Imagine living in a world where you cannot tell others that you are hungry, tired, or want your favorite toy.
Many children with autism have limited communication skills; they live in that kind of world. These children often display high levels of severe challenging behavior, such as aggression or self-injury. Children who cannot communicate, use behaviors to get their needs met — a child wanting attention may bite his hand because he knows this will get his teacher’s attention.
Dr. Tonya Davis, assistant professor of educational psychology, studies methods for reducing challenging behavior in children with autism by giving individuals alternative means of communication, such as using pictures or an electronic device that produces a spoken message when activated.
Initially, she must determine what the child is trying to communicate with the challenging behavior. The next step is to teach a more appropriate alternative. Her research studies the best ways to prepare children for communication intervention. Dr. Davis says, "teaching a child to communicate is truly life-altering, for both the child and the caregivers."
Her current study seeks to determine if communication intervention is improved by allowing a child to play with a desired toy before teaching the child how to ask for the toy. In pilot studies, this technique has improved the teaching sessions. Future research will refine and expand this concept.
Dr. Davis, who hopes to hear soon about recent grant proposals, has prepared national articles and presentations on the subject, including for the Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders and the Association of Behavior Analysis conferences. She will be on sabbatical this coming summer to conduct research.