Exceptional Development

Explanations/treatments for autism, explanation/treatments for dyslexia & giftedness

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  • Created on: 07-04-09 11:15


Autism is a pervasive mental disorder it starts in early childhood and continues throughout life

  • Developmental disorder
  • Appears between 0 and 3 years of age
  • More than half a million sufferers in the UK
  • Affects a person's entire personality
  • Leads to impaired social interaction & communication with others


  • Avoiding eye contact
  • Prefer to play alone
  • Repeation of certain words/phrases
  • Upset by change/disruption of routine
  • Non-speech vocalisations
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Triad of Impairments- Wing + Gould (1979)

This refers to the interaction of 3 of the most common domains of deficit in autism

Social Interaction - difficulty with social relationships

e.g. appearing aloof and indifferent to others

Social Communication - difficulty with verbal and non-verbal communication

e.g. not fully understanding the meaning of commone gestures/facial expression/tone of voice

Imagination - difficulty in the development of interpersonal play and imagination

e.g. having a limited range of imaginitive activities, possibly copied and pursued rigidly/repetitively

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Biological Explanation

  • Genetic theory is supported by concordance rate studies
  • These provide correlational data, therefore establishing an indirect rather than a casual relationship
  • Statistics difficult to analyse because both autism and MZ twins are rare
  • If solely due to genetic factors, concordance rate between MZ twins should be 100% - suggests other factors are involved

Evidence -Folstein + Piven reported concordance rate for autism between 2 and 3% for siblings - higher than the frequency for autism in the general population - indicates a substantial genetic coponent; twin studies are strongest evidence for genetic factors

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Cognitive Explanation

Theory of mind

  • Unable to understand the point of view of others - severe form of egocentrism e.g. if you ask an autistic person if they can open the door, they may reply 'yes' but not act upon it
  • Failure to understand that oher people have a mental state was proposed by Frith (1989) - lacking a theory of mind

Evidence - Sally-Anne Test; Sally puts her ball in the basket, she goes away and Anne moves the ball into her box, where will Sally look for her ball? autistic children were less able to put themselves in Sally's place and understand the situation in her mind - (assume she knows the ball is in the box) - Frith > similar findings using humans


  • Incomplete explanation of autism - no account for all the difficulties & deficits associated with disorder e.g. obsessive need for routine
  • Fails to address apparent strengths of some autistic individuals such as exceptional abilities

Central Coherence

  • Procedure where information is processed for it's general meaning rather than the specific meaning of each detail
  • Autistic people are said to lack C.C. e.g. when listening to music they identify every single note of every instrument as opposed to general melody

Evidence - Hobson etal (1988) found autistic children seem to process faces through analysis of individual features rather than as a whole; interpretation of emotional expression depends laregly on the overall look of the face - account for inability to determine emotional expression


  • Different cognitive styles are used by people suffering from autism
  • Greatly contributed to understanding of autism, but does not identify the causes
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Psychogenic Explanation

Cold Parenting Hypothesis

  • Idea that at an early age/crucial time in child's life, the parents mistreated them by not loving them
  • Parent's behaviour would be typically cold and insensitive, with Bettleheim proposing the idea of 'emotional refridgeration'

Evidence - Bettleheim linked the behviour of autistic children with those who had been neglected & abused; evidence from survivors of WW2 concentration camps, compared them to autistic children and drew parallels between behviours; saw some improvement in autistic cases where a treatment of warm acceptance & reinforcement was applied; used this evidence to suggest the Mother's behvaiour may have been responsible for the onset of the disorder


  • Cannot be tested and so impossible to establish a casual relationship
  • Theories have caused intense anguish and feeling of guilt in parents
  • Based on limited samples and use of selective information e.g. overlooked families who has non-autistic children
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Treatments of Autism

  • Being a developmental disorder, the nature and severity of autism changes as the child gets older
  • There is a range of treatments to help sufferers to adapt to their environment and provide support for the families
  • There is no treatment as yet, that can reverse or cure autism

Approaches to the treatment

  • Biological > Drug therapy
  • Behaviourist > Behaviour shaping, applied bhaviour analysis, aversion therapy & token economies
  • Educational Measures > TEACCH programme, facilitated communication & specifc teaching strategies
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Biological Approach to Treatment

Fenfluramine Drug Therapy = Fenfluramine is a sertonin-reducing drug which reduces aloofness & stereotyped routined behaviour

