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Verifying teacher perceptions of the potential communicative acts of children with autism.

The authors sought to verify teacher perceptions of prelinguistic behavior in eight children with autism. Teachers were first interviewed using the structured protocol of the Inventory of Potential Communicative Acts. The results indicated that the teachers interpreted many of the children's gestures, body movements, and facial expressions as if these were forms of communication. Naturalistic and structured observations were then undertaken to verify whether these teacher-identified behaviors did in fact seem to serve a communicative function. Observational data provided some evidence that teachers responded to such acts as forms of communication. This suggests that an interview protocol may be one way to document the form and communication function of existing prelinguistic behaviors in children with autism who are at the early stages of communication development.


Although communication impairment has been listed in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders--Fourth Edition (DSM-IV; American Psychiatric Association, 1994) as a defining characteristic of autism, rarely do children with autism lack any means of communication. These children may have limited speech and lack other formal or conventional means of communication, but some of them do appear to acquire informal and idiosyncratic behaviors that are used to communicate basic regulatory functions such as requesting and rejecting. Their informal prelinguistic acts might consist of facial expressions, body movements, and idiosyncratic gestures. For example, a child may move an adult's hand to the door to request assistance in opening the door (Carr & Kemp, 1989). Other children may develop problem behaviors that serve a communicative function. For example, a child may throw a tantrum to gain access to preferred items (Carr & Durand, 1985).

These acts often are referred to as prelinguistic or nonsymbolic communication (Siegel-Causey & Guess, 1989; Wetherby & Prizant, 1992), but such terms imply that the behaviors do in fact have an intentional communicative basis, which they may not. It could be that some adults, such as teachers, merely attribute a communicative function to the child's behavior when in fact it is not a form of communication. Instead, the behavior could be an orienting response, a postural adjustment, or even an involuntary movement. In addition, these terms do not adequately describe the possible use of seemingly more conventional forms of communication, such as manual signs, graphic symbols, and vocalizations. Although such forms may appear communicative to others, they are not necessarily used by the child with any intent to communicate (Stephenson & Linfoot, 1996).

Recently, the term potential communicative act (PCA) has been used to describe behaviors that others might interpret as communicative but where it is unclear whether the child is in fact attempting to communicate in any intentional manner (Sigafoos et al., 2000). In typically developing children, it is thought that these early PCAs are shaped into intentional forms of communication when parents both interpret and react to the acts as if the child was in fact attempting to communicate, even though these actions may not initially have a communicative function or purpose (Bates, Camaioni, & Volterra, 1975).

Unlike those of typically developing children, the early PCAs of children with developmental disabilities are often so limited, subtle, idiosyncratic, and inconsistent that it may be difficult for parents, teachers, and speech-language pathologists to recognize them as having any communicative potential. As a result, the critical adult response may not occur, and these acts never develop into intentional and more conventional forms of communication. Developing such acts into effective forms of communication has thus become a focus of recent communication interventions for children with developmental disabilities (Drasgow, Halle, & Ostrosky, 1998; Reichle, Halle, & Drasgow, 1998; Sigafoos, Laurie, & Pennell, 1996).

An initial first step in any such intervention effort would be to identify the existing PCAs in the child's repertoire and their communicative function, if any. Once they are identified, a teacher might then be able to set the occasion for these acts by arranging appropriate communicative temptations. If these temptations were successful in evoking the behavior, the teacher would then react to the child's communicative attempt in ways that would be consistent with the presumed function of the act. This approach could in turn be used to shape more recognizable forms of communication. It thus would seem important to undertake an initial assessment to identify PCAs in children with developmental disabilities prior to starting a communication intervention to develop their prelinguistic behaviors into more effective and conventional forms of communication.

Along these lines, Sigafoos et al. (2000) described a structured interview protocol that is designed to identify PCAs in children with developmental disabilities. The protocol involves structured interviews with communicative partners (e.g., parents or teachers) using the Inventory of Potential Communicative Acts (IPCA; Sigafoos et al.). From the interview, information is obtained about the child's informal or idiosyncratic behaviors that these partners interpret as the child's attempts to communicate. An important issue is the extent to which these perceptions or interpretations are valid. A teacher may think that the child's body movements or facial expressions are communicating a particular function or intent, but this could simply be an incorrect assumption or a type of overinterpretation by the teacher.

