In a recent study, Lisa Baltruschat and other CARD researchers found evidence suggesting that behavioral intervention may improve working memory in children with autism spectrum disorders (ASD). Many children with ASD exhibit deficits in areas of executive functioning including working memory, the ability to simultaneously store and process information. In a previous study, Lisa Baltruschat and other CARD researchers found positive reinforcement to be effective in improving counting span task performance in three children with ASD. The purpose of the current study was to investigate the use of positive reinforcement in improving performance on complex span tasks, a more involved measure of working memory.
Participants included three children with ASD, ages 6 to 8 years. Working memory was assessed via complex span tasks, in which participants were presented a series of flashcards each displaying a specific item. After each flashcard was presented, the participant was asked a distraction question regarding the item depicted on the flashcard. Once the entire series of flashcards had been presented, the participant was asked to recall each item displayed on the flashcards in order. During training, participants received positive reinforcement for correct responses and corrective feedback for incorrect responses.
All participants showed significant improvements in complex span tasks. In addition, skills generalized to novel stimuli and were maintained after treatment was completed.
This study is of the first to investigate the use of positive reinforcement in improving working memory in children with ASD. The findings suggest that behavioral intervention may be effective in improving complex span task performance in children with ASD. Further research exploring the use of behavioral intervention in improving skills related to other components of working memory and executive functioning, as well as investigating the application of such skills in the natural environment is warranted.
Baltruschat, L., Hasselhorn, M., Tarbox, J., Dixon, D. R., Najdowski, A. C., Mullins, R. D., & Gould, E. R. (in press). Further analysis of the effects of positive reinforcement on working memory in children with autism. Research in Autism Spectrum Disorders. doi:10.1016/j.rasd.2010.09.015