brian a boyd ph d maureen a conroy ph d peter j alter m ed university of florida october 15 2005 l.
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Brian A. Boyd, Ph.D. Maureen A. Conroy, Ph.D. Peter J. Alter, M.Ed. University of Florida October 15, 2005. Effects of Restricted Interests on the Social Behaviors of Children with Autism Spectrum Disorders. What are Restricted Interests ?.

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brian a boyd ph d maureen a conroy ph d peter j alter m ed university of florida october 15 2005
Brian A. Boyd, Ph.D.

Maureen A. Conroy, Ph.D.

Peter J. Alter, M.Ed.

University of Florida

October 15, 2005

Effects of Restricted Interests on the Social Behaviors of Children with Autism Spectrum Disorders
what are restricted interests
What are Restricted Interests?
  • “All encompassing topics or objects individuals with autism pursue with great intensity and focus”
  • Also called:
    • Circumscribed interests
    • Obsessions
    • Compulsions
    • Special interests
    • Narrow interests

DSM-IV, 1994; Ozonoff, 2004

what are ri cont d
What are RI (cont’d)?
  • Considered to be a higher form of motoric, repetitive behaviors (e.g., hand-flapping)

Lower End: Stereotypy

Higher End: Restricted Interests, Routines

Epstein et al., 1985

restricted vs preferred
Restricted vs. Preferred?
  • How do you distinguish a highly preferred item from a restricted item?
  • Share 5 characteristics
    • Idiosyncratic
    • Difficult to redirect child
    • Child is intensely focused on interest
    • Endure over a long period of time
    • Accumulation of mass amounts of information

Adams, 1998; Attwood, 1998; Ozonoff, 2004

do ris change over time
Do RIs change over time?
  • Sally Ozonoff asked a group of pre-teens and adolescents with Asperger’s and HFA about their RI
      • On average, they had 3-4 RI by that point in their lives
      • Sometimes they had more than one RI at the same time
      • Only repetitive behavior found to increase in severity over time

Ozonoff, 2004; South et al., 2005

do all types of kids on the spectrum have ris
Do all types of kids on the spectrum have RIs?
  • Mmmm…………………!!!!!!!!!
  • What we strongly think?
  • RIs are more prevalent for students who have HFA and are older
  • RIs maybe more common for children with Asperger’s syndrome vs. HFA
    • Evidence is really mixed
  • RIs may differentiate kids with autism from other developmental disorders
  • What we know? We know more about lower forms of repetitive behaviors
  • Children with more severe autism engage in more stereotypy
  • Children with autism and MR engage in more stereotypy & self-injury
  • HFA also exhibit lower level repetitive behaviors
  • To sum up:
  • We don’t know a lot about the relationship between functioning level and repetitive behavior; in general, and in regards to RI, in particular

Lewis & Bodfish, 1998; Turner, 1999

why do students with autism have ris
Why do students with autism have RIs?
  • Mmmmmmmmmm…………………………
  • Mmmmmmmmmm………………………….
  • Lots of Theories
    • Arousal theory
    • Executive Dysfunction theory
    • Perceptual Reinforcement hypothesis

Turner, 1999

do typically developing td kids have ris
Do typically developing (TD) kids have RIs?
  • TD kids do engage in repetitive behaviors (ritualistic and compulsive)
  • Behaviors seem to peak between the ages of 2-5 (may be the same for kids with autism)
  • In TD kids, we see them more during fear-inducing situations (e.g., new kid in classroom)
  • TD kids engage in repetitive behavior to regulate or establish control over their environment

Evans et al., 1997, 1999; Zohar & Felz, 2001

what are some common ris for students with autism
What are some common RIs for students with autism?

Most Common:

  • Gadgets/devices/electronics
  • Power rangers/other action figures
  • Dinosaurs
  • Video games

Somewhat Common:

  • Fantasy/science fiction
  • Natural disasters
  • Disney characters
  • Letters/numbers

Least Common:

  • Mythology
  • Trains (other than Thomas)
  • License plates

Ozonoff, 2004

should we discourage ris
Should we discourage RIs?
  • Repetitive behaviors are hard to extinguish
    • It is hard to identify “what” is maintaining the behavior
    • It is hard to replace the behavior if it is maintained by internal sensory consequences
    • If RI is inappropriate for school, then make sure student knows when it is ok to talk about or engage with their interest