In the present study, we wanted to determine whether the communicative forms attributed to eight children with autism by their teachers could in fact be verified through direct observation as having a communicative function. If the teacher's interpretations proved to be verifiable in this way, it would provide some evidence that teacher-provided information can in fact represent a valid and efficient way of identifying the communicative function of existing prelinguistic acts in children who are at the early stages of communication development.


Participants and Setting

Eight children with severe autism participated in the study. All lived at home with their families and attended an educational program on a part-time basis. Patrick and Ian attended the same preschool class with two other children. Beth attended a preschool program for 12 children with developmental disabilities. Alex's preschool class consisted of 4 to 6 children with developmental disabilities. Dave, Seth, Jake, and Rue attended a program for children with autism and were in the same classroom.

For descriptive purposes, standardized assessments of language development, adaptive behavior, and problem behaviors were completed. Language age equivalencies were obtained from the Receptive-Expressive Emergent Language Test-Second Edition (REEL-2; Bzoch & League, 1991). This developmental checklist provides age scores from birth to 3 years for both the expressive and receptive language domains. Adaptive behavior was assessed by using a rating scale developed specifically for children with severe disabilities (The Topeka Association for Retarded Citizens [TARC] Assessment System; Sailor & Mix, 1975). The device yields an overall standard score with a mean of 50 and a standard deviation of 20. Problem behaviors were rated by using the Developmental Behaviour Checklist (DBC; Einfeld & Tonge, 1994). The DBC is a 96-item instrument that yields a total behavior score, giving an overall measure of emotional and behavioral disturbance. Results from these standardized assessments and other descriptive data for each child are presented in Table 1.

The results from the initial standardized assessments showed that all 8 children had major deficits in expressive and receptive language and adaptive behavior functioning, which is consistent with their diagnosis of severe autism. None of the children had acquired speech or any other conventional or consistent means of communication (e.g., manual signs). All were functioning at or below the 9-month age level receptively and at or below the 6-month age level in expressive language development. Total scores on the DBC were translated into percentile rankings. Percentile rankings for the children in this study on the DBC ranged from the 54th to 97th percentile, indicating severe levels of emotional and behavioral disturbance.

Interview Protocol, Procedures, and Analysis

The IPCA is an interview protocol designed for use with parents, teachers, or therapists of children with developmental and physical disabilities who have severe communication impairments (Sigafoos et al., 2000). It is designed to obtain information about children's informal or idiosyncratic behaviors that might be interpreted by others as forms of intentional communication. The version of the IPCA used in this study is described in detail elsewhere (Sigafoos et al.). It includes a series of questions addressing the major communicative functions identified through an extensive literature review (see Table 2). For example, to assess the communicative function of Requesting an Object, informants are asked to describe how the child indicates that he or she wants (a) an object e.g., toy or book), (b) something to eat, (c) more of something, (d) TV or music, or (e) other. For the communicative function of Rejecting/Protesting, in contrast, informants are asked to describe what the child does if (a) his or her routine is disrupted, (b) he or she is required to do something that he or she does not want to do, (c) he or she does not like something, (d) a favorite toy or food is taken away, (e) an adult terminates an interaction, or (f) other.

The first author interviewed each child's teacher at the school using the IPCA. Only teachers who had been involved in the child's education for at least 3 months were interviewed because 3 months was considered the minimum amount of time for teachers to acquire knowledge of the child's behavior. Four teachers were interviewed. Patrick and Ian had the same teacher who had known Patrick for 3 months and Ian for 7 months. Seth, Jake, Rue, and Dave's teacher had known Seth for 3 months and the other students for 5 months. These students attended this program three times a week for 5 hours at each time. Alex's teacher had known him for 3 months and saw him three times per week for approximately 3 hours per session. Beth's teacher had known her for 3 months, and sessions were held twice a week for 2 hours.

