Members of the Northwest Area Education Agency (AEA) challenging behaviors team presented a study that they conducted with researchers from The University of Iowa and the Sioux City Community School District. Their work was presented at the Association for Behavior Analysis International (ABAI) Autism Conference held in Philadelphia on Jan. 27-29.

Jan K. Turbes, challenging behaviors consultant at Northwest AEA, was the presenting author of the study, "The Effects of Directed Activities Versus Free Play on Occurrences of Stereotypy." Northwest AEA employees Brenda Langstraat-Janisch, school/family/community mental health liaison, and Barb Lyle, speech-language pathologist, 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 (Autism 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. Their work was originally presented at the 37th Annual Convention of the Association for Behavior Analysis International (ABAI) on May 27-31, 2011, in Denver, CO.

In addition to the Northwest AEA team, the authors of the study include: Candy Hill, the 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.

"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.

ABAI's Autism Conference explores science-based social and communication strategies for the diagnosis. Convention attendees are professors, researchers, undergraduate and graduate students, teachers, parents and consultants in the field.