Can children with autism learn more flexible language patterns?

Raised of $5,000 Goal
Funded on 10/15/14
Successfully Funded
  • $5,100
  • 102%
  • Funded
    on 10/15/14

Project Results

These studies provided further support for the contention made by RFT that DRR is a learned operant, and provided important evidence of the effectiveness of MET in establishing repertoires of DRR with individuals who have limited language skills.  In addition to the theoretical implications of the work, there were also significant practical implications. In both lines of research, new methods for assessing and training early repertoires of DRR were developed that can easily be implemented by practitioners in the course of typical early intervention programs, either in tabletop formats or in an easily managed iPad app.

About This Project

Children with autism often display rote, rigid conversational skills. A critical question is how to teach children to understand sentences they've never heard before and speak in ways they've never been taught—how to teach them to participate in the ever-changing flow of typical conversation. These projects will focus on teaching core skills that form the foundation of more flexible, generative language.

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What is the context of this research?

Relational Frame Theory is a relatively new behavioral account of language and cognition that describes the process of learning language as learning relational patterns of responding. For example, if you know that Sue is in the same class as Bob, and Bob is in the same class as Joe, then you can also deduce that Sue and Joe are in the same class. This is one type of relational pattern—sameness. Another relational pattern is difference: if Amy and Ted are in different classes, and Ted and Alice are in the same class, then Amy is in a different class from Alice. Others are comparative, spatial, hierarchical patterns, and so on.

While these seem like basic skills, many children with autism are unable to "figure out" an untaught relation on the basis of the taught ones. How can we teach this?

What is the significance of this project?

There is beginning to be evidence that if you provide training on many examples of the pattern of responding, children will learn how to respond to the pattern, rather than to only the specific taught information or stimuli. This ability to "figure out" the connections between new stimuli (words, pictures, and so on) is a critical component of language and cognitive flexibility—which are defining and significantly limiting deficits for children with autism.

The current projects will be the first to examine these two particular patterns (difference and hierarchy) with children with autism. They also form components of a larger project to develop a comprehensive curriculum and computer-based training and assessment program based on a number of key patterns of responding.

What are the goals of the project?

  1. Conduct a multiple baseline design study training children with autism to respond to novel situations within a game context that requires them to figure out similarities and differences on the basis of known information about characters in the game.
  2. Conduct a multiple baseline design study training children with autism "class inclusion" skills such as being able to identify that there are more animals than bears, given a number of bears and a number of tigers.
  3. Publish the hopefully impressive results!
  4. Continue to develop and freely disseminate table-top teaching protocols as well as the TARPA app to interested practitioners and researchers.


Please wait...

The budget of this project is to provide a researcher stipend for me (Siri). In order to get my final projects done and be able to continue to take time out from paid work, I decided it was time to look to other sources of funding within my network of fellow RFT-interested behavior analysts as well as awesome friends and professional connections. All my research and development time—indeed, my entire PhD program—has so far been unfunded/unpaid, partially due to a quirk of being an non-EU student attending a non-US university (and thus ineligible for NUIG/Irish federal student grants, and also ineligible for US federal student grants), and partially due to the difficulty in getting traditional grant funding for RFT work that is so new.

On the basis of my and my fellow students' research projects so far, we have continued to develop and refine the Training and Assessment of Relational Precursors and Abilities (the TARPA), a computer and iPad based program for testing and training core relational framing skills. My final projects will further help develop this tool to include more advanced relations of difference and hierarchy. We've given the TARPA away to anyone interested in it, and I've also freely shared advice and tabletop protocols in development to anyone who asks. Now I'm asking for some support in return.

We will continue to give away the TARPA as it is being developed to anyone who asks, and any amount you can give to support these projects is deeply appreciated. Larger donors will also get.....

$50: autographed, personalized copy of any publications that result
$100: + acknowledgement in my dissertation and any publications that result
$200: + individual training/consultation on how to use the TARPA and/or tabletop protocols (if desired)

(and everyone gets thank you hugs!)

Meet the Team

Siri Ming
Siri Ming
Adjunct Professor


The Chicago School
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Ian Stewart
Ian Stewart

Team Bio

I am a private consultant with nearly 20 years of experience working with children with autism, their families, and professional teams. After many years of work in the field, my passion became working with the kids who don't just "fly" with early intervention but get "stuck" at some point. This brought me to learning about generative language and particularly Relational Frame Theory. Since no-one had the answers I was looking for on how to apply RFT to programs for kids with autism, I decided I needed to just jump in and figure it out myself. After collaborating with Dr. Ian Stewart and John McElwee on pilot projects, I decided to return to grad school to do the applied & translational research that was needed to answer my questions, and our work has been among the first to apply RFT to EIBI programs.

Outside of my research and professional life, I am active in the Couchsurfing community, practice yoga, love to cook, and hang out and do that parenting thing with my 10 year old daughter.

Additional Information

As always, interested researchers can contact us ( for access to current versions of the TARPA.

Here's a workshop we presented at the Penn State National Autism Conference on applying RFT to EIBI programs:

Background publications to check out:

Ming, S., Moran, L. & Stewart, I. (2014). Derived relational responding: Applications and future directions for teaching individuals with autism spectrum disorders. European Journal of Behavior Analysis. (in press).

Moran, L., Stewart, I., McElwee, J., & Ming, S. (2014). Relational Ability and Language Performance in Children with Autism Spectrum Disorders & Typically Developing Children: A Further Test of the TARPA Protocol. The Psychological Record. 64(2): 233-251.

Stewart, I., McElwee, J., & Ming, S. (2013) Language Generativity, Response Generalization and Derived Relational Responding. The Analysis of Verbal Behavior. 29(1): 137-155

Moran, L., Stewart, I., McElwee, J., & Ming, S. (2010). Brief Report: The Training and Assessment of Relational Precursors and Abilities (TARPA): A preliminary analysis. Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders. 40(9): 1149-53.

Stewart, I., McElwee, J., & Ming, S. (2010). A Critical Analysis of Conventional Descriptions of Levels Employed in the Assessment of Basic Learning Abilities (ABLA). The Behavior Analyst. 33(1): 127-132.

banner photo copyright Brad Hammonds under a Creative Commons License

Project Backers

  • 29Backers
  • 102%Funded
  • $5,100Total Donations
  • $175.86Average Donation
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