Friday, June 27, 2008

Minimizing grammar in autism therapy: in whose best interests?

My collaborator just reported to me her experience at this year's IDC (Interaction and Design) Conference at Northwestern University.  It seems our paper was controversial. Apparently there were a number of staunch ABA supporters in the audience. And our paper apparently offended them by making favorable mention of Noam Chomsky and his critique of behaviorist approaches to language.

Chomsky's work has highlighted the complexities of grammar and argued that this complexity cannot be acquired through external stimulus alone.  So compelling have Chomsky's arguments against Skinner and his behaviorist approach been that, for decades now, no serious linguist takes Skinner seriously.

Chomsky is bad news for the two most popular therapies that purport to teach language to autistic children:  Floor Time (DIR) and ABA (Lovaas/Discrete Trials).  Neither approach acknowledges the complexities of grammar, and most practitioners lack the linguistics training necessary to appreciate it.

Instead of taking Chomsky seriously, devotees of both approaches, traditionally rivals, have made him their common enemy.  

Greenspan has co-authored a book, The First Idea, in which he tries to argue that Chomsky is wrong about innate grammar acquisition modules, and that language is acquired entirely through nurturing and socio-emotional reasoning. 

And ABA supporters, at conferences like IDC, dismiss papers that:

1. take seriously people like Chomsky who criticize behaviorism;
2. suggest that there's such a thing as complex grammar; and 
3. propose that that there are, just possibly, more principled ways of teaching grammar to children with autism than through discrete trials of stimulus-response.

As with too many education experts, so too with too many autism therapists:  in whose best interests are they acting?


Laura said...

If you get a chance, would you mind explaining a little more (or suggest a good article or book) about ABA & Floortime not dealing with the complexities of grammar/if there are approaches to speech therapy that do a better job of this, etc.?

lefty said...

This is a topic for a longer post, which I'll write up when I have a little more time--perhaps later today. For now, I can give you a link to a site with demos of a software program, the GrammarTrainer, that teaches grammar systematically to autistic children:

Laura said...

Thanks so much--I'm enjoying looking through the site and look forward to learning more, as time permits.