At the beginning of each interview, the teacher was provided with the list of behaviors shown in Figure 1 and told that these and similar types of behaviors might possibly serve a communicative function for some children with developmental disabilities. The interviewer then asked the informant to answer each of the questions contained in the IPCA and recorded the informant's responses by writing them directly on the interview protocol. Data from the interviews were summarized to generate a list of each child's behaviors that were interpreted by the teacher as serving a communicative function. Each combination of the form(s) (e.g., reaching) that were said to be used to achieve a specific communicative function (e.g., requesting an object) represented a PCA. To illustrate, when asked to "describe how the child indicates he wants something to eat," Ian's teacher said, "He takes my hand and leads it to the object or just reaches for it." In Ian's case, then, leading the teacher's hand to an object and/or reaching for an object were perceived by the teacher to be serving the communicative function of Requesting an Object. As another example, Beth was said to "scream, run away, or go rigid" to indicate she did not like something. This cluster of forms was therefore viewed by the teacher as Beth's way of Rejecting/ Protesting. Our study was aimed at attempting to verify whether the teachers were correct in their views.
FIGURE 1. Behaviors that may be communicative.

sound                        rapid
yell/scream                  slow
grunt                        hold
cry/whine                    air swallow
laugh                        sigh
move closer                  CHALLENGING
move away                    BEHAVIOR
tensing                      aggression
wriggling                    tantrum
repositioning                self-injury
head move
reaching                     STEREOTYPE
touching                     MOVEMENT
pushing                      flapping
pulling                      repetitive vocalization
pointing                     hand wringing
running away                 self-stimulation

lip purse                    FORMS
stare                        word approximation
eye open                     sign
eye close                    gesture
eye shift                    nod yes/no
gaze away                    eye point
gaze toward                  device

Verification Procedures

We developed two types of verification procedures: One involving naturalistic observations and the other involving structured observations. Evidence suggests that naturalistic observations might capture examples of communication behavior that are difficult to evoke in more structured assessment tasks, whereas structured assessment tasks can be arranged to evoke specific types of communicative functions (Iacono, Waring, & Chan, 1996).

Naturalistic Observations. Naturalistic observations were conducted at the child's school. For each child, three different activities that occurred within his or her typical classroom routine were selected for observation. Activities were chosen if they met the following criteria: (a) they were considered by the teacher to provide communicative opportunities for the child, (b) they lasted at least 10 minutes, and (c) they were scheduled at times and in locations that would allow us to videotape them (e.g., toileting and other personal care routines were excluded). The activities selected included therapy sessions (e.g., gross motor), small-group instruction (e.g., hearing a story), music activities, toy play, arts and crafts activities, and meal/snack times. A randomly selected period of 10 minutes during each activity was videotaped. This was repeated over three randomly selected days, providing a total of 90 minutes of videotape for each child.

These videotapes were analyzed for communicative form and function. Each tape was divided into 15-s intervals. The first author, a psychologist who was engaged in this study as part of her doctoral research and who had extensive experience in working with and assessing children with autism, acted as the primary observer. The primary observer paused the tape at the end of each interval and recorded the presence of any potential communicative acts, using the following definition from Wetherby and Prutting (1984): "A communicative act began when the child initiated interaction with the adult or an object and was terminated when the child's attentional focus shifted or a turn was exchanged" (p. 369).

Each potential communicative act, as defined above, was then coded for communicative function according to the definitions given in Table 2. These definitions were the same as those used in the IPCA and were derived from a review of the literature (Cirrin & Rowland, 1985; Coggins & Carpenter, 1981; Donnellan, Mirenda, Mesaros, & Fassbender, 1984; Dore, 1975; Drasgow & Halle, 1995; Halliday, 1975; Iacono et al., 1996; Linfoot, 1994; McLean & Snyder-McLean, 1987).

