Using simultaneous prompting to teach computer-based story writing to a student with autism.
Article Type:
Case study
Autistic children (Educational aspects)
Autistic children (Case studies)
Special education (Methods)
Special education (Technology application)
Composition (Language arts) (Study and teaching)
Pennington, Robert C.
Stenhoff, Donald M.
Gibson, Jason
Ballou, Kristina
Pub Date:
Name: Education & Treatment of Children Publisher: West Virginia University Press, University of West Virginia Audience: Professional Format: Magazine/Journal Subject: Education; Family and marriage; Social sciences Copyright: COPYRIGHT 2012 West Virginia University Press, University of West Virginia ISSN: 0748-8491
Date: August, 2012 Source Volume: 35 Source Issue: 3
Computer Subject: Technology application
Product Code: 8294000 Education of Handicapped; 9105115 Special Education Programs NAICS Code: 61111 Elementary and Secondary Schools; 92311 Administration of Education Programs
Geographic Scope: United States Geographic Code: 1USA United States

Accession Number:
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Writing is a critical skill because it is used to access reinforcement in a variety of contexts. Unfortunately, there has been little research on writing skills instruction for students with intellectual disabilities and autism spectrum disorders. The purpose of this study was to evaluate the effects simultaneous prompting and computer-assisted instruction on story writing responses of a 7-year-old male with autism. Data indicated that the intervention was effective in teaching the participant to construct stories related to three different topics. Additionally, the student maintained responding at 2 and 4 weeks following intervention and increased responding across different topographies (i.e., handwriting, vocal).

Writing involves a complex set of skills that can be used to affect the behavior of readers. Skinner (1957) suggested that writing serves two major functions. A technical function requires that a writer affect a reader's behavior in a specific way. For instance, one might construct of list of items to purchase at grocery store. An aesthetic function involves using various forms of text to affect the emotions of the reader (Greer & Ross, 2008). Novelists often demonstrate this function when crafting stories for readers' enjoyment. An individual's ability to apply technical and aesthetic writing functions are both critical in that they can serve as a means to access reinforcement in a variety of contexts.

Researchers suggest that individuals with disabilities may have difficulties acquiring the writing skills necessary to serve technical and aesthetic functions (Bird, Cleave, White, Pike, & Helmkay, 2008; Gabig, 2008; Myles et al., 2003; Poplin, Gray, Larsen, Bankowski, & Mehring, 1980). These skills are particularly important for individuals who do not develop functional vocal language and may be at risk for developing aberrant responses to access reinforcement. In addition, these skills are required in a variety of educational and vocational contexts. For instance, writing is considered the primary means for demonstrating one's knowledge of content in academic settings (Mercer & Mercer, 2005).

Researchers have demonstrated that writing deficits for some students are amenable to instruction and have established guidelines for intervention (Graham, Harris, & Larsen, 2001; Mason & Graham, 2008). Unfortunately, few researchers have evaluated the effects of writing instruction on learners with intellectual disabilities or autism spectrum disorders (ASDs). The majority of writing instruction research for these students has involved the use of technology to teach spelling (e.g., Kinney, Vedora, & Stromer, 2003; Schlosser & Blischak, 2004; Stromer, MacKay, Howell, & McVay, 1996). Though spelling is critical to ensure that readers understand a writer's message (Graham, Harris, & Chorzempa, 2002), it represents only a small portion of the skills required to successfully craft a written narrative.

Kameenui and Simmons (1990) suggested that in the early stages of writing instruction, teachers should present pictures as antecedents to students' writing responses. Two research teams have investigated interventions to teach sentence writing in response to a pictured sample. For example, Basil and Reyes (2003) taught 2 students with autism, ages 8 and 14, to construct sentences in response to a pictured sample. They used a commercial software package (i.e., Delta Messages; Nelson & Heimann, 1995) that incorporated selection-based construction tasks and the use of digitized auditory feedback (i.e., reading of the sentence). They found that the package was effective during the instruction of target responses and that one student made additional gains in handwritten responses and on measures of phonological awareness. Similarly, Yamamoto and Miya (1999) developed a computer program to teach sentence construction tasks to students with ASD, ranging in age from 6 to 10 years. During the sentence construction task, a computer presented a picture and a word bank, the students selected words to create a sentence that corresponded with the picture, and the computer used digitized auditory feedback to signal whether the response was correct or an error. Errors were immediately followed by the presentation of the correct response. All 3 students acquired computer-based target responses, and also demonstrated gains across handwritten and vocal topographies.

