Quantitative Analyses of Behavioral Allocation and Choice in Mental Retardation: Basic Research and Applications

Funded by NICHD P01 HD046666

William V. Dube, Principal Investigator

Program Project Overview

The projects of this Program Project grant are unified by a common focus on basic behavioral processes involved in the allocation of behavior – choice-making – in individuals with intellectual disabilities.  At any given moment, such individuals (indeed all individuals) face environments that offer a multitude of behavioral possibilities. Most relevant to this project, persons with disabilities frequently face choices between engaging in behavior that is desired by his/her caregiver or engaging in some other less or undesirable behavior. For example, a student in a special education classroom must frequently choose whether or not to engage in behavior that leads to positive instructional outcomes. Choices of behavior other than that desired by the teacher may have a wide range of negative outcomes: at one extreme by disruptive "challenging" behavior and at the other by passivity, lack of engagement, and limited progress.

This Program Project includes four projects that have their basis in an extensive scientific literature on behavioral allocation and choice making. The overarching goal of the project is to develop empirically based, quantitative methodologies for providing effective, individualized motivational support to students with intellectual disabilities. Through application of quantitative approaches to behavioral allocation, we want to advance understanding of the variables that determine the choices of persons with intellectual disabilities. A long-term goal will be to develop a technology for teaching choice-making that benefits the individual, the family, and the larger social group.

Project 1: Process Analysis of Behavioral Allocation and Persistence in Severe Mental Retardation

William J. McIlvane (PI), Karen Lionello-DeNolf

This project concerns basic choice processes in behavioral allocation and persistence in persons with intellectual disabilities. Regarding behavioral allocation, little is known scientifically about the degree to which persons with such disabilities are able to allocate their behavior adaptively to changing environmental conditions. In parallel, little is known about the degree to which behavior that has been adaptive in the past will persist in the face of environmental distractions. One consequence of this lack of knowledge has been contradictory characterizations of persons with intellectual disabilities as inflexible and perseverative and simultaneously as distractible and labile.  These characterizations may be unified, however, within a common construct – the degree of sensitivity of behavior to its environmental determinants. This unification leads directly to an overall question that has inspired this project: To what extent and under what circumstances do persons with intellectual disabilities display sensitivity/insensitivity to maintained or changed environmental conditions/consequences?

Project 1 has two interrelated foci. The first will be a focus on children with severe intellectual disabilities.  It is not known whether such children will exhibit relatively greater insensitivity to consequential variables than those with less severe disabilities. Determining this relationship would have clear implications for the design of treatment programs and the interpretation of their results. The second focus of study is the potential impact of social variables on processes involved in behavioral allocation and persistence, also a little-studied areas.

The studies are conducted in a computer-controlled teaching environment that has been especially designed to meet the needs of children with severe disabilities. Within this environment, the child can acquire substantial new behavior independently; it is not necessary to have a teacher physically present during teaching sessions. This unique feature of the environment will make it possible to conduct studies of behavioral allocation and persistence that effectively control the influence of social variables. The automated teaching laboratory also permits systematic introduction of teacher presence, thus permitting controlled comparison of behavioral allocation in the independent vs. teacher-present situations. As knowledge is gained via laboratory studies, we will establish an expanding basis for applied studies. Applied research will address the important issue of whether knowledge gained in the basic studies can inform classroom design and/or other aspects of behavioral intervention for persons with severe disabilities.

