Learning and Memory - Work Performed as an Instructional Coordinator Working With Children and Adolescents with Autism Spectrum Discorders

Learning and Memory - Work Performed as an Instructional Coordinator Working With Children and Adolescents with Autism Spectrum Discorders

Chapter 1
A copious number of the topics discussed within the context of this course, Learning and Memory, have tremendous significance and applicability to the work that I perform as an Instructional Coordinator working with children and adolescents with autism spectrum disorders. The Devereux Foundation’s Childhood Autism Research and Educational Services Program (CARES) is a not-for-profit, independent facility focusing upon the treatment and education of individuals with severe autism spectrum disorders (ASD), in addition to significant emotional, behavioral and developmental disabilities. The CARES clinical model embraces evidence-based practice, and focuses upon clinical data to drive treatment and programmatic decision making. Therefore, instruction utilizes contemporary strategies consistent with Applied Behavior Analysis, as this is presently considered the best approach for treating individuals with ASD, and include; discrete trial training, positive behavior support, programmed instruction, functional communication training (utilizing PECS, picture exchange communication system, and other augmentative communication devices), task analyses and token economies, among others. As such, it should be clearly evident as to why a great deal of the subject matter of this course has captured my interest.

As a function of my current employment is the application and delivery of Applied Behavior Analysis, and in light of my future goal of becoming a Board Certified Behavior Analyst, I was predominantly drawn to the section in Chapter One of the text discussing the conceptual approaches to the study of learning, in particular, the behavioral approach.

As summarized in the text, the behavioral approach to the study of learning is concerned with the acquisition of behavioral responses as a function of the environmental stimuli that directly precede and follow a behavioral response. Commonly referred to as the ABC’s of behavior, it is the opinion of behavioral psychologists that predicting and managing behavior is contingent upon determining the functional relationship between the antecedent conditions present prior to the behavioral response, the behavioral response itself, and the ensuing consequences to the behavior. Following direct observation, measurement, and functional analysis of the ABC’s of a targeted behavior, Applied Behavior Analysis attempts to modify the behavior, in form or frequency, via environmental manipulations of the antecedent stimuli and adjustments to the resulting consequences of the behavioral response. As such, an invaluable tool that is utilized frequently within institutional settings, CARES notwithstanding, is the Functional Behavior Analysis (FBA), which is essentially a systematic study of the ABC’s of a targeted behavioral response.

In an attempt to progress beyond the realm of basic research and into the arena of application, I will conclude with an example of the utilization of the preceding concepts with a current student of mine, whom, for the purposes of this discussion, will be referred to as Billy. Billy is a 14 year old diagnosed with severe autism, mental retardation, bipolar disorder, and schizoaffective disorder. Billy has very limited receptive language and is non-verbal (does not utilize expressive language, however engages in almost constant self-talk and echolalia). Billy is prone to frequent (approximately once per day) severe tantrums which include screaming, property destruction, aggressions, and self-injurious behavior (SIB) in the form of self-inflicted blows to the head, biting himself, and appendage banging to hard surfaces (e.g., cement walls, tables, etc.). Although it is firmly believed that behavior modification techniques will have a limited impact on Billy’s functioning, due to the psychiatric impetus of his behavior and his cognitive deficits, Billy’s parents reject the use of psychopharmacological interventions and therefore, a behavioral support plan has been devised and implemented to address these challenging behaviors.

Following a functional behavior assessment, it was determined that: 1) the most likely times that Billy would engage in tantrums were at 11-23:30 am and 1:30-2:30 pm 2) activities that generally occurred during these times were transitions to and from outings, seatwork, and lunch 3) Billy was more likely to tantrum on Thursday or Friday 4) Billy is more likely to tantrum in noisy, crowded environments 5) the most frequently recorded antecedents were when Billy was expected to eat lunch, denied a desired item, given a demand, or transition. Additionally, it was determined that the most frequent consequences to Billy’s tantrum behavior were attention from staff and escape from demands. In concordance with the behavioral approach, following the systematic analysis of the ABC’s of the target behavior, modifications were made to both the antecedent conditions and the consequences in an attempt to modify the frequency of the tantrum behavior. Some of the many antecedent modifications included: 1) scheduling more preferred activities after less preferred activities to promote compliance 2) scheduling activities outside of the classroom during planned noisy or crowded events (i.e., birthday parties) 3) when delivering demands to Billy, wait 10 seconds for him to comply before repeating the demand again and 4) use a visual schedule with detailed pictures of exactly which outing Billy will attend. Additionally, the consequences to Billy’s tantrum behavior were also modified and the behavior placed on extinction, a topic that will be discussed at a late point herein.