Few researchers have addressed more complex writing skills. Collins, Branson, Hall, and Rankin (2001) evaluated the effects of a system of least prompts (SLP) procedure on the letter writing skills of 3 high school students with moderate to severe cognitive disabilities. They trained a general education teacher and peer tutors to deliver instruction in a secondary general education composition class. After determining that the participants were waiting for extended periods of time as the general education teacher delivered instruction to the entire class, the researchers trained peer tutors to deliver SLP procedures. All 3 participants met criterion for targeted letter writing skills. In addition, students used some of the letter components at 2 and 6 weeks after intervention. Bedrosian, Lasker, Speidel, and Politsch (2003) used a multi-component intervention package to increase the number of words used, peer interactions, and revisions made during the joint writing activities of a 14-year male with ASD and a peer without disabilities. The package consisted of peer involvement, adult modeling, story mapping, and the use of an augmentative communication device. The intervention package was effective in increasing student performance on all target responses. Finally, Delano (2007a, 2007b) conducted two investigations using the self-regulated strategy development (SRSD) model (Graham, Harris, MacArthur, & Schwartz, 1991) to improve the narrative writing skills of students with Asperger's syndrome. Delano (2007a) reported that SRSD was effective in increasing the number of action and description words used and the number of revisions made during the narrative writing of a 14-year-old with Asperger's syndrome. In a subsequent study, Delano (2007b) reported that the use of SRSD and video modeling resulted in an increase in the number of words written, functional essay elements used, and the duration of time spent writing for 3 males, ages 13 to 17, with Asperger's syndrome.

Writing intervention research for students with ASDs is limited. Researchers have conducted few studies across a minimal number of participants and skills. In addition, researchers have not replicated enough studies for any one intervention to be considered an evidence-based practice (Gersten et al., 2005; Horner et al., 2005). Furthermore, researchers only have conducted four studies addressing more complex narrative skills, and two of the investigations involved students with Asperger's syndrome and larger writing skill repertoires. The acquisition of story writing responses is critical because: (a) story generation is a valued social skill and may be used by individuals to access praise and reinforcement from peers and adults, (b) story writing may serve as a context for the instruction of other important skills (e.g., grammar, spelling, syntax, perspective taking, communication), and (c) story writing responses are required of students without disabilities from kindergarten to secondary educational settings.

The majority of the writing research for students with intellectual disabilities and ASDs has involved the use of computer-assisted instruction. Computer-assisted instruction (CAI) refers to the application of a computer-technology as a learning medium that presents learning materials and/or checks learner's knowledge (Anohina, 2005). Researchers have suggested that the controlled presentation of instructional stimuli during CAI may benefit learners with low incidence disabilities (Moore, McGrath, & Thorpe, 2000). Though a variety of commercially available software programs exist, there is a dearth of empirical support for the most effective ways to utilize these technologies. In the absence of evidence-based guidelines, teachers may find it beneficial to pair CAI with research-based instructional strategies. In the current study, researchers evaluated the effects of simultaneous prompting during instruction because it requires few teacher behaviors and therefore may present limited opportunities for teacher errors to occur. Simultaneous prompting (Gibson & Schuster, 1992) is an errorless teaching procedure that involves the delivery of a controlling prompt immediately following the discriminative stimulus during training trials. Additionally, the transfer of stimulus control is assessed through the administration of daily probe trials prior to training. Simultaneous prompting has been effective in the instruction of a wide range of skills to a heterogeneous group of students (Morse & Schuster, 2004). Recently, several studies have supported the effectiveness of simultaneous prompting in teaching a variety of skills to individuals with ASD including stating the names of relatives depicted in photographs (Akmanoglu-Uludag & Batu, 2005), matching numbers to auditory samples (Akmanoglu & Batu, 2004), performing pretend play responses with toys (Colozzi, Ward, & Crotty, 2008), taking digital pictures, and turning on a compact disc player (Kurt & Tekin-Iftar, 2008). To date, simultaneous prompting has not been evaluated in the context of writing instruction.