For the final step of the analysis, the primary observer referred to the teacher's IPCA to determine if the forms used in the videotapes matched the forms identified by the teacher on the IPCA. Verification was recorded if the forms identified by the teacher and those observed on the tape for the same communicative function were identical. A partial verification occurred when there were fewer or more forms reported by the teacher for a particular function than those coded by the researcher. Nonverification was scored when the forms that the teacher said were used to achieve a specific function were different from the forms observed on the videotape. For example, during the IPCA interview, the teacher might have indicated that reaching and vocalizing were the forms used by a child to request an object. During naturalistic observation, if the child reached for an object in a way that met the Wetherby and Prutting (1984) definition for a communicative act and also met the definition for Requesting an Object (see Table 2) but did not vocalize, this would be recorded as only a partial verification.

Structured Observations. Structured observations took place in the child's classroom. To begin with, two or three examples of PCAs were selected from all of the PCAs reported for each child from the teacher's IPCA. Selections were based on a number of factors:

1. Behaviors were chosen from at least two communicative functions for each child to provide verification opportunities across different functions.

2. The examples chosen needed to be easily replicated in the classroom over 10 opportunities. This eliminated some examples of commenting, as it would have been inappropriate to create opportunities for the child to indicate feelings such as fright and pain.

3. The teacher was consulted about the choice of examples because the assessment data from this study were to be used in a later intervention.

4. The chosen examples were considered to be ones in which the child would be motivated to communicate, as they represented conditions under which the teacher reported the child had attempted to communicate in the past.

Table 3 shows the examples selected for each child.

Ten opportunities were provided to observe the child's response to each chosen communicative function. A structured observation opportunity involved presenting a communicative opportunity to the child and waiting 10 s to see if the child would produce the anticipated communicative form associated with the identified function. For example, a communicative opportunity to request food involved the teacher sitting opposite the child during snack time with the child's food out of reach. All 10 opportunities were conducted at a time when the child would normally eat these snack foods. This was designed to create the need and opportunity for the child to communicate the relevant function, which in this case was to request food. Another example, the opportunity to request help, involved giving the child a sealed jar containing a highly preferred edible. This created the need and opportunity for the child to request help in opening the jar. Each set of 10 opportunities was presented in a single session on the same day.

An instance of verification was recorded if the child displayed the communicative form that had been identified by the teacher on the IPCA and was associated with that communicative function within 10 s. If the child did not respond within 10 s, or responded with a behavior other than the one identified by the teacher, this was recorded and classified as an instance of nonverification. A waiting period of 30 s was allowed for Ian because initial observations indicated his response latency typically exceeded 10 s.

Interobserver Agreement

In all instances, the primary observer was the first author. The second observer was a doctoral student who was experienced in teaching children with autism and was undertaking doctoral research involving the coding of prelinguistic behaviors. For the naturalistic observations, the second observer independently scored 33% of the videotapes for each child. These selections were chosen randomly from each of the three activities. The observer reviewed the coding definitions, and any issues or confusions raised by her concerning these definitions were clarified before she actually scored any of the videotapes. Reliability was calculated separately for each category (potential communicative act, function, and IPCA verification) using the following formula:

Agreements/(Agreements + Disagreements) x 100%.

For the naturalistic observations, an agreement was counted when the two observers recorded the same information within each 15-s interval for that category. For example, to score an agreement on the occurrence of a communicative function, both observers had to assign the same function to the child's behavior. Percentage agreements for the identification of potential communicative acts ranged from 94% to 100%, with a mean of 97%. For communicative function, mean agreement was 89% and ranged from 79% to 95%. Percentage agreements for verification of teacher responses to the IPCA ranged from 64% to 100%, with a mean of 81%.

For the structured observations, the second observer independently scored occurrences of communicative forms. These data were then compared to the data obtained by the primary observer. Reliability data were collected for each child on at least 30% of the opportunities (range = 30%--100%, M = 50%). An agreement was counted if the two observers recorded the same communicative form or both recorded the absence of the form following an opportunity. Any discrepancy was recorded as a disagreement. A percentage of agreement was calculated at the end of each set of structured observations using the following formula:

Agreements/(Agreements + Disagreements) x 100%.

Percentages of agreement ranged from 79% to 100%, with a mean of 96%.


