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Teaching children with autism through task variation in physical education.

For more than 40 years, researchers and teachers in physical education have been concerned with the way certain variables affect the learning experiences of students (e.g., Ammons, 1947; Caplan, 1969; Digman, 1959). Many researchers have compared the influence of constant practice and distributed practice methods on students' acquisition of motor skills. In constant practice, only one experimental task or activity is presented per session. According to Drowatzy (1970), this is commonly referred to as "massed practice," "fixed-format," or the "serial" approach. Distributed practice typically includes rest pauses or alternate skills learning between practice trials. Physical educators and coaches have successfully used both forms of learning with students without disabilities.

According to Ammons (1950), Caplan (1969), Digman (1959), and Koonce, Chambliss, and Irion (1964), distributed practice conditions are superior for people without disabilities. However, Ammons (1947), Harmon and Oxendine (1961) and Young (1954) have indicated that massed practice is also effective. Other studies showed no significant differences in learning for people without disabilities, for massed and distributed practice (Carron, 1969; Graw, 1968; Stelmach, 1969; Whitley, 1970). In most cases, the conditions of these studies were not comparable. Moreover, these studies did not address the needs of people with disabilities--nor, more specifically, those with autism.

In the past 10 years, however, research in special education concerning the academic classroom performance of children with autism has become more prevalent (Dunlap, 1984; Dunlap & Koegel, 1980a; Winterling, Dunlap, & O'Neill, 1987). Many of these studies involved various forms of distributed practice. A classic case was Dunlap's (1984) investigation.

In Dunlap (1984), a specific type of distributed learning referred to as "task variation with maintenance tasks interspersed" was compared with a constant task condition in a special education classroom for students with autism. Dunlap's results indicated that the task variation condition was significantly more effective than the constant task condition for learning cognitive skills in the special education classroom. However, Dunlap's findings are not necessarily transferable to a physical education setting. Singer (1975) and Gagne (1973) suggested that there are five domains of learning--motor skills, verbal skills, intellectual skills, cognitive strategies, and attitudes--and that a particular learning condition or technique can be successful for one of the five domains of learning and not necessarily for another. In fact, Singer and Gagne both indicated that the conditions or techniques that are the most powerful or successful are usually unique to a specific domain.

The question addressed here is: Is the distributed-learning technique used by Dunlap (1984) more effective than a constant task condition in teaching gross motor skills to students with autism? We have been concerned that procedures used in physical education classes for students with autism have not maximized instructional time. Nor have the procedures accounted for individual learning characteristics such as slow acquisition, short attention span, and a reduced ability to generalize (French & Jansma, 1982; Sherrill, 1986), which differentiate people with autism from other learners (Mulligan, Guess, Holvoet, & Brown, 1980).

In the area of motor learning, most of the research has been directed toward the acquisition of fine motor skills in novel motor tasks. Little information is available concerning the acquisition of gross motor skills, and the literature appears to be void in studies involving practice conditions for gross motor skills by people with autism.



The design for this study was a pretest-posttest configuration; two experimental task sequences were analyzed for skill acquisition. No control group was used. This design is useful for observing the comparative effect of two treatments (Thorpe, 1986). To control for order effects, the group taught first each day was alternated between the two conditions (Hersen & Barlow, 1976; Kazdin & Hartmann, 1978).

Selection of Subjects

The subjects for this study were 12 autistic males, ages 11-15, representing the total population from one rural school. All were previously diagnosed as autistic. For the purposes of inclusion in this study, the subjects had to satisfy the criteria suggested by Coleman (1976). All students displayed rocking, hand flapping, and mouthing and spinning of objects. According to Rimland (1964) and Ritvo and Freeman (1978), these characteristics represent classical self-stimulatory behavior for autistic individuals. Each student was estimated to have a social quotient between 20 and 35 on the Vineland Social Maturity Scale when tested by the school psychologist. The subjects were randomly assigned to the constant (massed) task treatment group (E1) or the distributed-learning technique of task variation (with interspersed maintenance tasks) treatment group (E2). The six students in E1 had a mean social quotient on the Vineland Social Maturity Scale of 28.5 (range 24-35, SD 3.62) and a mean age of 13 years, with a range of 11-15 years. The six students in E2 had a mean social quotient on the Vineland Social Maturity Scale of 28.0 (range 24-35, SD 3.52) and a mean age of 13 years, with a range of 11-15 years. All children were nonverbal and were considered to be homogeneous in their psychological behavior, which included behavior disorders.


The experimental procedures used throughout this study are similar to those suggested by Dunlap (1984), except that the skills involved are gross motor skills rather than cognitive. According to Singer (1975), a great disparity may exist because students react differently to various teaching methods when learning motor skills.