Lovaas et al., 1987

why should we encourage ris
Why should we encourage RIs?
  • Research studies have shown that using their RI gradually decreases the amount of time children engage with that item
    • Provide children structured and expected opportunities to engage with their RI
  • Teaches kids a more functional and appropriate way to engage with their interest

Adams, 1998; Charlop et al., 1990

can ris be used to encourage social behavior
Can RIs be used to encourage social behavior?
  • Research suggests it can be used to increase the amount of time children engage in peer-related social interactions

Baker et al., 1998, 2000; Boyd, 2005

how do ris encourage social behavior
How do RIs encourage social behavior?
  • Students with autism appear to be “motivated” to discuss or interact with RIs, either internally or externally
  • Often they are motivated to engage in 1-sided conversations about them,


  • Play with the RI by themselves
how could ris better be used to encourage social interactions
How could RIs better be used to encourage social interactions?
  • Antecedent-based uses of RI
  • Consequence-based uses of RI
overview of ri research findings
Overview of RI Research Findings
  • Interventions that utilized the RI of children with autism have increased their prosocial behaviors (e.g., on-task)
    • Only 2 studies have addressed the social behavior of children with autism (Baker et al., 1998; Baker, 2000)
  • Majority of studies used the RI as a consequence-based intervention
    • The child is given access to the RI after the occurrence of a targeted behavior (Charlop et al., 1990; Charlop-Christy & Haymes, 1996; 1998)
  • Studies also have used the RI as an antecedent-based intervention
    • The RI is used as an antecedent to set the occasion for the child’s appropriate behavior (Adams, 1998)
  • Primary problem associated with the RI literature
    • Paucity of studies examining the effects of RI
    • Lack of systematic identification of the RI
research questions
Research Questions
  • What is the effect of the presence of a restricted interest item in comparison to a less preferred item on the social behaviors of young children with autism spectrum disorders (ASD)?
  • What is the generalization effect of the presence of a restricted interest item and other tangible stimuli on the social behaviors of young children with ASD?
  • Inclusion Criteria
      • Preschool or elementary-aged children diagnosed with an independently-obtained autism spectrum disorder
        • Asperger syndrome, Autism, Pervasive Developmental Disorder-Not Otherwise Specificed (PDD-NOS)
      • Use of at least 2-3 word utterances to express basic wants and needs
      • Ability to initiate to peers’ social bids using gestural or verbal communication
      • Display of low levels of appropriate or high levels of inappropriate social behaviors
      • Display of high levels of engagement with or discussion of a RI tangible item
phases of study
Phases of Study
  • Assessment Phase
    • Descriptive assessment
    • Preference assessment
  • Structural Analysis (SA) Phase
    • Concurrent operant condition
    • Free operant condition
  • Generalization Phase
    • Across settings
    • Across other tangibles
assessment phase
Assessment Phase
  • Descriptive Assessment
    • Interview parents and teachers using Social Skills Interview (Asmus et al., 2004) to identify their current levels of social behavior and RI
      • For an item to be initially identified as the RI, two informants must independently identify that item
    • Direct observation of participant using Social Skills Screening (Conroy et al., 2004)
      • Data is taken on the percentage of intervals during a 10-min observation period the TC and classroom peers engage in social behavior across 3-5 classroom activities
      • Identified activities within classroom context where participant exhibited highest & lowest % of social behavior to obtain a baseline measure
assessment phase21
Assessment Phase
  • Multiple Stimulus Preference Assessment(adapted from Roane et al., 1998)
    • Repeated presentation of 7 identified tangible items found during descriptive assessment that the child engaged or played with, including the hypothesized RI tangible item
    • Data was taken on the number of seconds the TC physically touched each item
    • For an item to be verified as the RI, the TC must touch it for the longest duration of time for 2 out of 3 (67%) experimental sessions
    • Identified a less preferred (LP) item by asking the TC
assessment ioa
Assessment IOA
  • Calculated using a point by point agreement ratio
    • Descriptive Assessment: IOA collected for 25-85% of sessions
      • Jason—Mean: 96% (range: 93-98%)
      • Allen—Mean: 99% (range: 96-100%)
      • Jin—Mean: 88% (range: 75-100%)
    • Preference Assessment: IOA collected for 33% of sessions
      • Jason, Allen, & Jin—Mean: 100%
assessment results
Assessment Results