The percentages of 15-s naturalistic intervals that included a communicative function for each child are shown in Table 4. Rejecting/protesting was the function most frequently observed during the naturalistic observations (M = 12%, range = 2.5%-34%), followed by Requesting an Object (M = 5%, range = 1%-12%), Social Convention (M = 3.2%, range = 0%-6%), and Responding (M = 1.8%, range = 0.3%-4%). Rejecting/Protesting, Requesting an Object, and Responding were observed in every child. The functions of Requesting an Action, Attention to Self, Commenting, and Imitation were observed in some of the children, whereas Requesting Information was not observed in any of the children. The least commonly observed function was Imitation, with a mean of 0.3% (range = 0%-1%).

The percentage of communicative forms verified through naturalistic observation was calculated (see Table 5). Verifications were determined by comparing the form of each potential communicative act coded from the videotapes with the results from the teacher's responses to the IPCA. When the teacher-reported PCA form and function were observed on the videotape, these matches were scored as verifications. When there were fewer or more teacher-reported PCA forms and functions observed by the researcher, these were scored as partial verifications. When the forms reported by the teacher for a function were different from those observed on the videotape, nonverification was recorded. Verification levels ranged from 4% to 26%, with a mean of 14%. Partial verification ranged from 23% to 85%, with a mean of 63%. Overall, 77% of the potential communicative acts observed in the classroom during the naturalistic observations were consistent with those identified by teachers when they were interviewed. Nonverification ranged from 4% to 69%, with a mean of 23%. The highest levels of nonverification occurred for Ian (69%) and Alex (32%). These two children also had the least number of observed potential communicative acts--52 for Ian and 53 for Alex--compared with a range of 66 to 160 for the other children.

The percentages of opportunities where teacher-reported PCA forms and functions were observed for each child in the structured assessments are shown in Table 6. Percentages ranged from 0% to 100%, with a mean of 70%. A score of 0% occurred for two children, Alex and Seth. For Alex, the teacher identified two behaviors for Rejecting/Protesting and only one of these behaviors (trying to take the item back) was observed in 60% of the opportunities, whereas the other behavior (vocalizing) was not observed. Similarly, for Seth, two behaviors were identified by the teacher as his way of Requesting an Action, but only one of these was observed during all (100%) of the opportunities. The other behavior was not observed during any of the opportunities. A similar pattern of verification of one behavior while a second behavior occurred less frequently was also evident in the results for Dave and Rue.


Results from the interviews indicated that these teachers interpreted many of the children's subtle and idiosyncratic behaviors as forms of communication. The subsequent observations, both naturalistic and structured, suggested that some of the communicative forms identified by the teachers were associated with the communicative functions that they specified. These data provide evidence that the teachers had identified prelinguistic acts that were present in the children's repertoires.

The naturalistic observations undertaken in this study were subjected to detailed analyses before assigning a communicative function to any of the children's observed behavior. Although this was a labor-intensive process, it appeared to be an appropriate way to judge whether any of the behaviors could be defined as communicative. Although many of the behaviors observed did meet the criteria for communication and were consistent with the results from the teacher interviews, it was also the case that many of the teacher-identified PCAs were only partially verified through use of this detailed analysis. This may reflect to some extent the rather strict verification criteria. For example, if a teacher identified reaching and vocalizing as the child's way of Requesting an Object, a partial verification would be scored if the child showed only one of these behaviors during an observation session. In addition, because the naturalistic observation involved a relatively short period of observation across only three activities (e.g., snack time, therapy session, and toy play), the absence of some functions and forms that were identified by teachers in the interview could reflect a lack of opportunity to produce these functions during the videotaped observations (Iacono et al., 1996; Wetherby & Rodriguez, 1992). An increase in the number and range of observations conducted in any future research may help to address this issue. A low level of occurrence of certain types of communicative behaviors (e.g., Commenting) during the naturalistic observations may also help to explain why some teacher-reported potential communicative acts were not verified through our detailed analysis of the videotapes.