In this study, the researchers addressed two questions. First, to what extent does simultaneous prompting affect the story construction responses of a young child with autism? Second, to what extent will the skills acquired through the use of SP affect the emergence of new responses across topographies (i.e., vocal, handwriting)?


Participant and Settings

Jaden, a 7-year-old male with autism, participated in the study. His score on the Gilliam Autism Rating Scale (GARS-2; Gilliam, 1995) was 109 (a score of 90 or greater indicates a likelihood of having autism). The participant's Stanford-Binet nonverbal I.Q. score was 81. The participant was recommended for the study because he had not previously produced written narrative in any educational context without a written model. The participant demonstrated the following prerequisite skills: (a) locating and selecting a link using a mouse click, (b) imitating vocal sounds, (c) reading sight words, and (d) writing a word from an vocal model. The participant attended a general education classroom and received pull out services from a resource teacher for 3 hr a day.

The classroom teacher conducted all sessions. The teacher held a Master's degree in special education and had 10 years of teaching experience. She had used Pixwriter[TM](Slater & Slater, 1994) software but had no previous experience using formal systematic instruction procedures (e.g., simultaneous prompting, constant time delay).

The teacher conducted all sessions in a 1:1 format within a special education resource classroom. The teacher and the student sat next to each other facing a desktop computer with their backs to the rest of the class. During all sessions, other special education teachers delivered instruction to different students in the classroom.


The student used Pixwriter[TM] software during training. Pixwriter[TM] displays a divided computer desktop to the user. A word processor is displayed on the top half of the screen and word bank on the bottom half (see Figure 1). Jaden clicked a mouse to select the words from the word bank and subsequently, those words appeared in the word processing document. After the selection of each word, the computer's digital text-reading software stated the word. In addition, after the construction of each story the teacher prompted the student to select a "speak" button, which resulted in a digital reading of the entire story.

Prior to intervention, the researcher used Pixwriter[TM] to create three templates. Templates contained 16 words that were randomly arranged. Each array contained words selected to train multiple locales, actions, and resulting events of those actions. The teacher presented the same template during instruction until the student met criterion on that template. Subsequently, the next template was introduced. The templates contained a bank of words necessary to write several different stories about a character. The researcher used a color inkjet printer to print student responses.


Dependent measures. The dependent measure was the number of complete sentences constructed during baseline and daily probe sessions. Complete sentences were defined as those that included, at minimum, the target subject (i.e., Monkey, Barney, Spongebob), followed by a verb. A sentence was scored as incorrect if word placement resulted in a statement that appeared illogical to the reader (e.g., Monkey was banana) or if the sentence did not follow the previous sentence in the order described below. Additionally, punctuation and article omissions/additions errors were permitted (e.g., monkey lived in zoo). Acknowledgment of these errors may have limited the participant's opportunities to receive praise and electronic consequences for the critical narrative responses that were the focus of this study. The researcher set criterion as the completion of a cohesive story containing three sentences. The researcher deemed a story as cohesive if it involved the following sequence: (a) the introduction of a main character into a setting, (b) the character performs an action, and (c) the character performs a subsequent action related to the previous sentence.

Interobserver agreement. A second researcher also collected data, from which interobserver agreement (I0A) was assessed. The authors used an off-site researcher to assess the feasibility of data collection via web-based technology. The first author trained the researcher through the presentation of simulated story responses and the subsequent delivery of feedback on the researcher's scoring of those responses. During several sessions, an independent observer (the 3rd author) recorded and scored student responses from a separate location using GoToMeetinga (Citrix Online, 1997) software. GoToMeetinga allowed the observer to view Jaden's computer desktop from a university office via the Internet. IOA data collection occurred at least once per baseline, training, and maintenance conditions. Data also were collected during vocal and handwriting probes. IOA was computed for two sets of data. First, the researcher calculated the agreement between the observers' scores on 51% of randomly selected daily writing samples. Agreement was assessed by determining whether each observer agreed that a given phrase met the criteria to be considered a sentence for each session in which IOA was assessed. IOA was calculated using a point-by-point method by dividing the number of agreements across all sentences by the sum of agreements and disagreements and multiplying by 100. IOA was 100%. Second, the researcher calculated agreement between the on site researcher and the distant observer's score on 11% of sessions. IOA between the observers at different locations was 100%.

