Objective: Language dysfunction is one of the core symptoms of children with autism spectrum disorders. In 1957, Skinner put forward the concept of verbal behavior. He believed that the underlying process of learning to comprehend and speak language is fundamentally similar to the process of other observable behaviors, such as walking and dancing. In 2001, based on the theoretical foundation of verbal behavior, Hayes et.al proposed a new perspective of human language and cognition, Relational Frame Theory, which explains linguistic generativity in terms of learned contextually controlled relational responding referred to as relational framing. A considerable amount of research has shown that children with autism spectrum disorders (ASD) have difficulty with figurative language, specifically with metaphorical language. As a common language phenomenon and competence, metaphor is a restriction to the language development and interpersonal communication of children with ASD. However, few studies have attempted to teach children with ASD to understand metaphor. Relational framing theory (RFT) came up with a behavioral approach to the topic of metaphorical language and it treats relating, per se as learned behavior. The current study attempt to construct and evaluate the learning model of metaphorical reasoning for children with ASD in China by means of multiple exemplar training for teaching them to establish the relational frames among subjects in a metaphor. Research also explored children’s behavior changes during the training, which is both the theoretical and empirical base of further practice and application.
Methods:There are three experiments.
Study1: Establishing metaphorical reasoning in children with autism spectrum disorders: A pilot study. The design of the experiment was a single subject research design, and there were three main phases including baseline, multiple exemplar training and post-training. Participants included fourchildren, ages 12~16. The percentages of correct responses (i.e., accuracy) of each session was collected as evaluation indicators.
Study2: The evaluation of relational responding in children with autism spectrum disorders. 40 children with ASD from two to fifteen years of age participated with 67 children signed up at first. Each child individually completed an assessment of relational respondingand training and assessment of relational precursors and abilities (TARPA)in a quiet room. Data were collected on the percentage of correct response to each item.
Study3: Training derived metaphorical reasoning in children with autism spectrum disorders: A further test. A single subject research design was conducted in this experiment. 27 children from experiment one participated in the training program with fifteen children completed, so far. Each child was trained individually by their own parents at home after a two-hour centralized training for all parents. Daily training materials of each child were provided online when the previous one was accomplished.
Study1:Results revealed thatthefour children with ASDachievedin post-training phase and probe session, for accuracy data in all sessions reached above 80%. Furthermore, generalization to untrained metaphors was found and twoof themeven demonstrate the generalization to create their own metaphors.
Study2: (1)As a whole,children with ASD performed better in spatial relation and comparison, with an averagepercentage of correct responsesof more than 80%, and temporalrelation, hierarchical relationand coordinationcame the next, while the averagepercentage of correct responseswas weakest in metaphoricalreasoning and hierarchical relationship, which was less than 50%.Among the seven types of relations, hierarchical, metaphoricalreasoning, coordination, and hierarchical relationwereweakerthan those of normally developing childrenaged 4 to 7 years, and the averagepercentage of correct responsesof alltypes were weakerthan those of normally developingchildren aged 7 years. (2)Results showed thatthere werestatistical significant differences amongthe severity ofASD in children’s relational responding. No statisticalsignificancewas found between preschoolers and school-age children in all types of relations. (3) The results of TARPA showed that children above the age of three could almost accomplished the simple discrimination task, and most of them could continue to finish the non-arbitrary conditional discrimination task. However, for the arbitrary conditional discrimination task, only six participantscould pass the whole test. And there are seven participants only failed the last session (i.e., transfer of function), and fourparticipants only failed the last two sessions (i.e., combinatorial entailment and transfer of function).
Study3: (1) Among the fifteen participants, although two of them got high accuracies beforethe training program, theydid not that wellat the first session. With above three training sessions, one of themgot stable accuracy of 100%. Anotherachieved thatwith about thirteen sessions. In the same time, tenparticipants made significant progresses after approximately twenty training sessions and could reached above 80%even 100% after approximately thirty to forty training sessions. And especially, the other three participants broke through the accuracy of 0% after the first round training, though more training sessions were needed for further advance.(2) Participantswho used different difficulty levels of metaphorical stories or different types of relational responding all achieved success in the promotionof metaphorical reasoning and relational responding.(3) Additionally, five participants’ parents reported created metaphorof their children during the daily life. (4) Besides, according to participants’ parents, they could be familiar with the training operation after approximately five sessions and could see progressof their children after approximately ten session.
Conclusion:The result reveals that (1) compared to normally developing children, the competence of derived relational responding of children with autism spectrum disorderswas severely defective. The more severe the symptoms, the weaker the ability of derived relational responding. Furthermore, there is no measurable development with the growth of children, so applicable intervention is indispensable and crucial; (2) by means of multiple exemplar training for establishing derived metaphorical reasoning inchildren with autism spectrum disorders, they could learn to understand derived relational responding especially the metaphorical reasoning. And generalization to untrained metaphors wasremarkable; (3)the training model of derived metaphorical reasoning in the research is viable and effective. Parents of children with autism spectrum disorderscould master the training methods and conduct personalized training under guidance.