Some children with Autism Spectrum Disorders have to cope with considerable deficits in social and communication skills. They may have difficulty understanding the expectations of them in certain social situations resulting in inappropriate behaviors. One intervention method that targets social skills and is often under-utilized is video modeling – observing appropriate behaviors on a monitor and, through repetition, learning to model those behaviors in day-to-day, real-life situations.
The science behind the effectiveness of video modeling is strong. In numerous studies, comprising decades of scientific research, video modeling has been shown to be the most effective method for teaching social skills and target behaviors to children with autism.
Target Behaviors and Skills
Research on children with autism has shown that video modeling can be very effective in improving the following skills and target behaviors: social interaction behaviors, academic and functional skills, communication skills, daily living skills, play skills, social initiations, perception of emotion, spontaneous requesting and perspective taking.
Video modeling can teach target behaviors very quickly compared to other methods, and the behavior is said to be “generalized” (i.e., the child is able to exhibit the behavior in real-life situations that are similar to the research scenario). In fact, a 2000 study comparing video modeling with in vivo modeling for teaching children with autism (Charlop-Christy, et al.) suggested that that video modeling led to faster acquisition of tasks than in vivo modeling and was effective in promoting generalization.
Video modeling also has been proven to decrease certain problem behaviors, including aggression, tantrums and other off-task activities.
Why Does Video Modeling Work?
There are several key characteristics of children with autism that favor the use of video modeling over other learning techniques. A study entitled “Video Modeling: Why Does It Work for Children with Autism?” (Corbett & Abdullah, 2005) lists these key characteristics:
- Over-selective attention (making them very prone to distraction)
- Restricted field of focus
- Preference for visual stimuli and visually cued instruction
- Avoidance of face-to-face interactions ability to process visual information more readily than verbal information
Because they can be replayed over and over as needed without additional cost, videos have been in use as a teaching tool almost since the advent of motion picture technology. The same entertainment appeal that videos hold for mainstream children applies also to autistic children – only much more so. Since children with autism respond more readily to visual cues, videos and television have a more powerful effect on them. Videos are more motivating and provide more positive reinforcement to autistic children.
Video Modeling at Work
Christopher was 18 months old when his mother, Noreen, noticed that he wasn’t paying attention and following directions like the other kids. Rather, he seemed lost.
At Christopher’s two-year checkup, the pediatrician said that he was developmentally-delayed, but Noreen’s motherly intuition told her that something didn’t add up. Christopher could effortlessly recite the alphabet and count to 20. Unlike other developmentally-delayed children, by age two-and-a-half he could put words together, but didn’t seem to understand what they meant. Thus began a year-and-a-half long odyssey to uncover the true cause of Christopher’s communication problems. With the help of a private therapist, they found the answer: Semantic-Pragmatic Disorder (SPD), a little-known syndrome on the high-functioning end of the Autism Spectrum.
According to the National Autistic Society, features of SPD include delayed language development, learning to talk by memorizing phrases instead of putting words together freely, problems understanding questions, and difficulty following conversations. Children with this disorder have trouble comprehending the meaning of what other people say and cannot use speech appropriately themselves.
Now that Noreen had pinpointed the issue, Christopher’s parents and grandparents got to work helping Christopher where he needed it most – socialization and appropriate communication. When Christopher was about to receive a gift, Noreen would whisper in his ear, “Put on your happy face.” And when he was angry with her but didn’t know how to express it, she’d coach, “now it’s time for your mad face.”
Christopher’s therapist also recommended video modeling and pointed them towards a CD-ROM from Social Skill Builder (www.socialskillbuilder.com), a company that provides interactive learning tools for teaching social skills to children affected by Autism Spectrum Disorders and other language/learning difficulties. Video modeling is the basis for their instructional, yet child-friendly, programs.
The CD-ROM, Preschool Playtime, was a good fit for Christopher. It offers five levels of role-playing exercises in which real-life children are presented in real-life situations – in the park, in a play group, at preschool and on an outing. Playing the game, Christopher was asked to identify correct behavior related to social interactions such as taking turns, sharing, apologizing, cooperating, maintaining personal space and listening.
“Greetings, and how to act when playing traditional games like Duck-Duck-Goose, do not come naturally to Christopher, but he doesn’t like me to explain these things to him,” says Noreen. “Using Preschool Playtime, we’re able to take advantage of the fact that he’s a really visual child. When he watches a child in the program stop over at a friend’s house to say hi, or a group playing Ring-Around-The-Rosie, he’s able to imitate the situation with other kids later on.”
Since starting therapy, Christopher has made incredible progress. “It’s like night and day,” says Noreen.
Jennifer Jacobs, M.S. CCC-SLP, is co-founder of Social Skill Builder (www.SocialSkillBuilder.com), a company launched in 1999 to provide computer-based tools for teaching social skills to children affected by Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD). Jennifer, along with her sister and co-founder Laurie, developed the software line when she recognized a deficit in quality products for children and adolescents with social competence issues. Contact Jennifer at Jennifer@socialskillbuilder.com.