Teaching Robert First Words

It would be interesting to hear other people explanations of this strange development described bellow.

Robert didn’t have any receptive language for the first 4 years of his life.  He had a few “expressive” sounds – words’ approximations – to ask for things he considered important.  I just remember one: “juice”.  I know he had at least two other, but I don’t remember them now.  Still, for six months before his fourth birthday his ABA teachers/therapists tried to teach Robert to discriminate receptively between two objects. Evelyn and Caroline were doing this through discrete trails format.  They placed two items in front of Robert and asked him to touch either object A or object B.  Thirty times in the session.  Three sessions a day! After correct answer the therapists  gave Robert a piece of cookie or candy, after incorrect answer they didn’t give him anything.  Between two answers the therapists took time to record the replies and the level of prompting.  They also moved the two objects  either putting them back in the same spots or changing their positions.   They did it for six months from September of 1995 till end of February of 1996 but Robert seemed oblivious to their demands.  He couldn’t pass through the threshold of 80% correct answers. So the therapists kept on repeating the task and Robert kept on failing it.   At first I was teaching Robert in the same way. Soon, however,  I became concerned that because my  foreign accent differed from the correct American pronunciation of the teachers, I might confuse Robert  and inhibit his learning.  So I stopped.

Nonetheless, during this time we purchased relatively simple computer program First Words I.  The program was similar to discrete trails in its approach to teaching receptive labeling. It showed two pictures (later three, if I remember correctly) and asked the student to touch one of them.

But there were differences.  The program didn’t show the same pictures again and again for 10 or 30 times.  After each answer, correct or incorrect, the screen produced two new pictures.  Moreover, for the same word , for instance: “table”, it switched between two different images of the object.  As you might guess, the program didn’t feed Robert any cookies or candies but instead displayed a happily jumping icon after correct answer and highlighted the proper picture after wrong answer.  And soon Robert, working mostly independently, taught himself receptive labeling off all 50 words in this program.   For the six next months he was demonstrating ability to respond to computer’s voice and continued to learn from next level First Words II .  I am not sure if he was also learning from the  First Verbs during that time, although we bought that program as well. Yet, he still couldn’t differentiate between ANY two objects when his therapists/parents ask him to.

That lasted for another six months – from March to  September of 1996.

This phenomenon forced Robert’s therapists and PhD level supervisors to come with different hypothesis as to its cause..

What hypothesis could that be?

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