Teaching the Child to Answer Questions

Many children with Autism have difficulty answering questions. Parents often report that their child "knows the answers but doesn't understand the questions!" For example, the child may be able to point to (receptive) and label (tact) colors, but when asked, "What color?", may respond with the name (tact) of the item instead. When we teach a child to answer questions, we have to "link" types of questions with their responses. We have to be sure the child discriminates the response required for particular questions. The child typically already has a great deal of experience with questions. Unfortunately, the most typical learning history we see is that the child has "learned" to NOT answer questions! Parents, day care providers and others typically begin asking children questions when they are very young. If the child does not know how to respond, they don't! Those people asking the questions often don't know how to prompt the child or teach the child to answer the question so when the child doesn't respond, they do nothing. When reinforcement occurs after the child has not answered the question, it increases the future likelihood that the child will not answer a question the next time he is asked! For example, let's say a child is in a daycare and the teacher asks, "What are you doing?". If the child doesn't know the answer, he might just ignore the teacher. A typical response to this ignoring might be that the teacher asks again, a little louder. Again, the child wouldn't respond. The teacher might ask the question yet again, with some irritation in her voice. The child may find this interaction quite distasteful! (Aversive) Finally, the teacher might "give up" and walk away from the child. When this aversive interaction is "removed" as the teacher leaves, negative reinforcement may occur. (Taking away something aversive). This might result in the child responding the same way the next time he is asked a question. In fact, because of the child's history of finding this "question interaction" aversive, he may attempt to avoid the situation all together. (Creates an EO for escape) So, the next time someone asks him a question he may walk away! To avoid this type of "learning" it is best not to ask children questions to which they don't know the answer! When questions are asked, the child should be taught to respond appropriately using transfer, prompting and correction procedures. Just as in other learning situations, we can accomplish this by "using" the responses the child already has and "transferring" them to a response to a question. It is important to understand that questions become part of the set of stimulus conditions that specify which response will be reinforced. Because they contain controlling stimulus conditions, questions require a child to make conditional discriminations. The number of conditional discriminations required depends on the number of items present in the environment as well as the controlling stimuli involved in the question itself. For example, if a child has been taught to label objects (tact objects), he is taught to respond (by being reinforced when he does so) with the object name when he hears "What" as part of the question. Later, when taught to tact actions, the child must discriminate between "What" and "What.. doing" as part of the question in order to respond correctly. For this reason, it is suggested that instructors be careful to control the verbal stimuli (questions) used to initially teach tact responses to be sure the child is responding to the controlling stimuli present in the question. However, once discrimination has been achieved, it is also important to "loosen" the stimulus control of the question. Otherwise, the child will only be able to respond correctly if a very specific question is asked. For example, if stimulus control of the question is "too tight", the child may be able to respond "big" if asked, "What size?" but not if asked, "What does it look like?", "What kind?" or "Which one?". Or "What size is that?" Once the child is able to discriminate the controlling variables in the questions, generalization can be programmed by transferring mastered responses to new conditions and "loosening" the control of the specific question.

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