Descriptive Assessment

Preference Assessment

sa phase experimental procedures
SA Phase:Experimental Procedures
  • SA phase (Concurrent & Free Operant Conditions)
    • All sessions were 5-minutes in length
    • Each session was videotaped and coded using Tap-IT software for Dell PDAs (Tapp, 2003)
    • Peer was instructed prior to each session to NOT initiate to TC
    • Peer was instructed to always respond to TC initiations
      • If peer failed to respond, therapist verbally reminded him/her
    • All peers were typically developing classmates of the TC
concurrent operant procedures
Concurrent Operant Procedures
  • Concurrent—purpose was to provide further validation of the identified RI and to provide preliminary evidence of its effects on the display of participant social behavior
    • Procedural control—counterbalanced the peer holding the item & the order the choices were given to the TC by the therapist
concurrent operant ioa
Concurrent Operant IOA
  • Calculated using MOOSES software program (Tapp, 2002)
    • Each observer had to code the same behavior within a +/- 5-second window of time; otherwise it was counted as an error
  • IOA collected for 33% of sessions
  • Percentage of intervals TC choose RI vs. LP: Jason, Allen, & Jin—Mean: 100%
concurrent operant results choice of tangible items
Concurrent Operant Results: Choice of Tangible Items

% of 30-secondintervals

Jason Allen Jin




free operant procedures
Free Operant Procedures
  • Free operant—purpose was to provide a more naturalistic play situation to evaluate the effect of the RI in comparison to the LP
    • Procedural control—randomly alternated the RI vs LP sessions & randomly selected 1 peer from concurrent to participate
free operant ioa
Free Operant IOA
  • Calculated using MOOSES software program (Tapp, 2002)
    • Each observer had to code the same behavior within a +/- 5-second window of time; otherwise it was counted as an error
  • IOA collected for 26-36% of sessions
  • Duration of social interactions:
    • Jason—Mean: 100% (range: 100%)
    • Allen—Mean: 98% (range: 97-100%)
    • Jin—Mean: 98% (range: 95-100%)
  • Rate of initiations:
    • Jason & Allen—Mean: 100%
    • Jin—Mean: 83% (range: 67-100%)
free operant condition social interactions
Free Operant Condition:Social Interactions

Jason Allen Jin

% of time




free operant results mean latency to first tc initiation
Free Operant Results:Mean Latency to First TC Initiation

Jason Allen Jin

Number of seconds

*=TC did not initiate

free operant results treatment integrity
Free Operant Results:Treatment Integrity

Probability of Contingent Peer Responses

Mean Rate of Peer Initiations

* indicates the range

generalization procedures
Generalization Procedures
  • Generalization—purpose was to determine the extent to which the observed free operant effects generalized to another SETTING & other TANGIBLE ITEMS
    • Procedures same as Free Operant except carried out in participants’ regular classrooms
    • Experimenter randomly introduced two classroom toys to target child-peer dyad
      • Peer from Free Operant participated
generalization ioa
Generalization IOA
  • Calculated using MOOSES software program (Tapp, 2002)
    • Each observer had to code the same behavior within a +/- 5-second window of time; otherwise it was counted as an error
  • IOA collected for 33-50% of sessions
  • Duration of social interactions:
    • Jason—Mean: 99% (range: 99-100%)
    • Allen—Mean: 94% (range: 83-100%)
    • Jin—Mean: 92% (range: 98-100%)
generalization results social interactions
Generalization Results:Social Interactions

Jason Allen Jin

Therapist Prompts

Therapist Prompts

Therapist Prompts









generalization results treatment integrity
Generalization Results:Treatment Integrity

Probability of Contingent Peer Responses

Mean Rate of Peer Initiations

* indicates the range

teacher social validity
Teacher Social Validity
  • At the conclusion of the generalization sessions for each participant their teacher completed a Likert-type rating scale

1. How comfortable were they with the study?

M=6 (R: 6)

2. How disruptive was the study?

M=1 (R: 1)

3. Willingness to allow another child to participate?

M=6 (R:6)

4. How useful was the information obtained from the study?

M=5 (R: 4-6)

    • Overall, how would they rate the intervention?