Chapter 2
Undoubtedly the most challenging aspect of training the picture exchange communication system (PECS) is teaching the individual the meaning of each picture, or what each icon represents. A number of students in the later phases of PECS possess books with well over 200 icons, each of which must be trained and discriminated by the individual each in succession.

As such, I was extremely interested in the topic of perceptual learning addressed in Chapter Two of the text. In Perceptual Learning, an individual learns to identify and differentiate a complex set of stimuli that can be utilized to guide subsequent behavior, or as is the case with PECS, communication. The various studies presented within the text clearly support the assertion that prior exposure to a specific stimulus, or set of stimuli, significantly facilitates later learning regarding the specifics of that stimulus (i.e. its exact function, name, use, etc.)

Of particular relevance to the task of facilitating discrimination of multiple picture representations, I found Gibson and Walk’s 1955 study utilizing scribbles to assess perceptual learning particularly informative. In this study, participants were, following brief exposure to a test stimulus, able to perceptually discriminate a series of seemingly similar drawings accurately.

Following from this evidence, I have implemented a “pre-PECS” phase for individuals beginning the discrimination phase of PECS, or those acquiring novel icons, in which the icons are enlarged to the size of a playing card and utilized in a simple matching exercise. The icons are not labeled and no elaborations or teaching occurs. The student is simply engaging in separating the matching icons into separate piles. While it will most likely be impossible to assess the efficacy of this stimulus pre-exposure in a controlled, experimental fashion, I feel confident that the literature and evidence presented within the text support the implementation of pre-exposure trials to facilitate later learning and discrimination.

Additionally, following from the evidence presented in the text indicating that attentional weighting (focusing upon distinctive features of a stimulus in order to discriminate it from other stimuli) is often necessary to differentiate similar stimuli, I have revised a great number of similar picture icons in an attempt to aide discrimination. For example, the icons for lemon and lime are exactly identical in form, with the only discriminating factor being the colors of the various fruits. In this instance the color of the image is the discriminating feature and therefore, more attentional weighting must be given to the feature of “color”. As such, I have modified these two icons in a way that enhances the aspect requiring greater attentional weight, color, by darkening and widening the outlines of the computerized images and enhancing the vibrancy of the yellow lemon and the green lime to a point of almost fluorescence. My goal is to construct the images in such a way as to force, almost incidentally, attentional weighting to the distinctive colors of the respective icons. Eventually, it is my intention to fade the images back to the original representation as it becomes evident that discrimination is beginning to occur.

Chapter 3
Upon reading chapter three of the text, entitled Classical Conditioning, I was particularly intrigued by the discussion of conditioned fear responses and the Conditioning Theory of Phobias. As the text indicates, a conditioned fear response can be elicited by a previously neutral stimulus that has become associated with a noxious or aversive stimulus (i.e. trauma, illness, etc.). In a majority of cases, a conditioned fear response represents an advantageous evolutionary adaptation that drives the organism to avoid dangerous situations, a notion encompassed within preparedness theory. However, occasionally this adaptive process becomes extremely exaggerated and the individual overgeneralizes the fear response to seemingly harmless stimuli within the environment, at which point a phobia may develop.

