Conditional Discrimination in Kids with Autism

Conditional discrimination errors are very common in children with autism, especially intermediate learners. When we say conditional discrimination, we mean that a child makes errors. Say you have a paper towel versus toilet paper, they’re very similar. The child makes an error not because they’re not paying attention, but because they don’t have the language skills for that finer discrimination

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Dr. Mark Sundberg gives a great example of what do you take to the beach versus what do you wear to the beach? Both are very similar questions but have different answers. From a recent Q&A session, I got a question which is about a woman’s son answering multiple questions for one picture. So he knows his shapes, colors, sizes, height, temperature, etc. He’s great with adjectives, but when shown a picture of a blue triangle, for example, he will always answer triangle first, no matter what you ask him. When you slow him down and say, no, listen, he gets it. So basically it seems that something has determined how he’s going to answer it, but when slowed down he can get it right. Obviously this is an example and makes it sound like tit for tat programming, but it isn’t because this really makes webbing challenging since he’s not listening.

For example, what color is a duck? Quack, quack. No, listen, I said color, what color is a duck? And then he gets it right. If he sees a ball and I say what shape is a ball? He might answer roll ball if we talked about rolling a ball earlier. This is a conditional discrimination error and it’s very common in intermediate learners with autism. I have had multiple problems with Lucas and other intermediate learners with these types of issues. The reason that this is happening and he’s having trouble answering the question the first time is he shouldn’t have to listen hard. It should be fluent. So you saying no, listen and slowing him down and just keep adding things on like now we’re going to talk about temperature and now we’re going to talk about shape. You’re just piling it on and this base is getting very unstable.

I’m going to describe one of the really good programs that helped Lucas which you can do with objects or you can do with pictures, but I might try objects first. In the video, you’ll see this demonstrated much better, but we have an elephant, a horse, and a ball. So the elephant’s gray, the horse is brown and the ball is blue primarily. It would be even better if the horse was all brown and the elephant was all grey like the ball is all blue. The reason I’ll be using Dr. Carbone as such an example is that as part of the Verbal Behavior Project, years ago, from 2003 to 2010, we actually went up to the Carbone Clinic outside of New York City.

And we did 2-day sessions, like 8 times. So a lot of my techniques, especially for early and intermediate learners are based on some of the programs that Dr. Carbone taught us and then my modifications because a lot of times it didn’t work with Lucas. So he taught me all about intraverbal webbing but I couldn’t get Lucas to do it until I came up with my systems. One of the programs I saw pretty early on, more than a decade ago was what is it, what color? I would be pointing to it but I just have to hold it up so you can see it. So instead of saying what is it all the time, it might be what color and you can say what color is it?

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But you see what color is it and what is it is really close. So for Lucas and for many of my clients, we actually had to go back to what color, what is it? What is it, what color, what is it? What is it, what color? It wasn’t alternating. It was random, sometimes 2 in a row, sometimes 3 in a row. Dr. Carbone recommended trial by trial data. So when I came home and tried to teach this to Lucas and I had like 5 objects or 6 he was like 50% accurate. So that’s not good when we only have really 2 questions we’re, talking about and I just couldn’t figure out how to get Lucas more fluent with this.

Then I saw a case study done by somebody in the Verbal Behavior Project and that really helped. And I’m going to show you how to pull it back even farther, but I would pick one discrimination like color and I would do more trial by trial, mixing that up, taking data, and then if he is 90 or a hundred percent with what color, what is it? I would say, what color is it? What is it? What color is it? What is it? What is it? What is it? What color? You could also say, what’s this part called? You could mix things in to make it less rote. What color? What do you do with this? I probably wouldn’t do shape and color at the same time, but this was recommended by Dr. Carbone. This didn’t work for Lucas because it was too hard.

These other teachers taught me to peel back the onion a little bit farther and do the same item. You can use straws that are different colors. You could use forks, you can use blocks, you can use straws, you can use markers, but you must use something that is fluent. Ensure they don’t have conditional discrimination errors between marker and crayon otherwise, it’s going to just mess things up even farther. So you pick one stable item. I just grabbed straws here and these are old straws. But then you would do, what is it, what is it, what color, what color, what color, what is it, what color? And we’d get a child fluent with this.

We get a child fluent with forks, blocks, crayons. And before you go taking it into the next level of what’s, what’s this say, what is it, what does this say? You could move it into shapes too. So he has to really attend. What it sounds like is happening with this mothers’ son is, in the natural environment, she’s asking him questions and he’s kind of just answering based on what’s the most usual question, which is what is it? Dr. Mark Sundberg will say what do you wear to the beach versus what do you take to the beach? We change one word, we changed the whole answer. So that’s where we have to go back and we have to do the intraverbal subtest to make sure you’re not teaching really hard stuff before that base is solid and bringing this back.

Hopefully, that’s helpful. Feel free to take a video of what is it, what color is it, what shape is it, especially if you’re not seeing 90 to 100% accuracy, it’s not time to move on to adding functions and adding more adjectives. I would stop the whole, no, listen, and slow down because that’s just feeding into his lack of attention and conditional discrimination errors. And we want to keep it 8 positives to every negative. So every time you say, slow down or no, listen, that’s negative and we just need this to be fluid. I would think of it, not as a behavior issue, more as a language conditional discrimination issue.

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