways in which parents and other social partners interact with children greatly affect a child’s communication (Brady & Halle, 2002; O’Neill et al., 1997; Yoder & Warren, 1998).
Successful initiations and repairs seem to be determined in part by the clarity and size of the child’s communication repertoire. For example, in the case of an initiation, if a child wants a drink of water, vocalizing (to get a parent’s attention) and then making a pouring gesture in the vicinity of the mouth is clearer and more specific than simply vocalizing – in which case, a parent has to try to figure out what the child wants. For a repair, let’s use the same example: the child is thirsty and begins to vocalize; the parent says, “I don’t understand what you want and assumes a questioning facial expression (i.e., signals a breakdown). In response, the child makes a pouring gesture toward her mouth. This action is clearly understood and the parent gives the child a drink..
A convenient way to conceptualize children’s communicative repertoires is to consider them in classes or categories of forms. For example, a class of requests for a drink might include forms such as gesturing, vocalizing, pointing to a picture of a glass, leading adults by the hand, screaming, and scratching a nearby adult. What makes it a class is that the forms share a common outcome: they all have a history of producing a drink from the adult. We refer to these class members as “functionally equivalent.” This concept is important because we believe that when children encounter a breakdown after trying one of these forms, another member of the class becomes likely. Critical questions about this approach are how to insure that non-problem forms are the ones the child uses and how to add new members to the class that are more easily understood and more closely approximate forms used by all of us. See Halle, J., & Meadan, H. (2007). A Protocol for Assessing Early Communication of Young Children With Autism and Other Developmental Disabilities. Topics in Early Childhood Special Education, 27, 49-61.
How Parents can help their children with communication initiations and repairs
Arrange frequent opportunities for communication by:
- violating expectations (e.g., place a shoe in the refrigerator and have child open the refrigerator door);
- pausing before providing a desired event (e.g., hold a favorite snack item out of reach, until child signals for it) during routines in which preferred objects or activities are available;
- providing some, but not all, of the materials needed to engage in a preferred activity (e.g., give paper to draw on, but hold back the markers until requested);
- offering a very small amount of a highly preferred food or drink and wait for a request for “more.”
In all of the situations above, the intent is (a) to increase opportunities for children to use the communication forms they have so they can be shaped into more effective forms and (b) to reinforce their communication forms that are socially acceptable. Parents can immediately provide the desired outcome if the form is acceptable (i.e., not a problem). Or these situations are ideal for teaching new forms of modeling, prompting, or shaping new responses.
Just as parents can arrange more frequent opportunities for initiations, they can do the same for breakdowns by pretending to misunderstand the communicative act and waiting expectantly for a repair. And similar to initiations, parents can either wait and accept a current repair form or, as soon as the breakdown occurs, teach a new repair form with modeling, prompting, or shaping.