The notions of classically conditioned phobias and overgeneralization were initially encompassed within the now much cited experiments of Watson and Raynor (1920), in which the experimenters claim to have conditioned a phobic fear response in an 11 month old infant named Albert. To summarize, pre-experimental exposures to a stimulus rat elicited no innate fear response in the infant who, in fact, attempted many times to touch and handle the animal. The rat was selected to serve as the to-be-conditioned, or neutral, stimulus in the experiment. It was also determined that a loud noise (in this case banging a hammer against a steel bar) elicited a startle reaction and unconditioned fear response in the infant. Subsequently, a conditioning experiment was conducted in which the CS (rat) was paired with the US (loud noise) resulting in an unconditioned fear response (UR). Following several presentations of the paired CS and US, the experimenters claim that a fear response was now conditioned to the once neutral stimulus, the rat. Furthermore, it was reported that over the course of further conditioning trials Albert’s fear generalized to objects similar to the white rat (i.e. cotton balls, rabbits, fur coat, etc.), which the experimenters claimed to be a convincing demonstration of phobic conditioning in an infant.

Although the Watson and Raynor experiment has been rightfully criticized for their methodological failings and simplicity, they nonetheless raised the notion of the classically conditioned phobia and influenced subsequent research and advancements on the subject.

Perhaps a more convincing example, although by no means void of potential confounding variables, is the experience of another student of mine that I shall refer to as Colin. Colin is a 16 year old male with severe autism, mental retardation, cortical blindness, and cerebral palsy (although surprisingly in infancy, Colin developed the splinter skill of walking and is not wheelchair bound by his CP). Colin was born very premature (approximately 24 weeks) and as a result was subjected to a host of traumatic medical interventions at birth including tracheal intubation. As a result, Colin later developed an aversion to swallowing or eating anything, an eating disorder labeled Post-Traumatic Eating Disorder (PTED) that develops in infants who have experienced stressful trauma to the mouth, nose, throat or esophagus as is indicative of intubation and traumatic suctioning.

To this day, Colin remains extremely fearful of any excessive form of oral stimulation (i.e. tooth brushing) and refuses to consume anything that is not a soft food product. Additionally, Colin often exhibits a seemingly conditioned gag response when eating or drinking. As a result, Colin is extremely underweight and requires vitamin and nutrient supplements to compensate for his limited dietary composition.

As is often the treatment for phobias, Colin undergoes what amounts to a form of systematic desensitization on average of five times per day, the goal of which is to expose him to increasing levels of oral stimulation beginning on the outside of the face (cheeks, lips, etc.) and gradually moving inward to stimulate the gums, tongue and throat with various soft instruments. Although not a counter-conditioning treatment in the true sense, as Colin lacks the cognitive and developmental abilities to comprehend instructions to relax, the sessions are client-directed in the sense that if the stimulation becomes too intense, Colin can pull away from the treatments at any time and a break will be initiated, giving him ample opportunity to relax. The goal is to repeatedly expose Colin to the feared oral stimulation in a harmless and non-threatening manner, which, as the text states, is an essential component of desensitization.

Chapter 4
On any given day at CARES, one can walk the corridors of the institution and hear the phrases “You can work for that” or “You’re working for that”, on literally dozens of occasions. In fact, the staff often jokes that we should simply wear T-shirts emblazoned with the aforementioned phrases. Unbeknownst to a great many of my colleagues, it is evident that, in actuality, they are utilizing the Premack Principle, a topic discussed within Chapter Four of the text that I found to be of particular interest.

According to the Premack Principle, a high-probability behavior can function to reinforce a low-probability behavior. The Premack Principle bases its tenets upon the notion that reinforcers can be viewed as behaviors, as opposed to viewing reinforcers as stimuli. In this respect, it could be stated that, for example, completing homework was reinforced by the opportunity to play a computer game (a behavior), rather than completing homework was reinforced by the computer (a stimulus). When envisioning reinforcers in this manner, as behaviors rather than stimuli, the process of reinforcement can then be thought of as a sequence consisting of two behaviors; the behavior that is being reinforced and the closely following behavior that functions as the reinforcer. In this respect, the clinician can perform a comparison of the observed relative frequency of the occurrence of various behaviors, construct a behavior preference hierarchy and, in turn, determine whether one behavior can be utilized to reinforce another.

