The What, Why, and How of Teaching Question-Asking Skills to Young Children with Autism

What?

Questions are a type of request, specifically, for information.  As children begin asking questions, they usually develop in a predictable sequence: what?, where?, who?, and so on.  Just like other requesting skills, questions offer a way that children can initiate a social interaction like a conversation.

 Why?

Asking meaningful questions can provide children with more opportunities for learning and leisure.

ASDFor example, children can learn new vocabulary, by asking the question, “What’s that?”  Or, they can find out the location of their favorite items by asking, “Where’s my doll?” Asking a how question can enable a child to continue an activity or troubleshoot how to fix something if it is broken. These are just a few examples of the benefits of targeting question asking skills for learners who do not develop them in a typical fashion.

How?

  • NikiaCreating motivating situations – One way to set the occasion for a child to ask questions is to arrange the environment or set up an activity in a way that will increase a child’s motivation to ask a question.  For example, highly preferred items, such as toys, can be hidden in containers or drawers.  After the child asks a question such as, “Where?” the location of the item is given to the child (e.g., “It’s in the blue box.”).
  • Verbal clues/hints – Adults can provide verbal clues/hints to children after arranging the environment.  For example, scripts such as, “I hid something” can help set the occasion for the question “Where?”  Or, the script, “Oh no!” with an expectant look can help set the occasion for the question “What happened?”
  • Prompting – After using a script to provide a hint, the adult can then provide a model to the child.  For example, the adult can first deliver a hint such as “Somebody has your teddy bear.” Then following this hint, the adult can prompt by saying, “Say, ‘Who has it?’”
  • JordanReinforcement – It is important that the child is given the information and provided with the matching reinforcer quickly.  For instance, if prompted to ask the question, “Who has it?” as in the example above,  the adult should then quickly provide the child with the information (e.g., “Your sister has it.”).  Also, it is important that the sister is close by and gives her brother the teddy bear quickly.  This will help build the relationship between the asked question (i.e., “Who has it?”) and access to the reinforcer (i.e., the teddy bear).  When a child with autism is beginning to ask questions, the information might be more closely tied to tangible items (e.g., toys, continuing activities), and as language develops, questions will become more linked directly to pure information.
  • Interrupted behavior chain – Another great way to set up motivation for children to ask questions is to ensure that one critical part of a multi-step (and fun) activity is missing.  For example, during an arts and craft activity, such as making clouds, give the child paper, scissors, and cotton balls.  Later in the activity, tell the child to, “Glue the cotton balls on.”  Then when the child looks around for the glue bottle, prompt him/her to “Say, ‘Where’s the glue?’” Then provide him/her with the location of the glue bottle (i.e., the information).  Interrupted behavior chains should be activities that are familiar to the child, and the part that is “interrupted” should occur somewhere in the middle of the chain.

Reference: Raulston, T., Carnett, A., Lang, R. Tostanoski, A., Lee, A., Machalicek, W., Sigafoos, J., O’Reilly, M., Didden, R., Lancioni, G. (2013). Teaching individuals with autism spectrum disorder to ask questions: A systematic review. Research in Autism Spectrum Disorders, 7, 866 – 878.

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