In an attempt to directly create the need and opportunity for a sample of PCAs identified by the teachers, we also implemented structured observations. Our data suggest that these structured observations were effective in evoking, and therefore directly verifying, at least some of the PCAs identified by teachers. For some individuals, however, only partial verification was achieved. For Dave and Rue, the behaviors that occurred infrequently represented more symbolic forms (pointing to a photograph or signing) that may not yet be performed consistently because these behaviors were in the process of being taught. For others, the lack of verification may reflect inconsistent use of the behavior by the child. Additional structured observation trials that sought to evoke a range of communicative functions may be indicated in future research.

The somewhat low verification rates in the naturalistic and structured observations may also reflect difficulties associated with reliably identifying PCAs in children with severe communication impairments. Although this may be a difficult process, there could be important implications in pursuing this line for intervention purposes. For example, von Tetzchner (1997) has suggested the use of "structured overinterpretation" in which communication partners systematically interpret and react to behaviors that seem to indicate intentions related to interests, needs, and preferences. The procedures outlined in this study provide a starting point for selecting PCAs for intervention. The IPCA does appear to be a useful tool for identifying behaviors interpreted by teachers as communicative. Verifying these behaviors through observation provides the interventionist with greater confidence that they may serve a communicative function.

Although during the interviews the teachers identified seven different communicative functions in these children's repertoires, the number of functions observed in the naturalistic verification procedure was more restricted. As noted previously, this could reflect a lack of opportunity for the function to occur or overinterpretation on the part of the teachers. Studies of typically developing children at the prelinguistic stage have generally revealed that they engage in many communicative functions related to behavior regulation (e.g., Rejecting/Protesting) but also engage in more social forms of communication involving joint attention (Wetherby, Cain, Yonclas, & Walker, 1988). In this study, however, the most commonly observed functions were those associated with behavior regulation (e.g., Requesting an Object and Rejecting/ Protesting). The least commonly observed functions were those of a more social nature, such as Commenting and Requesting Information. These results are consistent with studies suggesting that children with autism exhibit fewer purely social communication acts and might possibly lack the motivation to acquire such social communicative functions (McArthur & Adamson, 1996; Mundy & Willoughby, 1998). If this is the case, then perhaps the teachers in this study were attributing too much social communication to some of the children's acts, when these acts were mainly serving behavior regulation functions. It could also be the case that behavior regulation functions, such as Requesting and Rejecting/ Protesting, are more readily observed through naturalistic observation or that the contexts in which the children were observed in this study provided fewer opportunities for more social communicative functions.

A possible limitation of this research is the use of structured observations to assess only those forms and functions identified by the teachers on the IPCA. As it was the aim of this study to verify behaviors interpreted as communicative by the teachers, a number of PCAs were targeted for verification based on information obtained through the IPCA. An assessment of forms and functions not identified by the teachers--that is, forms and functions the teachers believed the child did not exhibit--could have provided interesting and important data about each child's communication profile. Such data might have contributed to the assessment of the validity of information obtained through the IPCA.

A further concern regarding this research relates to the variability of interobserver agreement across communicative functions and teacher responses. Similar concerns have been raised in other studies, particularly when coding preintentional communication in children with severe disabilities (Yoder, 1987; Yoder, Warren, Kim, & Gazdag, 1994). These findings highlight the difficulties inherent in consistently and reliably identifying communicative behavior in children with severe disabilities. Providing observers with more intensive training in coding procedures may help to address these issues in future studies.

Overall, the results provide evidence that some of these teachers' interpretations proved to be verifiable through direct observation. This suggests that an initial interview with teachers, using a device such as the IPCA, can be a potentially valid and efficient way of initially identifying the forms and functions of existing prelinguistic acts in children with developmental disabilities who are at the early stages of communication development. The failure to verify some of the teachers' interpretations indicates that interview protocols such as the IPCA may need to be supported with observational data to provide a more comprehensive profile of a child's communicative behavior.