The application of the Premack Principle is an invaluable tool within the CARES institutional setting for a number of reasons. Most significantly, the Premack Principle is a tremendous aide for identifying potential reinforcers. Individuals with ASD frequently display preoccupations with a very limited number of interests, or conversely, are extremely unresponsive to a majority of playthings, foods, activities, and consequences typically reinforcing to others. In attempting to identify potential reinforcers for an individual with ASD, it is not uncommon for a preference assessment to consist of multiple-dozens of toys and food items sprawled across a banquet table with the resulting consequence being the identification of one, if any, item that possess reinforcing value to the autistic individual. Additionally, as alluded to in the text, preferences can vary over time, and conducting frequent preference assessments can be both costly and time-consuming. The Premack Principle allows the clinician to quickly identify a reinforcing item, or activity, by simply observing the relative occurrence of an individual’s engagement in a particular activity when provided free-access to all potential reinforcers.

An additional benefit of the Premack Principle is that unrestrained access to a variety of activities often leads to the discovery of unexpected, and seemingly counterintuitive, reinforcers. For example, it is not uncommon to see Jeffrey (another student in our school) doing seat work (a low probability behavior) for the opportunity to run the vacuum cleaner, an activity that, for Jeffrey, is a high-probability behavior and is extremely reinforcing to him. Likewise, you may encounter Kyle eating all of his lunch (a low probability behavior) for the opportunity to walk on the treadmill (a high probability behavior). Upon the identification of a reinforcing behavior, it is imperative that the unrestricted access to that activity be revoked immediately to avoid satiation and ensure that the behavior retains its reinforcing integrity. Therefore, the identified reinforcer is subsequently withheld and access to that item or activity is denied. Withholding the reinforcer functions to drive the relative frequency of the occurrence of the behavior below the preferred level for the individual, resulting in a deprivation state that increases the appetitiveness of the reinforcing activity. Consequently, the individual is driven to “work” through a low probability behavior in order to obtain access to the valuable reinforcer, a high probability behavior. It has been my experience, through naturalistic observation, that the application of the Premack Principle has proved very successful when utilized within the institutional setting; as individuals “working” for a high probability activity will complete more tasks attend to low probability activities for increased intervals of time.

Chapter 5
The topic of extinction presented within Chapter Five of the text, was particularly salient to me primarily due to the timely coincidence of my reading of the chapter and the onset of a planned behavioral intervention addressing the severe tantrums and increasing aggressive behaviors of the student previously mentioned herein, Billy. To recapitulate, Billy was prone to frequent tantruming episodes that consisted of screaming, biting, property destruction and self-injurious behavior. Following a functional behavior assessment, several behavioral targets were identified for modification. These targeted behaviors consisted of tantrums (any episode of screaming or yelling), sever tantrums (screaming and yelling accompanied by self-injurious behavior or property destruction), and aggression (any actual attempt to engage in a behavior that could cause potential injury to another person). Based upon the data collected via the functional behavior assessment, it was hypothesized that Billy was most likely engaging in the aforementioned behaviors as a means of escaping from the demands of undesirable activities and when denied access to preferred items. Furthermore, it was evidenced that Billy, who was expected to earn preferred items or activities by complying with task demands, would frequently attempt to avoid or escape the activity and attempt to access the reinforcers non-contingently.
Additionally, it was hypothesized that the consequential stimulus that served to maintain the undesirable behaviors of screaming, SIB, and property destruction was the positive reinforcing properties of the social attention Billy received as a result. It was therefore determined that the targeted operant behaviors be subjected to extinction.