General Procedures

A researcher trained the classroom teacher to conduct all sessions. Prior to intervention, the teacher assessed Jaden's performance on computer-based story construction (i.e., using Pixwriter) and tasks requiring the student to say and write a story. During the intervention condition, the teacher conducted probes to assess the acquisition of computer-based story construction tasks. Following each probe, the teacher used simultaneous prompting to teach the construction of three different stories about a main character (i.e., Monkey, Barney, Spongebob) using the sample computer-based template. Following the acquisition of story construction responses across three different computer-based templates, each related to a different character, the teacher assessed Jaden's performance on writing and vocal tasks.


Teacher training. The researcher trained the teacher across 3 days. During the first training session, the researcher described the purpose of the study, and outlined the general procedures. The researcher then emailed an instructional script to the teacher (available upon request form the first author). During the second training session, the researcher reviewed, answered questions related to, and modeled the procedures. The researcher then conducted a role-play with the teacher and provided feedback to the teacher as she performed the probe and training procedures. On the final day, the researcher observed the teacher during initial instruction with laden and provided feedback. The instructional script was available to the teacher during all sessions.

Baseline. The teacher conducted baseline sessions prior to instruction on a new story template. The teacher conducted three baseline sessions across the three computer templates at the beginning of the study and at least three sessions prior to the beginning of instruction on a new template. During each session the teacher presented three trials, each consisting of the presentation of one of three vocal directives (i.e., "Write a story about Barney," "Write a story about Monkey," "Write a story about SpongeBob") and the corresponding Pixwriter rm template. The teacher then waited 10 s for Jaden to initiate the construction of a story using the template. If Jaden did not respond within 10 s, the trial was discontinued, the teacher wrote the date on a blank piece of paper, and recorded a "--" for all three sentences. If Jaden responded, he continued to write until 10 s elapsed after a response. At the end of each trial, the teacher delivered general praise for on-task behavior and printed Jaden's response. The researcher collected and scored the samples.

Probes. During each intervention session, the teacher conducted probes prior to story writing instruction. Probes consisted of presenting one target stimulus (i.e., vocal demand + Pixwriter[TM] template) and Jaden's opportunity to respond. Probe procedures during intervention were identical to those in baseline sessions with the exception that the teacher presented the targeted template and not the other two templates

Simultaneous prompting. Each training session consisted of the presentation of three trials. During training, the teacher used simultaneous prompting procedures to prompt the construction of three different stories using a single computer-based template. The teacher selected a gestural prompt (i.e., pointing to a word on the computer desktop) to be used as the controlling prompt because during screening the teacher pointed to a word and the student immediately used the mouse to select the correct word. First, the teacher delivered an attentional cue by stating the directive "Look" or "Get ready." Once Jaden was oriented toward the computer screen, the teacher delivered the directive, "Write a story about __." The teacher immediately delivered the controlling prompt and waited 5 s for Jaden to select the word using a mouse click. If laden did not select the correct word, the teacher erased the error and used as physical prompt to guide the mouse to the correct word. The teacher continued to point to each correct word until Jaden completed the story. The teacher delivered verbal praise immediately following the completion of each story and prompted Jaden to select the playback button and listen to auditory feedback (i.e., digital text reading of the story). The teacher delivered instruction on the same template until Jaden met criterion and then subsequently, presented instruction on the next template.


The researcher used a multiple probe design (Horner & Baer, 1978) across behaviors/stimuli to evaluate the effects of SP on Jaden's story writing. The researcher also used a multiple pretest and posttest measure to assess performance across response topographies. That is, three vocal and handwriting probes were conducted prior to and immediately following training.

Maintenance probes. The teacher conducted a maintenance probe for the first story at approximately 1 and 4 weeks following training and for the second and third stories at 2 and 4 weeks. These probes were conducted using procedures identical to those used during probe sessions.