Previous research has suggested that teachers may not always respond to the PCAs of children with developmental disabilities, especially if these acts are highly idiosyncratic and subtle or not easily discriminated, such as lip movements or grimaces (Houghton, Bronicki, & Guess, 1987). Results from the present study support the contention that these teachers were in fact able to identify and apparently correctly interpret some of the communicative forms and functions of many of the children's prelinguistic behaviors, even though these behaviors were idiosyncratic, unconventional, and often highly subtle. Systematically cataloging the children's existing communicative forms and functions may alert teachers to the fact that these acts, although idiosyncratic and subtle, have considerable communicative potential.

Our data provide evidence that an interview protocol, such as that used in the present study, may be one way to identify and document the communicative forms and functions of existing prelinguistic behaviors among children with developmental disabilities. This approach appears to yield some valid information on the communicative function of the children's existing behaviors. Armed with this information, parents, teachers, and other professionals may be better equipped to create opportunities for communication and respond more consistently to prelinguistic communicative attempts in ways that are likely to enhance a child's overall communication development.
TABLE 1. Description of Participants

                                    REEL-2 (in months)

Child     Age (yrs/mos)  TARC (a)  Receptive  Expressive  DBC (% rank)

Patrick       4:5           28        6           4           91
Ian           4:5           32        5           6           73
Beth          3:7           17        9           5           93
Dave          7:7           43        6           6           97
Rue           4:11          31        5           4           76
Jake          7:1           24        5           6           54
Alex          4:6           34        6           3           60
Seth          6:11          35        5           6           84

Note. TARC = Topeka Association for Retarded Citizens
Assessment System (Sailor & Mix, 1975); REEL-2 =
Receptive-Expressive Emergent Language Test (2nd
ed.; Bzoch & League, 1991); DBC = Developmental
Behaviour Checklist (Einfeld & Tonge, 1994).

(a) Overall standard score.
TABLE 2. Definitions of Communicative Functions

function             Definition

Requesting an   Behaviors initiated by the child that direct the
object          receiver to provide an object to the child.
                Interest is on the object desired, on the what
                rather than the how (e.g., child gets cup and
                gives it to the teacher; child tries to reach
                for an object that is out of reach).

Requesting an   Behaviors initiated by the child that direct the
action          receiver to cause an action to occur. Interest is
                on the action itself, not the object or person
                that the child is directing (e.g., child who
                needs help with a wind-up toy gives it to the
                teacher and waits).

Attention to    Behaviors used to call attention to the child
self            (e.g., child tugs at the teacher's clothes).

Commenting      Behaviors that direct the listener's attention
                to some observable referent, such as an action or
                movement of an object, its appearance or
                disappearance. Expressing feeling. Labeling using
                a word or sign while attending to an object or event
                (e.g., child looks at a balloon as it deflates and
                then looks at the teacher and laughs).

Social          Behaviors that occur in the context of a routine or
convention      convention. Greetings, responding to name, and turn
                taking are included (e.g., child turns to
                face the teacher when his or her name is called).

Rejecting/      Behavior that lets the listener know that the child
protesting      doesn't want something suggested or initiated by
                another, disapproves of something, or wishes to
                terminate an event that has already begun (e.g.,
                child throws toy given to him or her by the
                teacher onto the floor).

Responding      Behaviors produced in response to a question from
                another (e.g., child reaches for the cup when the
                teacher holds the cup and asks if the child
                wants a drink).

Requesting      Behaviors that direct the receiver to provide
information     information or clarification about an object,
                action, activity, or location.

Imitation       Repeating words or actions of another without waiting
                for a response.
TABLE 3. Communicative Forms and Functions Chosen for
Structured Observation Trials

Child     Example 1                       Example 2

Patrick   Choice making: Takes the        Protesting: Hits, runs away,
          one he wants, pushes away       kicks, vocalizes, throws
          the one he doesn't.             objects.

Ian       Requesting food: Takes          Choice making: Looks at
          teacher's hand or reaches       the one he wants longer;
          for it.                         takes the one he wants.

Beth      Requesting toy: Reaches         Protesting: Screams, runs
          for it.                         away, goes rigid.