As the text indicates, extinction is essentially the non-reinforcement at a previously reinforced operant response, the result of which is the decrease in frequency and eventual extinction of the instrumental behavior. Therefore, in the case of Billy, the extinction process involved several components aimed at withdrawing attention from the targeted negative behaviors. For example, as soon as Billy began to engage in any form of tantrum behavior (i.e. screaming), all surrounding staff were to reposition themselves as to increase space between Billy and themselves, avoid any eye-contact with Billy, and remain silent and continue with “normal activities”. Additionally, any task that was currently being performed by Billy at the time of tantruming would be maintained in his sight for completion upon calming down, as not to allow escape from, or avoidance of, the task. If Billy would attempt to access the reinforcers non-contingently, access would be blocked while still avoiding eye-contact or communication of any kind with Billy. In the event that Billy escalated to a severe tantrum (i.e. SIB, aggressions) an omission procedure was implemented in which Billy would be directed to a “time-out” room in which he would be secluded and unobtrusively observed to maintain his safety, while denying reinforcing attention. Additionally, due to the severity of Billy’s SIB; protective safety gear (consisting of a helmet and padded gloves) was to be immediately placed on him. While the safety gear is primarily utilized to protect Billy, interestingly enough this procedure also creates a negative reinforcement contingency; if Billy wishes to have the uncomfortable gear removed he must cease tantruming and return to a calm state. Once again, in an attempt to ensure that Billy received as little attention as possible while tantruming, the procedure of implementing his safety gear is performed in complete silence and void of all eye-contact. Upon calming, Billy’s safety gear would be removed and he was returned to the last task he was engaged in prior to tantruming as not to reinforce escape.

While the extinction procedure has been relatively effective in decreasing the frequency of occurrence of the targeted maladaptive responses, several of the side effects to extinction mentioned in the text were observed. Following the implementation of the extinction procedure, Billy’s tantrums increased in frequency, duration, and intensity for the first several days. This type of responding is indicative of an extinction burst and is evidence that extinction is, in fact, occurring. Increased aggressions and increased frustration, two additional side effects of extinction, were also observed during the early phases of the extinction procedure. Furthermore, there was a marked increase in the variability of Billy’s SIB. While typical manifestations of Billy’s SIB included biting and banging his fists into his head and walls, Billy began to exhibit rarely seen behaviors such as kicking the walls and sitting on the floor striking his head against his knee. Presumably these behaviors were alternative attempts to acquire the reinforcing stimulus being withheld, attention from staff.

Extinction is a minimally intrusive behavioral intervention for the management of undesirable behaviors (as opposed to, for example, punishment) and therefore often requires a significant amount of time before the behavior fully extinguishes. Although Billy continues to tantrum occasionally, there has been a significant decrease in the frequency and intensity of his tantrums and an even more significant decrease in his instances of self-injurious behavior as a result of the implementation of the extinction procedure.

Chapter 6
As discussed previously herein, PECS (picture exchange communication system) is an augmentative communication system that teaches children and adults with ASD and other communication deficits to communicate via pictures or symbols. Based upon the tenets contained within B. F. Skinner’s publication, Verbal Behavior, PECS systematically teaches functional verbal operants through the use of reinforcement strategies and prompting. The PECS system requires that the individual learn discrimination of the various symbols which can then be utilized to initiate communication. Additionally, the Picture Exchange Communication System can also be used to systematically guide a series of successful steps contained within a particular task. Task analysis, a vital tool to teach complex motor skills to individuals with ASD, partitions a complex behavioral sequence (chains of simple successive behaviors) into its component parts for discrete teaching of each step in the process and the picture exchange communication system can be used to guide and visually mediate this process for the individual. An example of a task analysis for teeth brushing might include get toothbrush, get toothpaste, turn on water, wet brush, remove cap from toothpaste, and so on. By constructing a picture schedule that coincides with this sequence of behaviors, the individual can utilize that schedule to chain the numerous discrete behaviors into complex motor activities such as tooth-brushing. In this situation, each discrete picture icon serves as a stimulus indicating that a specific response is required. To achieve this, however, the individual must first learn to associate each discrete picture icon stimulus with the appropriate behavioral response, a process encompassed within the discussion of paired-associate learning in Chapter Six of the text.