Vocal and handwriting probes. The teacher assessed the effects of acquiring computer-based story construction skills on the emergence of responses across vocal and handwritten response topographies using a multiple pretest and posttest procedure. Probes were conducted 3 days prior to intervention on the first story template and following acquisition of all three templates. In addition, the teacher conducted one vocal and handwriting probe 4 weeks after intervention. During probes, a word bank was not made available to the Jaden. During vocal probes, the teacher stated, "Tell me a story" and waited 10 s for the student to respond. The teacher discontinued the probe if 10 s elapsed following a vocal response. Following the probe, the teacher delivered verbal praise for attentional responses. During handwriting probes, the teacher presented a piece of paper, pencil, and the directive, "Write a story." Again, the teacher discontinued the probe if 10 s elapsed following a response and delivered praise for attentional responses. Responses during vocal and handwriting probes were scored using the same criteria applied during daily probes. The teacher compared the average number of words and sentences generated in pretest to post-test responses.

Treatment fidelity. Treatment fidelity was assessed for 26% of total sessions (baseline, intervention, maintenance, vocal and handwriting tasks). The researcher scored the performance of teacher behaviors using a researcher-developed checklist. For each trial, the researcher assessed the performance of five teacher behaviors. For probes, the researcher assessed the (a) the selection of the correct template or story topic, (b) the presence of an attentional response (e.g., looking at the computer or speaker) prior to delivery of the target stimulus, (c) the presentation of the target stimulus, (d) a 10 s wait interval prior to discontinuation of the probe, and (e) the delivery of teacher praise for on-task behavior upon completion of the probe. During training, the researcher assessed (a) the presence of an attentional response (e.g., looking at the computer) prior to delivery of the target stimulus, (b) the presentation of the target stimulus, (c) the immediate presentation of the controlling prompt, (d) the delivery of verbal praise following the completion of a story, and (e) the presentation of digital playback at the end of the story. Treatment fidelity was calculated by dividing the number of observed teacher behaviors by the number of planned teacher behaviors and multiplying by 100. Treatment fidelity was 100%.


The number of sentences constructed during baseline sessions and on probe sessions conducted during intervention is depicted in Figure 2. Prior to instruction on the first and second story, Jaden did not construct a single sentence using the computer-based templates. Prior to instruction on template three, Jaden constructed 1 sentence on two probes and 2 sentences on a third probe. All of these sentences included the subject and verb, "Spongebob saw." Following intervention on all three templates, Jaden constructed simple stories about three different subjects. He constructed two different stories about monkey, six about Barney, and four about Spongebob. Intervention averaged 11 training sessions to criterion for each story set. In addition, Jaden maintained effects for the first story topic (i.e., Monkey) at 1 and 4 weeks. For the second topic (i.e., Barney), he constructed two sentences at 2 weeks and 3 sentences at 4 weeks. For the final topic, Jaden constructed two sentences at 2 and 4 weeks after training.

Following the acquisition of story construction responses, Jaden demonstrated the emergence of novel responses across topographies (See Table 1). Prior to the introduction of simultaneous prompting on computer-based tasks, Jaden wrote an average of one word and no sentences in response to the request to write a story. On posttest measures, Jaden averaged 13 words and 3 sentences per written story (See Figure 3). Two of the stories demonstrated cohesion across all three sentences (e.g., Monkey lived in a tree, Monkey ate 10 bananas, Monkey got sleepy). During one probe, Jaden wrote the same sentence twice (i.e., Barney went top the pool, Barney saw the beach, Barney went to the pool). Four weeks after training, Jaden constructed a different story containing 12 words and three sentences (i.e., Monkey lived in the jungle, Monkey ate 10 apples, Monkey got sick). Jaden also demonstrated an increase in vocal responses to story telling requests following intervention. Prior to instruction, Jaden used an average of 3 words (consisting of echoic responses) when asked to tell a story. Following instruction, he used an average of 12 words and 3 sentences during posttest measures. All of the stories were identical to those composed during writing probes with a single exception. Jaden used the words "looked at" instead of the trained "saw" when telling a story about Barney. At 4 weeks after training, Jaden told a story containing 3 sentences that was different from those during all other vocal and handwriting probes (i.e., Monkey lived in the zoo, Monkey ate 10 bananas, Monkey got sick).