Project 2: A Behavioral-Economic Approach to Maximizing Environmental Feedback

William Ahearn (PI), William V. Dube

This project investigates a behavioral economics approach to the management of motivational variables for persons with intellectual disabilities. In behavioral economics, reinforcers are treated as commodities, and the environmental contingencies that govern access to those commodities as price.  To conduct the analysis, we first determine demand functions for specific commodities. Demand functions relate consumption rate to price; they can be obtained by a parametric assessment of consumption over a range of prices (amount of work). Next, we will characterize variables that affect those demand functions, and the subsequent effects on dependent measures that include both acquisition and performance. These manipulations will include: (a) The effects of changes in the required response effort. For example, what is the relation between the amount of work and the difficulty of work? (b) The substitutability of commodities and the effects of operations that manipulate the value of the commodities. Substitutability analyses will identify classes of reinforcers defined by similar economic functions. (c) The effects of open vs. closed economies. This dimension refers to the degree to which commodities are available outside of the economy under study. In teaching practice, it is sometimes assumed that restricting the availability of a specific preferred reinforcer will increase its effectiveness for supporting the acquisition of new behavior; there is no research to support this assumption, however. We expect the results of these studies to define a technology for obtaining individualized preference profiles that will be useful in designing more effective motivational systems.

The Principal Investigator of this project, Dr. William Ahearn, is the Director of Research at The New England Center for Children.

Project 3: Signal Detection and Multiple Sources of Stimulus Control

Richard W. Serna (PI), William J. McIlvane

For many years, research at the Shriver Center has sought solutions to poor learning outcomes via analysis of stimulus control variables and procedures that might enhance attending to and remembering of critical information in the environment. As the research has progressed, it has become increasingly clear that stimulus control approaches will be maximally effective if they are implemented within a complementary motivational context. Signal detection theory offers an attractive way to integrate stimulus control and motivational variables into a larger, more comprehensive framework for analyzing and supporting learning in persons with cognitive disabilities.

The focus of Project 3 is the interaction between stimulus variables and motivational variables in the development of stimulus control in individuals with intellectual disabilities. The specific aims are to: (1) demonstrate methodology for assessing and potentially increasing the degree to which contingencies programmed to support discrimination learning are discriminable to persons with intellectual disabilities; (2) test the general hypothesis that signal detection-based theories can predict learning successes and failures of persons with moderate and severe intellectual disabilities in simple and conditional discrimination procedures; and (3) evaluate whether a novel combination of signal detection-based analysis with a percentile-scheduling approach will establish the foundation for online computer-based analysis of learning outcomes and for algorithmic decision-making that may optimize these outcomes via moment-by-moment adjustments in teaching sequence.

Project 4: Behavioral Allocation in Social Contexts

William V. Dube (PI), Rebecca MacDonald

Children with severe intellectual disabilities often exhibit atypical or impaired social interactions. In certain cases, behavioral problems are related to excessive or inappropriate demands for attention from caregivers. Other cases may be marked by deficits in developing and maintaining social relations (e.g., in autism spectrum disorders). This project applies quantitative analyses of behavioral choice to situations that involve social reinforcers, defined as those that are mediated by another person. The goals of the project are to develop methods for maximizing adaptive sensitivity to social reinforcement contingencies and minimize maladaptive behavioral choices.

One set of basic studies is examining sensitivity to reinforcement contingencies in social and nonsocial contexts. These studies are conducted in an automated testing environment that allows testing without the obvious presence of the experimenter or any other adult/teacher. The participant works completely independently when interacting with the apparatus (a novel experience for some participants). Thus, baseline behavioral repertoires can be established in a nonsocial context, and the presence/absence of an adult in the immediate environment can be rigorously controlled as experimental variable. The first set of basic experiments is developing methods for obtaining individual profiles of contingency sensitivity in social vs. nonsocial contexts. Our hypothesis is that adaptive behavior is maximized when sensitivity is high and unaffected by context shifts. We will test this hypothesis by examining the acquisition of new behavior in individuals with a range of social-reinforcer profiles. We will also investigate procedures for improving maladaptive profiles and the subsequent effects on learning.

