Members of the Northwest Area Education Agency (AEA) challenging behaviors team were recently notified that a study they conducted with researchers from the University of Iowa and the Sioux City Community School District was approved to be presented at the Association for Behavior Analysis International (ABAI) Autism Conference in January.

Jan K. Turbes, challenging behaviors consultant at Northwest AEA, will be the presenting author of the study, "A Comparison of Directed Play Versus Free Play on Occurrences of Stereotypic Behavior." Northwest AEA employees Brenda Langstraat-Janisch and Barb Lyle were also integral in the research. The study measured the behavior of an early-childhood male who has developmental disabilities and autism. He displayed stereotypy (e.g., falling to his knees and banging of wrists) and stereotypic toy play (e.g., repetitive hitting of toys).

The child was observed in three settings:
    •    Work – Structured teaching (discrete) opportunity with Noah and teacher.  Interval teaching occurred over five minutes.  After task completion, a tangible reinforcement was immediately provided.
    •    Guided play – Play area designated by carpet and highly preferred toys. The teacher continually instructed on how to play with preferred items.  Instruction occurred over five minutes. 
    •    Free play – Play area designated by carpet and highly preferred toys. The teacher only provided friendly attention. This condition occurred over five minutes.

Results showed that stereotypic behavior was occasioned by free play, and stereotypic behavior did not occur in the more structured conditions (work and directed play).

According to Turbes, the results of this study indicate the need for directed play and structured engagement.

"This is the key to success for some of our students with ASD (Austism Spectrum Disorder). The data suggests that students not only need to be engaged and given direction during 'work' time, but also during their 'free' time, as well," said Turbes.

This study was also recently replicated in a school setting with similar results.

In addition to the Northwest AEA team, the authors of the study include: Candy Hill, Sioux City Community School District, and John F. Lee, Tory J. Christensen, Kelly M. Schieltz and David P. Wacker, all from The University of Iowa.

It is believed to be the first time employees from Northwest AEA have presented research at a national level.

"I'm very excited about the work that Jan, Barb and Brenda have done on this project. This action research is very exciting as we look at trying to replicate practice with autism students. Their collaboration with the family, school and the University of Iowa is a perfect example of how we make a bigger difference when we work together," said Tim Grieves, chief administrator at Northwest AEA.

According to its website, ABAI "is a nonprofit professional membership organization with the mission to contribute to the well-being of society by developing, enhancing, and supporting the growth and vitality of the science of behavior analysis through research, education, and practice."

The organization will hold its fifth annual autism conference, "New Tools for Translating Science to Practice," in Washington, D.C., on Jan. 28-30, 2011.