Testing and Developing a Protocol for Training and Assessment of Relational Precursors and Abilities
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This thesis involved testing and further developing a multi-level computer-based protocol for the assessment of core language skills in typically developing children and children with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD). The Training and Assessment of Relational Precursors and Abilities (TARPA; Moran, Stewart, McElwee & Ming, 2010) is based on a Relational Frame Theory (RFT; Hayes, Barnes-Holmes & Roche, 2001) conception of language and cognition. RFT is situated within behaviour analysis and is based on the premise that learned contextually controlled patterns of derived relational responding underpin all language and cognitive abilities. The aim of the TARPA is to enable assessment and training of the earliest stages of the emergence of this ability. The purpose of this work was to validate the basic TARPA protocol and to further improve aspects of it over the course of several experiments focused on the assessment of derived relational ability in children of different ages and including both typically developing children and children with ASD for whom generative language is a particular problem. Experiments 1 (n = 10) and 2 (n = 13) validated the TARPA as an assessment protocol in children with ASD and typically developing children respectively. These studies involved (i) examining quantitative correlations between the TARPA and the Preschool Language Scale-4 (PLS-4; Zimmerman, Steiner & Pond, 2002) and (ii) testing the proposed hierarchical sequence of stages and sub-stages using order analysis (Krus, Bart & Airasian, 1975). The results showed strong correlations between the TARPA and the PLS-4 and the order analysis confirmed that, for the most part, the structure of the TARPA was robust. The third experiment involving typically developing children (n = 10) was similar to Studies 1 and 2 in that it correlated the TARPA with the PLS-4 but it also adapted the protocol to deal with certain technical issues that arose in Study 1. Study 4 (with 26 typically developing children) advanced this work further by (i) correlating the TARPA with additional measures of cognitive functioning (i.e., Stanford-Binet 5; Roid, 2003) and (ii) investigating the effect of the order of presentation of TARPA tracks (sections of the protocol that are based on different stimulus modalities including auditory, visual and audiovisual) on participants overall score. Results showed strong and significant correlations between the TARPA and both the PLS-4 and SB5 which were comparable with correlations between the two latter. A strong track order effect was also evident in that presentation of the auditory track first seemed to negatively affect subsequent performance. Experiments 1- 4 provided detailed insights into the TARPA and the protocol evolved considerably based on findings from this regime of testing. Using the more refined version of the protocol that was developed in this way, a final study with children with ASD (n = 20) was conducted. This advanced previous work with this population by (i) using additional measures of functioning including the SB5, Vineland Adaptive Behavior Scales and the Gilliam Autism Severity scales and (ii) examining test-retest reliability. Results showed a strong and significant correlation between the TARPA and alternative measures of functioning. Other interesting patterns were also observed in that children performed substantially better on primarily visual tasks. In summary, the work presented in this thesis is promising for the future development of the TARPA and gives an early indication that the protocol could eventually provide a comprehensive tool for the assessment and training of core linguistic and cognitive abilities for use with a number of different populations, including typically developing children and children with ASD or other forms of developmental delay. This no doubt would constitute a key addition to existing tools for intensive behavioral intervention.
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