In the method of paired-associate learning, a stimulus and response are associated, and this association studied by the individual. Test trials are initiated in which the stimulus alone is presented, and the individual is required to recall, and perform, the associated response. Such is the case with utilizing a picture icon of, for example, a hand reaching for a toothbrush as a stimulus that triggers the paired-associate response, retrieving the toothbrush.

The process of learning a task analysis sequence for a complex motor task is parallel to the stage approach process to paired-associate learning presented in the text. Accordingly the variables that influence the learning of paired-associates is analyzed and broken down into a series of stages which seem to illustrate the process by which paired-associative learning occurs. The stages consist of stimulus discrimination, response learning, and S-R associating.

For stimulus discrimination, the various stimuli that are utilized within a paired-associates task must be differentiated as to elicit the appropriate behavioral response. Similarly, an individual utilizing a picture schedule must first learn to discriminate the various picture representations within that schedule. As earlier discussed, discrimination can be facilitated by pre-experimental exposure and embellishing the various stimuli with distinctive markings or features.

Upon learning to discriminate the various stimuli of a paired-associates learning task, the individual must then learn the appropriate behavioral response that coincides with each discrete stimulus. In the example of tooth-brushing, this can be accomplished by simply teaching the motor activities involved in a “hand over hand” fashion (i.e. using your hand to guide the individuals hand to pick up the toothbrush).

Finally, the stimulus and the response must become associated to form the S-R connection of picture-behavior. This can be facilitated by simply gesturing to a specific picture within the sequence followed by the immediate hand-over-hand performance of the behavior. For example, pointing to the picture of a hand turning on the water followed by physically manipulating the individual’s own hand to turn the water on. Although verbal prompting is highly discouraged in Applied Behavioral Analysis, for individuals with receptive language, a verbal mediator (i.e. “turn on the water”) in addition to a physical prompt may prove beneficial. Verbal prompts, however, should be used sparingly as they have been determined to be the most difficult to fade.

Chapter 7
In Chapter Seven of the text, several compelling topics are discussed with respect to the conceptual approaches to the study of human memory. Particularly intriguing is the discussion relating to abnormal memory and, more specifically, amnesic disorders. The experimental investigation of individuals suffering from a variety of amnesias has been utilized to further advance our understanding of the functioning of the human memory system. Case studies on brain-injured individuals, such as H.M. and N.A. are presented in the text to illustrate the importance of combining the theoretical implications derived within the laboratory with the measured deficits that exist in real-life examples of those suffering from amnesic disorders.

Not unlike many, prior to being exposed to the information presented in the text, I possessed a limited understanding, and admittedly layman’s conceptualization, of the amnesic disorders. I was particularly misinformed with respect to the classifications and manifestations of the varying forms of amnesia, and found this material to be particularly intriguing.

Amnesias can be caused by either physical injury to the brain, an organic cause, or psychological trauma, as in psychogenic amnesia. Additionally, amnesia can be classified with respect to loss of memory for events that occurred prior to physical or psychological trauma or memory that is impaired following such traumas, labeled retrograde amnesia and anterograde amnesia, respectively. As evidenced by the case study of H.M. in the text, it is extremely common for a victim of traumatic brain injury to exhibit both anterograde and retrograde amnesias concurrently.

Types of amnesia consist of amnesic syndrome, Korsakoff’s syndrome, and psychogenic amnesia, which encompass limited amnesia, fugue reaction and dissociative disorders. Amnesic syndrome is evidenced by an inability to acquire new semantic memories as well as significant deficiencies related to the acquisition of episodic memories. Often, individuals with amnesic syndrome retain normal functioning of short term memory. Damage to the hippocampus has been implicated in the development of amnesic syndrome.

Korsakoff’s syndrome is an amnesic disorder known to be caused by a thiamine deficiency resulting from excessive and extended alcohol abuse. Similar to amnesic syndrome, the presence of both anterograde and retrograde amnesia is characteristic of Korsakoff’s syndrome. It involves damage to the thalamus and mammilary bodies in the diencephalons region of the brain and may develop slowly over an extended period of time.

