Specifying Criteria for Meaningful Versus Nonmeaningful Activities

Having applicable criteria for distinguishing what is and is not meaningful for adults with autism and other developmental disabilities is a prerequisite for assisting a center-based program in increasing the provision of meaningful services. Accordingly, one focus of early applied behavior analysis (ABA) research on promoting meaningful services was on developing and validating relevant criteria for center-based programs (Dyer, Schwartz, & Luce, 1984; Reid et al., 1985). Results of that research provided several key guidelines for determining whether a specific task is likely to be meaningful or not.

Guidelines for Meaningful Tasks in Center-Based Programs for Adults

Guideline 1: A task that someone would have to perform for a person if the person could not perform the task him/herself outside of the center Guideline 2: A task that once mastered, a person could be paid to perform as part of a real job

Guideline 3: A task that adults typically do during leisure time Guideline 4: A task is part of an interpersonal interaction that an individual would perform at least weekly outside of the center or it would not be unusual for an adult to perform weekly

Guideline 5: A task that would likely be performed by adults in a community setting

The above guidelines have served as a foundation for subsequent ABA research on how to help a center-based program change its services from nonmeaningful to meaningful. The guidelines also coincide with the continuum of most-to-least meaningful weekday activities for adults with autism described in Chapter 2, Current Professional Consensus Regarding Meaningful Activities, but with an emphasis on

Quality Activities in Center-Based Programs for Adults with Autism. DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/B978-0-12-809409-9.00004-6

© 2017 Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.

what takes place within a center-based setting. In this respect, the guidelines are intended to promote activities that enhance independent functioning of center participants as well as their integration and inclusion within community life.

The guidelines pertain to the types of tasks in which adults with autism are involved in center-based programs. In turn, task involvement is considered in regard to: (1) the ongoing activity, or what an individual is doing and (2) the materials, or how the activity is being performed (if materials are necessary to engage in the activity). The guidelines specify that for a task to be considered meaningful, both the activity and the materials used must be meaningful. The importance of focusing on the meaningfulness of a task in terms of the activity performed and the materials used is highlighted in subsequent chapter sections.

In considering the guidelines for meaningful tasks, it is important to emphasize that they are guidelines. What is meaningful for adults with autism in center-based programs ultimately has to be decided on an individual basis. Consequently, readers will likely have experiences in which a particular task has been viewed as quite meaningful for a given adult in a center-based program even though the task did not meet any of the guidelines.

To illustrate, an underlying theme across the guidelines is that the more often a task needs to be performed by an adult with autism during his/her experiences outside of the center, the more meaningful it is to teach how to perform the task relative to tasks that are needed less often. Hence, it is generally more meaningful to teach skills that an individual needs on a daily or weekly basis prior to teaching skills that typically are needed only monthly or less often. Consider, however, the situation involving an adult with autism in one center who was expected to be the best man at his brother’s wedding. His planned participation was very important for his family, and for him, but his family was concerned that he would not know how to act. They were also concerned that he might engage in challenging or otherwise problematic behavior during the ceremony because the wedding would represent a very novel situation for him. In this case, teaching the individual what to do to function as best man (e.g., appropriately walk down the aisle, stand with his brother, present the ring to his brother) would not meet the general frequency criterion for a meaningful skill to teach—it would likely only occur once in his life. Given the importance of the event though, an exception to the criterion would seem in the best interest of the gentleman and his family in order to enhance the likelihood that he would have the opportunity to successfully play such an honored role in his family.

Other exceptions to the guidelines for meaningful tasks in center- based programs will undoubtedly be encountered. Nonetheless, there is a good evidence-base supporting the validity of tasks that meet the guidelines as usually being more beneficial for adults with autism relative to tasks that do not meet the guidelines. With individual exceptions on an occasional basis, the guidelines also have proven useful in the vast majority of situations in which they have been applied to move a center-based program from providing primarily nonmeaningful tasks to more meaningful ones (Parsons et al., 1987; Reid et al., in press).

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