Experimental Conditions

Physical Environment. All teaching and evaluation sessions were conducted in a 30 ft by 20 ft room with a 10 ft (3m) ceiling. Access to the room was through one set of double doors that had a small window, through which sessions could be observed from an adjoining room. The room was equipped with three bicycle ergometers, one minitrampoline, and a storage box filled with balls of various sizes.

Instructional Conditions. A four-teachers-to-six-students format was maintained for all sessions. The teachers worked with four students on a one-to-one basis while the other two students were riding the bicycle ergometers. During the course of each class session, each teacher normally worked at least once with each child so that the child did not become dependent on one specific teacher.

The instructors for this study were two females and two males ranging in age from 23 to 42. All four were adapted physical education aides with a minimum of 8 months of teaching experience in adapted physical education. Each instructor had completed extensive inservice training in adapted physical education under the supervision of an adapted physical education specialist. In addition, as suggested by Dunlap (1984) and Koegel, Russo, and Rincover (1977), each had completed inservice training courses in operant conditioning and had been trained to an 80% criterion level in the use of behavior modification for children with autism by the Director of Special Education. All four worked with both treatment groups.

Regular assessments of on-task behavior for all the instructors were conducted, as recommended by Dunlap (1984) and Dunlap and Koegel (1980a). These procedures had been adopted as a part of the standard operating code at this school; however, for the present study, these assessments were conducted twice per week rather than once per month. Similar to Dunlap (1984), the teachers were expected to maintain at least an 80% performance level of ontask activity throughout all their teaching for all tasks under both conditions.

Because all four teachers conducted instructional periods with both treatment groups, the potential for teacher bias was a concern. To control for this potential effect, as recommended by Drew (1980), the teachers were not aware of the experimental hypothesis. The teachers were told that the students had been grouped and assigned to their respected treatment classes to address their individual needs for varying instructional methods as suggested by their test scores.

Instructional Procedures. The instructional procedures used in this study were similar to those used by Dunlap (1984) and Dunlap and Koegel (1980b). During the study, the standard teaching techniques of physical shaping, physical assistance, physical prompting, and social reinforcement were applied (Fait, 1960; French & Jansma 1982; Sherrill, 1986). These techniques were provided and then were slowly eliminated until the students responded successfully on their own. If a student failed to respond successfully after three consecutive trials, the teacher went back to the next lower level in the teaching techniques used. All correct responses, whether with physical shaping, physical assistance, prompting, or independent action, were reinforced with social reinforcement and a "pat on the back." Similar to Dunlap (1984), incorrect responses resulted in the teacher's saying "No --" (using the subject's name) and withdrawing attention. An off-task or disruptive behavior was treated according to the procedural guidelines suggested by Arnheim, Auxter, and Crowe (1969). These procedures had been approved by the school's interdisciplinary team. The procedures routinely consisted of planned ignoring, signal interference, proximity control, or brief physical restraint (Arnheim et al., 1969).

Instructional sessions were held for a 45-min duration for both conditions. The performance criterion of 9 correct independent responses out of 10 consecutive trials of the task, which Dunlap (1984) used, was selected as the successful performance criterion for ending training. This criterion applied to all experimental tasks in both conditions. However, throughout the training period and during instruction, these criteria were never met.

Classes for all students were conducted 5 days per week. A minimum of 15 min was provided between the two classes so that teachers could arrange equipment, use the bathroom, organize data sheets, and allow students to move to and from classes.

Independent Variables

The question addressed in this experiment is whether the distributed practice technique of task variation (with maintenance tasks interspersed) is more effective than a constant task condition (commonly referred to as massed practice) when teaching gross motor skills to people with autism. Six experimental acquisition tasks were randomly presented under both conditions. In addition, the task-variation group practiced the extra-experimental tasks of run, catch, and hop, which they had previously learned but were maintaining. A complete description of each of the experimental and extra-experimental tasks are provided in the I CAN Fundamental Skills box (Wessel, 1976). Figure 1 shows the task analyses used in this study.

Constant Task Condition (CT). Similar to Dunlap (1984), only one experimental task was presented per session for the CT condition. The experimental task was presented repeatedly until one skill was learned, or until the class period elapsed (Dunlap, 1984). Because of the skill level of these students, the 45-min time period elapsed in all cases. Each of the six tasks assigned to this condition was separately presented for 1 week. All students were assigned the same task. Because there were only six subjects, the four teachers were able to monitor whether subjects were attending to task. If a student appeared not to be on task, the instructor used verbal and physical prompts. After the 6-week training period, each subject underwent a posttest for all six tasks. These procedures are comparable to those employed by Dunlap (1984) and Dunlap and Koegel (1980b).