The psychogenic amnesias are the result of psychological trauma and include: limited amnesia, fugue state, and dissociative disorder. A significant number of psychogenic amnesias are retrograde and impact an individual’s ability to remember events that occurred prior to the traumatic psychological event.

One such psychogenic amnesia, limited amnesia, causes an individual to forget a particular traumatic event, whereas, a fugue reaction results in the individual being unable to recall any past events and personal identity. Fugue reactions are an extreme form of psychogenic amnesia that is generally resolved relatively quickly (in approximately one week, or so).The last of the psychogenic amnesias discussed within the text, dissociative disorders, results in the individual developing multiple identities that are not aware of the existence of one another.

The psychogenic amnesias are particularly interesting to me, as it is my belief that I myself have experienced the effects of limited amnesia specific to a traumatic episode I witnessed on September 11, 2001. On this fateful date I was residing and working several blocks from the World Trade Center in downtown Manhattan when the Twin Towers were attacked. The last episodic memories that I have of that morning are of hearing an extremely loud explosion and feeling the building I was working in shake violently as if an earthquake had occurred. From that moment on, I cannot recall the entire events of that day. I am aware of events that occurred, and the gruesome and disturbing experiences that I was exposed to, only from the verbal reports of a group of individuals that I was with during the event, however I possess no personal images or recollection of the details myself. Since the event this forgetting has disturbed me, as I could not comprehend how I could have witnessed the traumatic incidences that have been reported to me (for example, individuals jumping to their death, and individuals escaping the building with severe traumatic injuries) without even a recollection or mental image of such atrocities. The text, however, has offered some insight with respect to how this type of forgetting may have occurred.

According to the repression hypothesis of psychogenic amnesia, as a functional means of managing the fear and anxiety resulting from a traumatic event, the traumatic events are repressed, or forced below the conscious level. These memories become buried within the unconscious mind, where they remain inaccessible to conscious awareness. It has also been suggested that psychogenic amnesia resulting from a traumatic event is the result of the dissociating of the traumatic memory from conscious awareness. Furthermore, it is hypothesized that memories that are encoded during a state of intense emotionality become inaccessible during states of normal consciousness. It is further hypothesized that procedures, such as hypnosis, can reinstate such extreme emotions and may aid in episodic retrieval. At this point in time I am personally uninterested in participating in such procedures as I feel that any forgetting of the traumatic events that occurred on that fateful day constitutes a functional process of an adaptive mind and has served to minimize any long term effects that may have arisen as a result of the experience.

Chapter 8
Chapter Eight discusses a wide variety of issues affecting short-term memory, or the retention of information over brief temporal intervals. Short-term memory has been indicated in laboratory experiments to have the capacity to retain short (5-7) item lists for a period of sixty seconds or less, provided that the individual not actually rehearse the items. Historically, short term memory has been distinguished from a long-term memory system; however, contemporary theorists prefer to refer to retention over brief time intervals as short-term retention, as not to imply a distinction between short and long term memory stores. Others, however, have proposed that short-term memory is, in actuality, more elaborate than earlier theories propose. The working memory model is one such contemporary advancement of the short-term memory theories.

The working memory model is a multi-component model that hypothesizes four distinct compartments comprising the short-term, or working, memory. According to this theory, two hypothesized systems, the phonological loop and the visuospatial sketchpad are responsible for the temporary rehearsal, or maintenance, of information received via the senses. The third system, the central executive, is responsible for integrating the information contained within the phonological loop and the visuospatial sketchpad as well as coordinating the efforts of these two systems. The episodic memory buffer, the fourth component, functions as a bridge between the working memory and long term memory.

