Tips for helping those on the autism spectrum better socialize with their peers and others were offered Thursday during day one of the sixth annual International Pivotal Response Treatment (PRT) Autism and Asperger’s Conference at UC Santa Barbara.
Autism experts, educators, clinicians, parents and even some grandparents gathered in the Corwin Pavilion for the start of the two-day event, which is sponsored by UCSB’s Koegel Autism Center and typically draws experts from around the world.
The conference on autism, Asperger’s syndrome and cutting-edge intervention and treatment strategies continues Friday and is open to the public.
Presentation topics ranged from children on the autism spectrum learning their first words to job-hunting strategies for adults.
Lynn Koegel, who is the director and namesake for the UCSB center along with her husband, Robert, gave a keynote address that focused on a child’s next step after learning his or her first words.
She explained that children typically ask a question, which she referred to as a conversation initiative, by age 1½, but that children on the spectrum take a bit longer to develop the habit.
While researching long-term social outcomes, Koegel said she was puzzled to find that autistic children with good verbal communication skills at a young age were doing so poorly later in life.
“Think about it,” she said as some attendees silently wrote notes. “When you work with kids with autism, they are getting these big vocabularies because we’re teaching them. If there are no adults with them, there’s no initiative for them to learn.
“Kids ask so many questions. That’s why we started deciding maybe if we did line of research using initiations, maybe they would have better outcomes.”
Koegel and others began a line of research to teach young children to say and understand using the phrase, “What’s that?” Success in that arena expanded questions to include “Where is it?” “Whose is it?” “What’s happening?” and more.
She showed several videos to illustrate her point, and mentioned a similar study the center has conducted with college students.
“We realized that they really had a small group of verbs,” Koegel said. “Sometimes the past tense is really hard for kids with autism.”
Asking questions seemed to improve long-term outcomes, limit disruptiveness, increase language function and led to improved social interactions — at any age.
Koegel laughed when recalling that some parents thought the question asking was almost too effective, since their children couldn’t seem to stop their inquisitiveness.
“I really feel like we make such big gains with initiations,” she said. “We really feel like this is an important area.”