M=5 (R: 4-6)

Not at all (1) Very (6)

expert social validity
Expert Social Validity
  • 1 expert in field of ASD, naïve to the researcher’s expectations, viewed randomly selected 5-min video clips of children in RI and LP sessions

1. How appropriate was child’s play?

LP: M=2 RI: M=5

2. How inappropriate was child’s play?

LP: M=5 RI: M=2

3. How often did the child play with the peer?

LP: M=1 RI: M=5

4. Overall, do you think the child enjoyed playing with the


LP: M=1 RI: M=5

Not at all (1) Very (6)

  • Children with ASD spent more time socially interacting when play situation incorporated their RI vs LP tangible item
    • RI acted as a setting event or establishing operation
  • Structural analysis served as a viable tool to examine the antecedent effects of RI on the social behaviors of the participants
  • Three-step process provided an effective method to validate the RI of participants:
    • Teacher & parent interviews
    • Multiple stimulus preference assessment
    • Concurrent operant conditions
  • Generalization data were more variable
    • Therapist prompts had to be introduced to facilitate generalization
  • Expert Social Validity data reflect clear differences in behavior of participants in RI vs LP sessions
potential explanations of results
Potential Explanations of Results
  • Jason’s Undifferentiated Concurrent Operant Data
    • Stimulus Control Topography (SCT) Coherence Theory—posits that there is not always concordance between contingencies arranged by experimenter & the properties of a stimulus that eventually brings the participant’s behavior under stimulus control
    • Executive Dysfunction—posits that underlying neurological impairments affects the ability of individuals with ASD to inhibit prepotent behavioral responses & engage in alternative behaviors
  • Variability in Generalization Data
    • SCT Coherence Theory—competing stimuli in generalization environment signal occasion for other available reinforcers
    • Use of Brief Reversal Design
    • Difficulty isolating Antecedents occasioning & Consequences maintaining social behavior in natural environment
limitations future research
Limitations & Future Research
  • Limitations
    • Generalization concerns:
      • All children had some social skills prior to study
      • All children were verbal and on higher end of autism spectrum
      • SAs were not conducted in the child’s natural environment
      • Small sample size
  • Future Research
    • Identify the function(s) RI serve for children with ASD
    • Determine the specific stimulus conditions needed for RI to serve as a setting event for social behavior in the regular classroom
    • Address aforementioned generalization concerns
practical implications
Practical Implications
  • Research suggests a starting to place to tap social-motivation
  • Practitioners can embed RI into structured cooperative games or tasks to promote child interaction and/or engagement
  • Start sharing groups around child’s RI
moving beyond ri is it possible
Moving Beyond RI: Is it Possible?
  • Eventually kids may move on because of development, they outgrow their interests
  • 1 strategy to help kids move on:
    • Start a sharing group
      • Different kids share their interests, including the child with autism
      • Each child has to learn about the other person’s interest
        • The child with autism learns that other people have interests different than his or her own
        • The child learns about other people’s interests
        • The child learns to share talking and listening time around their interest

Lord, 2002

using ri to encourage social interactions
6 steps

Determine their RI

Establish a measurable social goal

Take into account child’s play skills:

Developmental level of play

Stage of play

Developmental level





Games with rules

Stage of Play







Using RI to Encourage Social Interactions
antecedent based uses of ri cont d
Antecedent-based uses of RI (cont’d)

3. Embed interest into cooperative games or play activities

    • Take into account child’s skill level and developmental abilities:
      • Can the child match pictures?
      • Can s/he sort objects?
      • Can s/he read?

4. Teach child how to play the game

  • Depends on child’s social & developmental abilities
    • May need to teach skill in a 1:1 setting and eventually integrate peers into activity
    • May be able to immediately introduce activity into a small group activity (teacher may need to monitor)
antecedent based uses of ri cont d50
Antecedent-based uses of RI (cont’d)
  • Provide child structured and expected opportunities to engage with RI game
    • Make sure game has a clear ending
    • Set limits for when child is allowed to engage with game
      • Provide choice board
      • Daily picture or written schedule
  • Monitor the child’s progress
  • Keep in mind that social relatedness is difficult for all kids (HFA or LFA) on the autism spectrum
example of a choice board
Example of a Choice Board

Centers for Autism & Related Disabilities (CARD-UF), 2005

example of a daily schedule
Example of a Daily Schedule

Written Schedule

  • Center time
  • Circle time
  • Game Time 
  • Small group, reading time
  • Game Time 

CARD, 2005