A second set of studies is examining social reinforcer function in relation to deficits in the development of joint attention in young children with autism spectrum disorders. Joint attention refers to the use of gestures, verbalizations, and gaze shifts to coordinate attention with another person in order to share the experience of an object or event. Previous research has documented the importance of joint-attention deficits in very young children as early diagnostic indicators of autism. There has been relatively little research, however, on remedial strategies. We are taking a functional-analytic approach to the problem that focuses on the consequences that maintain behavior. The strength of this approach has been amply demonstrated in the analysis and remediation of aberrant behavior, but it has not yet been applied to examine joint attention deficits. Our hypothesis is that joint attention is exhibited in social contexts and primarily maintained by social reinforcers, and thus deficits in joint attention will be related to insensitivity to these features of the environment.

The Co-Investigator of this project, Dr. Rebecca MacDonald, is the Program Director for The New England Center for Children’s Intensive Instruction Preschool Program. This program provides full-day, year-round instruction for children ages 3-6 with autism or pervasive developmental disorder.

Publications and Reports

Dube, W. V., MacDonald, R. P. F., Mansfield, R. C., Holcomb W. L., & Ahearn W. H., (2004). Toward a behavioral analysis of joint attention, The Behavior Analyst, 27, 197-207.

Dube, W. V., Klein, J. L., MacDonald, R. P. F., O’Sullivan, G. A., & Wheeler, E. E. (2006). Joint attention deficits in preschool children and discrimination of adult gaze direction: Assessment and training [Abstract]. Proceedings of the 39th Annual Gatlinburg Conference on Research and Theory in Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities, 86.

MacDonald, R. P. F., Anderson, J., Dube, W. V., Geckeler, A., Green, G., Holcomb W. L., Mansfield, R. C., & Sanchez, J. (2006). Behavioral assessment of joint attention: A methodological report. Research and Intervention in Developmental Disabilities, 27, 138-150.

Lionello-DeNolf, K. M., Dube, W. V., McIlvane, W. J. (2007). Exclusive preference on concurrent schedules in children with autism spectrum disorder, Experimental Analysis of Human Behavior Bulletin, 25, 6-10.

Smaby, K., MacDonald, R. P. F., Ahearn, W. H., & Dube, W. V. (2007). Assessment protocol for identifying preferred social consequences. Behavioral Interventions, 22, 311-318.

Dube, W. V., MacDonald, R. P. F., Wheeler, E. E., & Ahearn, W. H. (2008). A behavioral interpretative analysis of gaze shift in joint attention initiation: Testing discriminative and reinforcing stimulus functions [Abstract]. Proceedings of the 41st Annual Gatlinburg Conference on Research and Theory in Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities, 66.

Serna, R. W., Thompson, G. B., Jones, B. M., Dube, W. V., & McIlvane, W. J. (2008). Discriminability of different concurrently available reward contingencies in children with moderate and severe intellectual disabilities: Unexpected findings [Abstract]. Proceedings of the 41st Annual Gatlinburg Conference on Research and Theory in Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities, 85.

Klein, J. L., MacDonald, R. F. P., Vaillancourt, G., Ahearn, W. H., & Dube, W. V. (2009). Teaching discrimination of adult gaze direction to preschool children with autism. Research in Autism Spectrum Disorders, 3, 42-49.

Lionello-DeNolf, K. M., Dube, W. V., & McIlvane, W. J. (2010). Evaluation of resistance to change under different disrupter conditions in children with autism and severe intellectual disability. Journal of the Experimental Analysis of Behavior, 93, 369-383.

McIlvane, W. J., Dube, W. V., Lionello-DeNolf, K. M., Serna, R. W., Barros, R. S., & Galvão, O. F. (2011). Some current dimensions of translational behavior analysis: From laboratory research to intervention for persons with autism spectrum disorders. In E. A. Mayville & J. A. Mulick (Eds.), Behavioral foundations of effective autism treatment (pp. 155-181). Cornwall-on-Hudson, NY: Sloan Publishing.

Lionello-DeNolf, K. & Dube, W. V. (in press, 2011). Contextual influences on resistance to disruption in children with intellectual disabilities. Journal of the Experimental Analysis of Behavior.