Instructional Considerations Regarding Eye Contact and Obtaining an Audience

Strategic mand training, as has been suggested, is a complex process that involves careful attention to detail. Two areas that are intimately related to mand training and that have received much attention in regards to interventions for students with autism are developing appropriate eye contact and the initiation of social interaction (Carbone, 2007; Lovaas, 200_). This section reflects a review of principles discussed by Dr. Vincent Carbone in his 2007 presentation on the topic.

Eye contact and social initiation are behaviors that co-occur as part of the mand frame. Before an individual emits a mand, they generally first engage in what is called an observational response. In other words the student must look for what they need. The looking is reinforced by seeing some aspect of the environment that may have a higher probability of providing reinforcement. For mands, looking for a listener who can provide specific reinforcement is an early behavior in a chain of responses that culminate in asking for the reinforcer. In other words, looking is reinforced by seeing a listener. Seeing a listener serves as a discriminative stimulus that suggests the availability of someone who can respond to the mand. If looking at the person results in that person looking back, the mutual eye contact may typically evoke a mand. This relation is likely shaped through experiences in which people who are looking at a listener are much more likely to deliver reinforcers than those whose eye gaze is elsewhere.

There is some developmental literature that suggests that eye contact develops early in infancy. It likely serves to regulate contact with caregivers (Stern, 1974, 1985). Children with autism often show differences in the rate or quality of eye contact with others. Many students with autism do not develop eye contact without specific training. Several techniques have been developed to teach eye contact. Most famously has been the “look at me program” often used in some discrete trial programs. While this program can clearly increase eye contact in children with autism, the eye contact may not be readily used in other circumstances.

Dr. Vincent Carbone has recently outlined an analysis of the development of eye contact in relation to the mand for children with autism (O’Brian, et al., 2007). In the analysis Dr. Carbone suggests that after repeated social experiences, the sight of the face and eyes of listeners become conditioned as a reinforcer. In the situation wherein a transitive motivative operation is in place, in other words the child wants something and needs someone else to deliver it, the eyes and face of a listener reinforce the looking response and serve as a discriminative stimulus for a mand. The child then is likely to emit a mand and the relation between speaker and listener (i.e. the eye contact) is strengthened through the delivery of the reinforcer specified by the mand. To quote Dr. Carbone, “speakers learn that when a listener is making eye contact with them they are more likely to get what they ask for. Therefore they will attempt to make eye contact before manding.”

The analysis of eye contact presented here suggests that the process of mand training may well serve to condition eye contact as a reinforcer. Through the use of time delay procedures, eye contact can be shaped in the mand frame. This procedure can be used with students who do not present problem behaviors related to slight delays in delivery of the reinforcer and who also have developed a number of mands under the control of the item present. Additionally, running this procedure is contraindicated for students who present frequently scrolled mands. To shape eye contact in the mand frame through a time delay procedure, the following steps are recommended.

First gather a wide range of items or events that have served as reinforcers in the past and are items that the student has learned to request but without eye contact. Present the items to the student one at a time. If the student mands for the item and provides eye contact deliver the reinforcer immediately. If the student emits the mand for the item without making eye contact, withhold reinforcement until the student looks up at the eyes of the instructor. The withholding of reinforcement will serve as a minimal extinction procedure which may then evoke a variety of behaviors. One behavior that may be emitted is looking at the face of the instructor. For trials in which the time delay was used, deliver less reinforcement. The magnitude of the reinforcer delivered should decrease with longer intervals without eye contact. Data can be kept and graphed for the percentage of mands that occur with immediate versus delayed eye contact. Instructors should attend to the types of behavior that are emitted in the time delay period in order to avoid inadvertently shaping responses that may later need to be eliminated such as scrolling or repeatedly saying the mand.

Another related issue involves being sure that the student is emitting mands that are specific rather than mands that become generalized requests for social attention in the form of praise. To avoid a situation where the student emits mands in order to be praised for manding, avoid using praise or social reinforcement with most mand trials. Remember that you want to establish that the mand is reinforced by direct reinforcement for specified items. As an example of this process, consider the student who asks for a cracker and the instructor praises that request by saying “good asking for crackers!” the student may learn that whenever they ask for crackers or other items, the staff cheer and praise. The student then may begin asking for things that are not related to the motivation to obtain the item. Rather the mand is emitted in the motivative condition of wanting staff to give attention or praise. Praising a student for manding is a natural tendency. Concerned staff upon hearing a child emit a new mand for the first time will be very likely to cheer. Although the cheering may further reinforce the mand behavior, it may simultaneously slow down the process of correlating the mand response with a specific reinforcer. With that said, in the earliest phases of mand training some degree of praise for manding in certain circumstance may speed acquisition of manding, but staff should be aware that such praise will need to be faded as a reinforcer as soon as possible so that it does not interfere with specific motivational control of the response.