Theses Doctoral

The Effects of the Social-Listener Protocol on the Observing, Helping, and Vocal Behavior of Children with ASD

Horton, Jessica Ann

Psychologists have long been interested in the study and development of empathy, though there has often been variation in the literature in regards to definition and measurement (Wispé 1986). Nevertheless, researchers in the field do agree that empathy is an essential social skill with evolutionary roots (De Waal, 2008). Yet, findings have shown that this stimulus control does not readily develop for all individuals; one such population is individuals with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD). The purpose of this study was to provide a behavioral measurement to determine if children with an educational classification of ASD would demonstrate empathy in an unfair play scenario and, if empathetic behavior is absent, can the Social-Listener Protocol (SLR) intervention result in the emergence of empathy. In Experiment I, the participants were placed in an unfair free play scenario and data were recorded on empathetic behavior. I selected 11 participants, from a mainstream first- and second-grade classroom, and two self-contained classrooms. Three participants from a mainstream second grade classroom were recruited to be actors in the free-play session. In this free play setting the participant was given an item while a peer, functioning as the confederate, was told there that there was not enough for him/her. Data were recorded for the participant’s observing and helping behavior. In addition, the participant was asked four empathy questions following the experiment. The results showed that, overall, participants with ASD demonstrated less observing behavior and answered fewer empathy-related questions correctly when compared to their typically developing peers. However, participants with ASD did not differ from their typically developing peers in regards to empathetic behavior. In Experiment II, I conducted additional free play probes across three activities. These free play settings differed from that of Experiment I as the child with ASD was given a Ziploc bag with multiple items, as opposed to one item. Data were collected on the number of times the participant looked at the peer, the vocal verbal operants emitted, and the number of seconds the participant shared the item. The results overall showed low levels of vocal verbal operants and sharing across participants. A multiple probe design was used to test the effects of the SLR protocol on empathetic behavior. The SLR protocol was composed of four activities that yoked the participant with a peer, against the teacher, to access a reinforcer. The results showed an increase in vocal verbal operants for Participant 3, 4, and 6. In addition, the results demonstrated an increase in sharing for Participants 2, 3, 4, and 6. Interestingly, the results showed an increase in correct responses to empathetic questions for Participants 2, 3, and 4 as well. The results show no significant change for Participants 1, 2, and 5. In Experiment III, I conducted additional phases of the SLR protocol and paired Participants 1, 2, and 5 with the same peer for intervention and probe sessions. In addition, I conducted observational learning probes. The results showed that Participants 1, 3, 4, and 6 had observational learning in their repertoire. Post-intervention results show an increase in vocal verbal operants, sharing behavior, and the induction of observational learning for Participant 2. There was no significant change for Participants 1 and 5.


  • thumnail for Horton_columbia_0054D_15744.pdf Horton_columbia_0054D_15744.pdf application/pdf 1.21 MB Download File

More About This Work

Academic Units
Applied Behavior Analysis
Thesis Advisors
Greer, R. Douglas
Ph.D., Columbia University
Published Here
February 12, 2020