The current study extends the research on teaching writing skills to students with ASD by evaluating the effects of SP during the instruction of a novel response (i.e., story writing). Jaden acquired story construction responses following intervention and emitted novel responses during vocal and handwriting probes. Interestingly, Jaden constructed different responses across handwriting probes. For instance, Jaden used different words when asked to construct the same computer-based story (i.e., Spongebob rode to school, Spongebob rode to his friend). On the final vocal and handwriting probes, Jaden responded during the vocal task using different words than those used during writing tasks (i.e., Monkey lived in a zoo. Monkey ate ten bananas vs. Monkey lived in the jungle. Monkey ate ten apples). These findings suggest that Jaden's story writing may have involved generative responding in that he made selections about which content to include during composition. It also is important to note that the teacher delivered instruction for less than 10 min a day, and that Jaden acquired each story writing response with less than 2 hr total of instruction.

This study also adds to research on using CAI to teach academic skills to students with autism. To date, few researchers have evaluated the efficacy of computer-assisted interventions to teach academic skills to students with ASD and the available research has involved a variety of computer applications (Pennington, 2010). The current study involved the use of CAI within the context of research-based systematic instructional procedures. Because little is known about which applications of CAI may be most effective, practitioners may find it beneficial to pair computer-based instruction with evidence-based teaching procedures. Future research should evaluate the effects of other such pairings. For example, in the current investigation, it might have been possible to shape Jaden's writing skill by reinforcing responses to an array with a restricted set of words and systematically manipulating the array to increase the complexity of his responses.

The current analysis also involved data collection using web-based technology. The researchers' intent was to pilot the GoToMeetinga software for use during investigations of computer-based technology. Data indicated that there was 100% agreement between data collected on site and by an observer in another city using GoToMeetinga. This suggests that web-based technology may be used for data collection on computer-based responses. These findings are valuable in that the use of web-based technology for data collection may reduce time and travel costs for interventionists conducting research across wide geographical regions.

Despite the favorable results in the current analysis, several limitations should be addressed. First, the lag in responding following the introduction of the intervention may suggest that modifications to the instructional package may be necessary to increase the strength of the intervention. Second, covariation was observed as Jaden constructed one or two sentences using the third template during the critical "verification period" (Carr, 2005). During these responses, Jaden placed the subject, Spongebob, at the beginning of every sentence and added a verb, saw, and an object in four sentences. These data may indicate an emerging understanding of sentence structure but unfortunately weaken the demonstration of experimental control. Third, Jaden's ability to read the words used in story construction tasks was not assessed prior to intervention. Future research could be designed to determine whether this is a prerequisite to the acquisition of story writing responses or if students can acquire the words used in their composition through observational learning. Fourth, the current intervention package contained several components (i.e., simultaneous prompting, computer technology, selection-based writing, auditory playback). Future investigations could be conducted to determine if the entire package is necessary to replicate treatment effects. These data will be useful to teachers and software developers in the construction of the most effective and efficient teaching programs. Fifth, the researcher relied on teacher reports in lieu of direct assessment for the identification of potential reinforcers to use during instruction. As a result, it is not clear whether teacher praise or electronic stimuli functioned as reinforcers in this study. These additional data may indicate which if either of these two consequences were responsible for improved performance. More specifically, computer feedback was presented after Jaden's selection of each word, whereas verbal praise was delivered following the completion of an entire story. Finally, these findings should be considered with caution as this current analysis was conducted with one participant. Future investigations should involve replication across multiple students.

Despite these limitations, this investigation adds to the literature supporting the use of behavior analytic procedures for teaching writing to students with ASD. The student in the current analysis acquired complex writing responses with minimal instruction and generalized those responses across different topographies. Future research could be designed to investigate the utility of the current teaching procedures across different writing functions.


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Robert C. Pennington

University of Louisville Autism Center

Donald M. Stenhoff

The BISTA Center

Jason Gibson

University of Kentucky

Kristina Ballou

Jefferson County Public Schools

Robert Pennington, Department of Teaching and Learning, College of Education and Human Development, University of Louisville, Louisville, Kentucky 40292; e-mail:
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