Distributed Learning (Task Variation-with-Maintenance-Task) Condition (TV). Similar to Dunlap (1984), all six experimental tasks were randomly presented with the three extra-experimental tasks that were to be maintained. These tasks were interspersed between each of the experimental tasks over the class period. This procedure resulted in a total of nine tasks being randomly interspersed throughout the 45-min sessions, with a maximum of 2 or 3 min spent on any one task. The use of 2- or 3-min sessions was a deviation from Dunlap's (1984) procedures, in which he suggested 15 min; but the shorter sessions were used because in previous work with students with autism, the average attention span appeared to be a maximum of 3 min. During participation on each task, no more than three trials were performed or requested at once. Thus, each TV session consisted of the six tasks to be acquired and the three tasks including independent performance to be maintained while subjects were working toward a mature performance pattern. These procedures were similar to those used by Dunlap (1984) and Dunlap and Koegel (1980a).

Assignment of Subjects to Treatments

Experimental Tasks. Prior to this study, 12 subjects were independently pretested by using the I CAN Class Performance Score Sheets (CPSS) (Wessel, 1976) for each performance objective found in the I CAN Fundamental Skills box by the Coordinator of Adapted Physical Education. From this pretest, six experimental tasks were selected on the basis of the following criteria, suggested by Dunlap (1984):

1. Appropriate to the subject's general level of functioning.

2. Appropriate for the subject's chronological age.

3. Unlearned, as determined by pretests.

In addition, these skills were selected because they are prerequisite skills for more complex skills such as those used in soccer, basketball, and softball. A second pretest was conducted 1 week before starting experimental sessions for only the six selected tasks (Weber & Thorpe, 1989). During this pretest, each student was given 10 trials. This second pretest was conducted by two graduate students in adapted physical education. Both graduate students had completed a course in assessment procedures for adapted physical education. Their instructor was the Coordinator of Adapted Physical Education, who had extensive training with the I CAN CPSS and had served as a regional coordinator for the I CAN materials.

Objectivity for the administration of the tests was enhanced in that the same two graduate assistants administered both the pretest and the posttest and that neither assistant was involved in teaching the student or aware of the treatment groups to which they were assigned.

A 100% agreement between the two testers and the Coordinator of Adapted Physical Education was required for completion of a skill focal point. During both pretest and posttest procedures, the testers were in total agreement for all 12 subjects for each of the six skills. The I CAN criteria for completing 2 out of 3 trials for acceptance was replaced by a 9 out of 10 criteria for this study. Based on the results of the pretest, the following tasks were selected: (a) overhand throw, (b) kick, (c) vertical jump, (d) slide, (e) continuous bounce, and (f) underhand roll. These procedures are the same as those used by Weber and Thorpe (1989). A complete explanation of these tasks and focal points for each performance objective can be found in I CAN by Wessel (1976).

Extra-Exprimental Tasks. Whereas the tasks of run, catch, and hop were originally selected as possible experimental tasks, the subjects could perform these tasks without assistance. However, the students had not prefected these three tasks at a mature level, as measured by the focal points on the I CAN CPSS and the 90% success criterion used for this study. Because students had some level of success in these three skills and were attempting to refine them, these skills were labeled extra-experimental tasks; therefore, no statistical analyses were performed for these tasks. [TABULAR DATA OMITTED]

Data Collection

Recorders of data were four graduate students in adapted physical education with experience in recording operationally defined behavior of people with disabilities (Dunlap, 1984). These observers were naive with respect to the experimental hypothesis. Each observer was trained in the use of the I CAN CPSS and, before involvement in the experiment, had been tested on its proper use.

In addition, these observers were familiar with the subjects and had spent at least 1 hr in observing these same subjects in a variety of classroom and free-play situations. These observers recorded the time spent on each task; these data were used to evaluate the efficiency of time used by the teachers and to ensure that there were no major differences for the time spent on task between the two training conditions (Drew, 1980; Weber & Thorpe, 1989). Throughout the study, the teachers for both training sessions maintained an 81% efficiency level of on-task performance.


For each of the six gross motor skills and for the total of all six skills, pretest, posttest, and gain scores were analyzed to determine any statistical differences between the TV and CT techniques. The .05 level of significance was established for rejection of the null-hypothesis because the risk of a Type I error was not serious.

Results of the first analysis (pretest for TV versus CT) appear in Table 1. Four of the mean scores had no variance and could not be subjected to a t test. The four pretests that resulted in numerical differences between TV and CT groups were for the continuous bounce, kick, overhand throw, and total of all of the six skills combined, in favor of the CT group. However, these differences were not statistically significant.

