Two young boys with autism who used the picture exchange communication system were taught to solve problems (improvise) by using descriptors (functions, colors, and shapes) to request desired items for which specific pictures were unavailable. The results of a multiple baseline across descriptors showed that training increased the number of improvised requests, and that these skills generalized to novel items, and across settings and listeners in the natural environment.

DESCRIPTORS: improvisation, problem solving, picture exchange communication system, augmentative and alternative communication, autism


Language and communication are major areas of concern for children with autism (Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, American Psychiatric Association, 2000). Research has shown that augmentative and alternative communication (AAC) systems, such as sign language, electronic communica- tion aids, and the picture exchange communi- cation system (PECS), can increase the com- municative interactions of children with autism and enable them to exercise control over their environments (e.g., by making requests) (Char- lop-Christy, Carpenter, Le, LeBlanc, & Keller, 2002; Frost & Bondy, 1994; Schepis, Reid, Behrmann, & Sutton, 1998; Sundberg & Partington, 1998; Wacker, Wiggins, Fowler, & Berg, 1988). When a child is beginning to develop skills with AAC systems, however, communication may be limited to a relatively

small number of signs or symbols. On the other hand, as a child’s language repertoire expands, communication with some selection-based AAC systems may require more time and effort to locate and select individual symbols from a large array (Sundberg & Partington, 1998) and the number of pictures or graphic symbols that can be accommodated may eventually surpass the system’s capacity for efficient use. In either case, the range of stimuli in the environment might exceed the number of corresponding symbols that are available for children to express momentary needs or wants.

To use AAC systems efficaciously in such situations, children may need to learn problem- solving strategies. According to Bijou (1976), ‘‘problem solving refers to interactions in which a person cannot respond immediately either to reduce ongoing deprivation of reinforcing stimuli, or to escape or avoid aversive stimuli and therefore sets about to alter the situation so that he can make a reinforceable response’’ (p. 70). As applied to AAC systems, one problem-solving strategy would be to identify alternative symbols that could be used to generate a reinforceable response (e.g., a mand) when a single specific symbol for a stimulus is not readily available. For example, ‘‘purple’’ and ‘‘drink’’ might be used in the absence of a symbol for grape juice.

This research was based on a thesis submitted by the first author in partial fulfillment of the requirements for the MA degree at The Ohio State University. We thank Jacqueline Wynn for her collaboration and support, and Robin Ludwig, Anjenette Santelli, and Lorie Zimmerman for their assistance with data collection.

Requests for additional information concerning this study can be sent to Julie M. Marckel, c/o Nancy A. Neef, PAES, College of Education, The Ohio State University, 1945 N. High St., 367 Arps Hall, Columbus, Ohio 43210 (e-mail: neef.2@osu.edu).

doi: 10.1901/jaba.2006.131-04





Parsonson and Baer (1978) taught 5 pre- school children a similar problem-solving strategy that involved improvisation (i.e., ‘‘find- ing an effective, possibly unconventional, sub- stitute to replace some specifically designed but currently unavailable item,’’ p. 364) as applied to the use of play tools. The children were taught to identify the essential characteristics of the unavailable tool to solve the problem and to search for an effective alternative. For example, in the absence of a hammer, the child could use a brick to pound a peg. Training involved a diverse array of exemplars within one or more of three classes of tools (hammers, containers, and shoelaces). Only novel improvisations were reinforced with descriptive praise. The results of a multiple baseline design across tool classes and participants showed that training increased generalized improvisation within the tool classes trained, although improvisation did not occur across untrained tool classes.

We sought to extend the literature on problem solving by teaching young children with autism to improvise when communicating with PECS. The purposes of the study were to examine (a) the effectiveness of training the use of descriptors in enabling children to make a wide range of requests with a limited number of symbols and (b) the extent to which training resulted in generalized use of improvisation to request items for which specific individual symbols were unavailable.


Participants, Setting, and Materials

The director of a clinic for young children with autism had referred 2 boys (Ike, age 5, and Khan, age 4) who met the DSM IV-TR diagnostic criteria for autism and the inclusion criteria of (a) color, shape, and action matching- to-sample skills and (b) independent use of PECS stimuli to make requests (although we did not specifically assess participants’ indepen- dent use of the particular symbols for the preferred stimuli used in the study). The experiment was conducted in the participants’ homes. Teaching materials included preferred stimuli and the participant’s PECS book. Preferred stimuli were initially identified during interviews with the children’s parents and therapists. Stimuli that were confirmed as preferred during baseline were then randomly divided into two sets designated for training and generalization probes, respectively. The partic- ipants’ PECS books were altered by removing the symbols for identified preferred stimuli and inserting pictures of descriptors (see Table 1).

Experimental Conditions

Baseline probes. Baseline probes were con- ducted to determine whether the children would improvise to request items for which specific pictures were unavailable in their PECS books. During each of the 10 trials per session, the therapist displayed two to five preferred

Table 1

Descriptors and Examples of Improvised Requests

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