To further elaborate, the phonological loop briefly stores phonological information, such as verbal material that is utilized to process language. The phonological loop prevents the loss of such information by continuously rehearsing the information in a loop-type fashion. For example, a phone number can be remembered for as long as the phonological loop continues to refresh it. The visuospatial sketchpad is responsible for the temporary storage of, as the name so aptly implies, visual and spatial information, for example, pictures and mental representations of maps. The central executive maintains the responsibility of directing the attention of the visuospatial and phonological systems to relevant information, as well as allocating information from the two systems in the event that two tasks must be performed simultaneously. As the text indicates, there is some theoretical disagreement concerning the manner in which the central executive allocates attention in a dual task. One assumption conveys the notion that attention, as a limited resource, must be equally allocated amongst the dual tasks, whereas a second hypothetical assumption is that the central executive switches attention back and forth between tasks. No matter the exact mechanism by which the central executive allocates attention, perhaps the most interesting aspect of the working memory is that it allows for individuals to perform multiple tasks simultaneously, with very little interference. The episodic buffer functions as a temporary store, holding information that integrates various phonological and visual representations and acts as a bridge between these items and the long-term memory system.

Perhaps the most interesting application of the working memory model is in the task of investigating aging and dementia. Research on aging, utilizing the working-memory model, have indicated that older individuals have slower informational processing rates and are slower at switching between tasks than younger individuals. With respect to dementia, working-memory experiments have shown that individuals with Alzheimer’s disease, an extreme form of dementia, have significant impairments in the ability to perform two tasks simultaneously. This finding may indicate the localization of impairment to the central executive component of the working memory.

Chapter 9
A great many of the topics discussed within the context of this course have been particularly applicable to the work that I perform daily, educating children and adolescents with autism. In like fashion, chapter nine of the text offers insight into the various learner variables that can influence and facilitate the encoding of information, and offer additional opportunity for the application of these concepts within the educational setting. The text presents several learner variables influencing encoding such as; intentional versus incidental learning, the use of incentives to aid learning, personal interest in the to-be-learned material, and the individuals level of arousal as a learning facilitator.

A significant proportion of the teaching employed at CARES is incidental teaching. Through activities of daily living, such as; cooking, cleaning, vocational activities and playtime, we strive to incorporate functional lessons as frequently as possible. For example, if a child is engaged in play with a series of multi-colored blocks, the educator may surreptitiously be teaching color by simply stating, “Wow, I really like that pink block”. Alternatively, one might simply ask the child to hand them the blue block by opening one hand, gesturing to the blue block with the other hand, and saying, “give me the blue block”. Another example of incidental teaching might involve a trip to the local mall. The individual may simply view this excursion as an enjoyable outing, however, unbeknownst to him or her, we are, in actuality, working on goals such as; waiting in line, remaining with instructors and initiating communication by stopping at the food court and having the students request items with their PECS. (It is quite amazing to see how, even the least motivated communicators, will whip out their PECS books and, with lightning speed, assemble sentences at the mere sight of “golden arches”). As the text indicates, and I have witnessed first-hand, intention to learn is not always necessary, and incidental learning is often equally effective as intentional learning.

Another learner variable presented within chapter nine is also particularly interesting with respect to teaching children with ASD; incentive learning. Based upon the evidence presented in the text, it is clear that incentives in the form of reinforcement can increase behavioral responding. However, the answer to the question, can incentives aid in learning, seems to be that incentives do not offer any added value to the retention of information. However, incentives may serve a function in the learning experience. Incentives can be effective in motivating the individual to attend to lessons longer and engage in appropriate behaviors that may increase retention of the material as a result of increased attention (i.e., remaining seated, sitting up straight, etc.). Providing incentives for appropriate behavior during lessons is especially important for children with ASD, as they often lack the interest and/or attention-span required for information retention.

Learning and retention can also be facilitated if the individual possesses a personal interest in the materials being taught. This notion is a keystone to teaching individuals with autism to identify and discriminate the variety of picture icons utilized by the Picture Exchange Communication System. When initiating PECS training, it is essential to use pictures of highly preferred items. Most often these items consist of food choices that are highly preferred by the individual, but could potentially be anything that the child will request from the communicative partner. The use of highly preferred items is beneficial due to the fact that, as earlier noted; pre-exposure to a stimulus may facilitate future learning about that stimulus. Additionally, a highly preferred item can also stimulate the individual, leading to greater levels of arousal. Increased arousal may facilitate deeper processing of the item and enhance encoding of information pertaining to that item.