Dave      Requesting help: Gives          Requesting food: Taps
          object, signs for help.         teacher's hand, signs for

Rue       Responding to name: Stops       Requesting food: Taps
          and looks toward teacher,       teacher's hand, signs
                                          for eat.

Jake      Requesting help: Taps           Requesting food: Taps
          teacher's hand, signs for       teacher's hand, signs
          help,  gives item to teacher.   for eat.

Alex      Requesting an object:           Choice making: Takes
          Reaches, vocalizes,             one he wants.

Seth      Requesting an action:           Requesting an object:
          Gives ob-                       Taps teacher's hand.
          [Text Incomplete]

Child      Example 3

Patrick    Not chosen

Ian        Requesting help: Vocalizes.

Beth       Choice making: Takes.

Dave       Choice making: Points to photo of
           food, takes food.

Rue        Choice making: Points to photo,
           takes item.

Jake       Choice making: Points to photo,
           takes item.

Alex       Protesting: Vocalizes, takes item.

Seth       Choice making: Points to photo,
           takes item.
TABLE 4. Percentage of Intervals with Each
Communicative Function

Function                Patrick   Ion     Beth   Dave

Requesting an object       5      2.8     7       2
Requesting an action       2      2.8     0.8     0
Social convention          0      3       0       6
Attention to self          0      0       0.3     8
Rejecting/protesting      34      2.5     18      5
Commenting                 0      0.6     0.8     0
Responding                 3      2       4       0.3
Imitation                  0      0.8     1       0

Function                 Rue    Joke   Alex    Seth

Requesting an object      6      12     1      3
Requesting an action      0      0      0      0
Social convention         4      6      0.6    6
Attention to self         0      3.8    0.3    0.3
Rejecting/protesting      9      4      8      14
Commenting                0      0.3    2      0.3
Responding                0.3    2      2      0.6
Imitation                 0      0      0.8    0
TABLE 5. Percentage of Communicative Forms Verified through
Naturalistic Observation and Number of PCAs

Verification level     Patrick   Ian   Beth   Dave   Rue

Verified                  4%      8%    26%    19%   12%
Partially verified       85%     23%    50%    58%   76%
Not verified             11%     69%    24%    23%   12%
# PCAs observed         160      52    115     75    66

Verification level     Jake  Alex   Seth

Verified                15%   13%    16%
Partially verified      81%   55%    77%
Not verified             4%   32%     7%
# PCAs observed         88    53     88
TABLE 6. Percentage of Trials in Which a PCA Was Observed in
Structured Assessments

Example   Patrick  Ian   Beth   Dave

1           50     100    100    80

2           90      90     50    90 (Tap)
                                 30 (Tap & sign)
3           na      60    100   100 (Take)
                                 30 (Photo & take)

Example   Rue                 Jake   Alex             Seth

1         50                   100   80               100 (Give)
                                                        0 (Vocalize)
2         100 (Tap)            100   90                80
          10 (Tap & sign)
3         80 (Take)             90   60 (Take back)    70
          50 (Photo & take)           0 (Vocalize)


1. Preparation of this article was supported in part by a grant from the Australian Research Council.

2. The article is based in part on the doctoral thesis of the first author at The University of Queensland.


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Deb Keen, PhD, is director of The Caroline Chisholm Centre, which is a collaboration between Brisbane Catholic Education and the School of Education at The University of Queensland. Her research interests include communication intervention, autism, and behavior problems. Gail Woodyatt, PhD, is a lecturer in the Department of Speech Pathology and Audiology at The University of Queensland. She is also a practicing speech pathologist. Her research interests are in communication development in both typically developing children and children with developmental disabilities. Jeff Sigafoos, PhD, is a professor in the Department of Special Education at The University of Texas at Austin. He undertakes research and teaching in the areas of developmental disability, communication intervention, and the treatment of severe behavior problems. Address: Deb Keen, Schonell Special Education Research Centre, The University of Queensland, Qld 4072, Brisbane, Australia; e-mail: deb.keen@
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Author:Keen, Deb; Woodyatt, Gail; Sigafoos, Jeff
Publication:Communication Disorders Quarterly
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Mar 22, 2002
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