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The Errors we See- Discrimination challenges in children with autism and Learning Disabilities – Part I

The author is a Board-Certified Behavior Analyst and works with Behavior Momentum India as a Research Associate, Faculty in teaching Applied Behavior Analysis course sequence and trains therapists who work with children with autism. He attempts to avoid jargon to make topics in Applied Behavior Analysis intelligible to parents of children with autism and learning disabilities, students, and therapists. The views in this blog are his own. This is the first blog and is expected to run into 3 parts because of the vast amount challenges in teaching receptive language to children with autism and recent advances.

David is a 4-year-old boy with developmental disabilities. One day his mom was excited. She was working at training identification of everyday objects from a small array of 3 different objects and he seemed to get it right with 7-8 objects such as a spoon, cup, top and fork wherever they are placed in an array. At the ABA center he went to during the day, his case manager was surprised by mom’s report. At the center, David would only get his identifications right only 25- 30% of the time, around a chance level of success, as if he were selecting randomly. He requisitioned videos of sessions from home and played them a few times over and found that a simplified array of stimuli was being used. There would be the target object, selecting which produced rewards and two other objects such as scissors and crayon that the parent never asked. David had figured that he needs to go for the spoon or the cup whenever they appeared in the array- he did not have to listen to what was asked for and make a discriminated selection. When probed with spoon, cup, and fork in the same array, hi correct selections dropped to chance levels as now the correct response depended on his selection also tallying with what the adult asked for.


Girls who buy nail polish need to know the difference between two shades that are close to each other in appearance- one could be “just her type” and another one not so! Children with autism and learning disabilities often have serious problems mastering discrimination tasks. One of the reasons is making a selection based on one element or feature of an object instead of attending to all the parts. This is called stimulus over selectivity. For instance, a child whose attention is only on wheels may not be able to identify a car if a truck and a van are also present in the array of vehicle pictures. Examples of making a response based on attending to an incorrect part abound. Discrimination training procedures involve the use of rewarding correct responses, prompting and prompt fading procedures and may inadvertently result in responses with errors or prompt dependence.

Let’s look at some more examples of errors. At a simple level, let us say a student is taught to respond to the instruction “touch head” by touching his or her own head. When “touch elbow” is introduced as a next target, the student could proceed to touch his head as soon as he hears the word “touch”. Similar problems exist with training to answer questions such as “what is your name” and  “What is your mother’s name”. The response “David” could be blurted out as soon as “what is” is heard. A child who is taught to answer “air” when asked what does fan give could reply with “air” when asked what does cow give”. It is quite possible that the “what” or “give” part of the question controls the students answer of “air” and not the “fan” or “cow”.

At a certain stage of learning, generalization must stop and discrimination must set in. There could also be a problem of over generalization without discrimination setting in (or being taught). A child taught to request for “hug” from parent’s could request hug from complete strangers. A child who is taught to say “daddy” with her dad’s picture (let’s say dad sports a beard in the picture) starts labeling other pictures of persons with a beard also as “daddy”. Many children on the spectrum who perform discriminative tasks with nouns well, fail when it comes to discriminating even between the basic colors of red, blue, green and yellow. I have come across students who do a perfect job of matching red card to card, blue card to blue card and so on. However, when they are asked to point at the red card or the yellow card or the blue, in an array that has all these cards things start going wrong. There is some other discrimination issue at work here. Discrimination challenges are part of everyday life with all humans. Husbands could buy the wrong gift on the anniversary day, a writer, could place too many, commas in his sentences, or cops could overlook important evidence at the crime site and obsess with non-essentials while the criminal is thriving and on the run. However, with children with autism and other learning disabilities, these problems acquire serious proportions across several areas of their learning and the error patterns could become stronger confounding parents and therapists.
Behavior Analysts use research based methods to identify error patterns, understand why they could occur in discrimination training and use specific strategies to overcome these.I will look forward to examining additional error patterns and the current state of research on how they can be overcome in the next parts of this series on discrimination training.

Your queries will help me reflect further. Do send them to smbehavioranalysis@gmail.com

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