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Observational Learning and Autism Spectrum Disorders

Paper Type: Free Essay Subject: Education
Wordcount: 1650 words Published: 8th Feb 2020

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Albert Bandura’s Social Learning Theory underlies the principle of observational learning, which can be defined as the method by which individuals replicate actions or behaviours that they have perceived from others (Taylor & DeQuinzio, 2012).  The application of this theory is evident in many aspects of daily life, including in classroom settings and at home. It is therefore vital that systems underlying this theory are implemented so that its benefits are obtained.

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This review seeks to explore and analyse studies that investigate the implementation of observational learning for children with Autism Spectrum Disorders. Autism affects the ability of individuals to remain attentive, which is an important step in observational learning. Observational learning can assist in the development of skills that may have otherwise been hindered by the symptoms of autism, which mainly consist of a shortfall in communication skills, and deficits in sensory-motor actions (Lord, Elsabbagh, Baird & Veenstra-Vanderweele, (2018). The research in this area have implications that can guide further additions of observational learning systems to accommodate autistic people too, which is extremely important in developing equal opportunities for those with disabilities. Additionally, the increase in rates of diagnosed Autism necessitates for research. These studies have generally been conducted to determine the effectiveness of observational learning on autistic individuals, particularly children, as there remains a gap in this area. More specifically, each study focuses on using this theory for a particular set of skills. For the purpose of this review, these skills have been categorised into four domains.

Play skills

A lack of role-playing activities reported by caretakers of autistic children facilitates the need for an increase of this skill. Sancho, Sidener T., Reeve & Sidener D., (2010) found that autistic children were able to successfully imitate models displaying roles of various characters in distinct settings. This was obtained through video modelling, whereby actions of a model demonstrating different skills are recorded and shown to children, who are then observed attempting to replicate the scripts accurately. However, this study was disadvantaged in that it did not accommodate for generalisation of the play roles in different situations. In contrast, a study conducted by Dupere, MacDonald and Ahearn (2013) addressed this limitation by aiming to quantify the occurrence of participants playing with untrained characters amongst a set of toys. This was done through the implementation of ‘suitable loops’, which involved the model demonstrating roles that are applicable to multiple characters, only on one character. The number of times participants imitate speech or actions of these loops was used to infer the ability of autistic children to demonstrate stimulus generalisation for role play.

However, both studies fail to acknowledge the limitation of a small sample size (one with 3 participants, and one with only 2), which makes it difficult to generalise the results to the wider population. Regardless, the use of video modelling provides a strength for both studies, as it allows the footage to be played multiple times, and this can save time, efforts of models and resources. More importantly, this method was proven to be more suitable for autistic children who struggle to pay attention to a particular procedure in distracting environments, and the videos contained first person perspective – depicting adult hands playing with toys – and vocal scripts in the background sound. (INSERT CITATION THAT SAYS KIDS GET DISTRACTED)

Both methods were consistent, composing a baseline with children asked to play with the toy sets with no reinforcements or video prompts, to use as a standard to compare the imitations portrayed after video is shown. An average of 6.3 correct imitations out of 10 was reported by Sancho et al. (2010), compared with no scripted verbalisations during the baseline session. Similarly, an overall increase in the usage of imitation for untrained characters was reported in the post-training sessions (Dupere et al., 2013).

However, aspects of Dupere et al.’s (2013) procedure can be questioned, as there were many differences in the play sets that were not acknowledged. On the other hand, Sancho et al. (2010) ensured all play sets used were similar in difficulty level. They obtained the opinion of many teachers/professionals and parents with autistic children and modified the sets accordingly until satisfied. This eliminated any potential extraneous variable that may have been attributed to this factor and increases the accuracy of this study.

In addition, there was a marked difference between participant results, as those aged 6 years produced a higher number of accurate actions and use of untrained characters than Brian, aged 5 (Dupere, MacDonald & Ahearn, 2013). This suggests that the age of individuals can affect results significantly and needs to be addresses in future studies.

Functional skills

Furthermore, the same method has been used in a study aiming to teach daily living skills to autistic children, like handwashing (Rosenberg, Schwartz & Davis, 2010). This study involved 3 autistic children aged between 3 and 5 years, each with distinct capabilities. For this particular study, a commercial video model was obtained and compared with a customised video. Participants were given a pre-test in which none of them were able to correctly wash their hands (average of 1.5 correct steps out of 9). Each participant was then shown a commercial video with no narrations and asked to replicate the skill. Participants were then shown a customised video that had precise step by step instructions, as well as reinforcements in the form of praise, and asked to wash their hands. The results showed a higher number of correct steps in the customised video setting than the commercial video. However, these results are influenced by many factors including the content of the video in which there were specific steps making it easier to follow. Additionally, authors failed to acknowledge the order effect that may have come about from participants retaining steps from the commercial video, providing them extra cues when performing the skill in the second condition.

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Contrastingly, Iftar & Bunyamin (2010) made use of a live modelling procedure whereby participants actively watch a model in front of them, not through video footage. They found that there was 100% accuracy in participant performance after watching a model and peer perform basic food and drink preparation skills and being asked to replicate the behaviour. The 3 participants took turns in activities; a model and one peer demonstrated a set of basic skills (e.g. preparing juice from a powder formula), while the other 2 observed. Different to Rosenberg et al., (2010), this study recognised the potential order effects, and therefore provided tasks at random to participants. The video modelling  method is more convenient for researchers than live modelling, as it allows for the  demonstration of skills multiple times. Although not evident in Iftar & Bunyamin’s (2010) study, other studies with live modelling can have potential limitations of autistic participants not being able to pay attention for long and missing out on key steps.


  • Allen, K. D., Wallace, D. P., & Renes, D. (2010). Use of video modelling to teach vocational skills to adolescents and young adults with Autism Spectrum Disorders. Education and Treatment of Children, 33(3), 339-349. doi: https://doi.org/10.1353/etc.0.0101
  • Bereznak, S., Ayres, K. M., Mechling, L. C., & Alexander, J. L. (2012). Video self-prompting and mobile technology to increase daily living and vocational independence for students with Autism Spectrum Disorders. Journal of Developmental and Physical Disabilities, 24, 269-285. doi: 10.1007/s10882-012-9270-8
  • Dupere, S., MacDonald, R. P. F., & Ahearn, W. H. (2013). Using video modelling with substitutable loops to teach varied play to children with Autism. Journal of Applied Behaviour Analysis, 46(3), 662-668. doi: https://doi.org/10.1002/jaba.68
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  • Plavnick, J. B., & Ferreri, S. J. (2011). Establishing verbal repertoires in children with Autism using function-based video modelling. Journal of Applied Behaviour Analysis, 44, 747-766. doi: 10.1901/jaba.2011.44-747
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  • Sancho, K., Sidener, T. M., Reeve, S. A., & Sidener, D. W. (2010). Two variations of video modelling interventions for teaching play skills to children with Autism. Education and Treatment of Children, 33(3), 421-442. doi:10.1353/etc.0.0097
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