The t-test comparison for the second analysis (posttest for TV versus CT) indicated significance at the .001 level for continuous bounce, kick, vertical jump, slide, and total score for all six skills. The analyses for the skills of underhand roll and overhand throw were significant at beyond the .05 level. In fact, probabilities ranged from .0001 to .0201. The higher means in all cases were for the TV group (see Table 1).

When gain scores for the two groups were analyzed, all were significant, confirming that the gain of the TV group was superior (see Table 1).


The results of this experiment indicated that a distributed learning technique of task variation (with maintenance tasks interspersed) (TV) condition was superior to the constant task (CT) condition in terms of skill acquisition of basic gross motor skills, as evaluated by the I CAN CPSS when teaching individuals with autism. The results, although limited to skill acquisition for the gross motor skills of continuous bounce, kick, underhand roll, overhand throw, vertical jump, and slide independently, are similar to findings by Baumeister and Berry (1967); Brigham and Sherman (1968); Dent and Johnson (1964); Dunlap (1984); Dunlap and Koegel (1980b); Lovass, Berberich, Perloff, and Schaeffer (1966); Madsen (1963); and Peterson (1968). In these studies, the TV condition was the most productive in terms of producing positive levels of skill acquisition in various areas in special education classrooms.

Though these results are similar to those of previous studies by Mulligan et al. (1980) for massed versus distributed practice and by Berlyne (1960) on stimulus variation, the data suggest a new area for investigation in adapted physical education because this study is the first to involve students with autism. In previous studies, the distributed practice method of learning (with maintenance tasks interspersed among the target trials) was reported to be superior in the special education classroom setting (Baumeister & Berry, 1967; Brigham & Sherman, 1968; Dent & Johnson, 1964; Dunlap, 1984; Dunlap & Koegel, 1980a; Lovass et al., 1966; Madsen, 1963; Peterson, 1968). These findings also appear to be true for students with disabilities involved in adapted physical education, based on the results of this study and an earlier investigation by Weber and Thorpe (1989) involving individuals with severe disabilities. It should be noted that the experiments with students without disabilities that did not include previously learned tasks in the distributed practice, reported no consistent differences in the rate of acquisition (Cuvo, Klevans, Borakove, Borakove, Van Landuyt, & Lutzker, 1980; Panyan & Hall, 1978; Schroeder & Baer, 1972). Thus, consistent with Dunlap (1984), Dunlap and Koegel (1980b), and Neef, Iwata, and Page (1980), it appears that the presence of maintenance tasks interspersed with new tasks to be learned may be very important for students with autism.

The results of the current study and a previous study by Weber and Thorpe (1989) suggest that the tasks being maintained might be influential by increasing reinforcement frequency. Dunlap (1984) suggested that learning may be promoted by an increased frequency of reinforcement, which acts as a motivating device. However, earlier studies by Koegel and Egel (1979) and Neef et al. (1980) indicated that an increase in reinforcement frequency will not necessarily facilitate learning. Much more research is needed in this area.

A second possible advantage for using TV may be that this technique can deal more effectively with the short attention span that is one of the characteristics of people with autism (French & Jansma, 1982; Sherrill, 1986). By matching the time spent on any one task with the given attention span of the student, teachers might provide more effective instruction. Sherrill (1986) indicated that the greatest challenges teachers face in teaching motor tasks are students' short attention spans, communication difficulties, and a pathological resistance to change, which is manifested by the observance of rituals. She also stated that because attention span is a problem, the use of task variation with each task presented for only a few minutes would appear to meet the needs of students with autism better than a constant task approach. However, Sherrill cautioned the resistance to change is manifested by observance of rituals and emotional outbursts; thus, changing the task every 2 or 3 min may lead to emotional outbursts or head-banging. In the current study, apart from one isolated instance on the first day, this type of behavior was not observed.

Finally, though the high improvement rates made by the task variation group may seem curious to some professionals, these rates are consistent with the results of the only other known study dealing with task variation in adapted physical education (Weber & Thorpe, 1989).


Several important implications for the teaching of students with autism in adapted physical education seem relevant.

1. The task variation method of teaching with maintenance tasks interspersed appears to be a superior method when compared with the constant task method.

2. The use of maintenance tasks interspersed with new tasks may logically contribute to the students' retention of the skills previously learned.

3. Randomly interspersed tasks being changed every 2 or 3 min appears to be highly effective because of the limited attention span of people with autism.

4. The use of teaching stations or a similar teaching technique that changes activities regularly would probably be effective with this population.

Given the hindrance of the small number of subjects in this study, we urge a conservative approach in generalizing these results. Additional study is needed. As with most field studies, the results of this experiment must be integrated with care.


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Author:Weber, Robert C.; Thorpe, Joanne
Publication:Exceptional Children
Date:Sep 1, 1992
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