Evidence - Geller etal (1982) drug given to 3-5 year old autistic boys, for 3 months; improved speech, social behaviour & IQ scores; when treatment stopped these improvements stayed the same but began to decrease after 3 months

Evaluation: Results raised hopes; Later studies found the drug far less effective; Some physicians expressed concerns due to strong side effects - several children died while recieving the drug; Ethical issues raised regarding the use of the drug

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Behviourist Approach to Treatment

Aversion Therapy = Learning a new behviour via punishment

Evidence - Lovaas employed the therapy to remove the self-harming behaviour; attempted to remove head banging type behaviour in 7 year old boys following an electrice shock

Evaluation: Obvious ethical issues raised; Supporters say immediate positive results have saved lives of self-injuring autistic children, who resisited all non-aversive alternatives

Behaviour Shaping = Shape behaviour using positive reinforcement

Evidence - Ivor Lovaas suggested the idea of bridging the gap between those with/without autism, he used positive reinforcement to successfully shape the desired behaviour in autisitc children

Evaluation: Reinforcement must be clear and consistent - changes in routine can be distressing;Supports central coherence theory - breakdown of behaviour cannot process as a whole

Problems with behvaiour therapy: unethical involves control & manipulation

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Educational Approach to Treatment

TEAACH Programme = Help prepare people with autism to live/work more effectivel through use of structured teaching - emphasis on reducing 'autistic' behaviour

Evidence - Schopler etal (1971) demonstrated effectiveness of structured teaching by altering the degree of structure in a teaching programme; structure learning showed improved attendance ability to relate to others

Evaluation: Number of follow up studies have shown enthusiasm of the TEAACH programme

Facilitated Communication = Facilitator guides a childs hand, allowing them to select words/letters/symbols on a keyboard > creation of sentences

Evidence - tests as to whether this methid works are inclusive

Evaluation: Some question as to whether the facilitator is guiding or influencing the child's choice

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Learning Difficulties - Dyslexia

There are numerous problems with the definition and diagnosis of learning difficulties. Usually a residual diagnosis - applied to children who do not learn, but do not fit into any other 'convenient' category


  • Affects reading ability
  • literally defined as 'non-reading'
  • Imprecise term which covers a range of learning problems connected with learning to read, write and spell

2 types of dyslexia have been identified:

surface dyslexia - affects the whole of word recognition, words cannot be read by sight but can be sounded out loud; fine for simple words like 'cat' & 'dog'; problems arise with words that violate the standard rules of prounciation like 'bread' & 'sword'

phonological dyslexia - affects letter-sound conversion, individual cannot convert written words to their direct sounds or pronounce written words they haven't seen before e.g. when asked which of the following rhyme ? 'rite' 'knight' 'rit' - dyslexic perosn would say first & last rhyme as they visually resemble each other

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Diagnosis of Dyslexia

Problems diagnosing dyslexia as its difficult to isolate it from other problems like autism/visual impairments, there are also distinct variations in symptoms between indiviudals

Under Reaction

  • Trembling & sweating when asked to read
  • Low self-esteem - generalises to all aspects of life
  • Immature behaviours such as thumb-sucking and over dependence

Over Reaction

  • Child becomes successful in other areas such as sport or by becoming the class joker
  • Hiding the failure by developing a 'couldn't care less' attitude
  • Can become aggressive to other children/the teacher/system in general - may lead to delinquency

To avoid low self-esteem, emotional/behavioural problems and employment prospects early diagnosis is important

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Biological Explanation

Brain Structure - the brain develops in an abnormal way via an injury/during the prenatal period

Evidence - Farnham-Diggory (1992) suggested that a number of small abnomralities in the brain develop during the rpenatal period, the brain tries to compensate by forming new connections by slightly rearranging normal informaiton making specific tasks more difficult

Suggested by a number of theories that dyslexia is result of a deficit in the left hemisphere of the brain

Geschwind - believed that many of these theories only focused on the reading difficulties associated with dyslexia & failed to note it often occurs alongside other conditions such as diseases of the immune system & left handedness

Evidence - Geschwind + Behan (1984) set out to discover this link; group of left/right handed people were assessed for various behavioural & clinical conditions; left handed = 10 x more likely to have specific L.D and 2.5 x more likely to have immune disorders; researchers suggested a casual link between left handedness, dyslexia & disorders of the immune system - perhaps due to suppressed development of the immune system


  • Data collected fomr male subjects & families - claimed high levels of testosterone in foetus altered development of part of Wernickes area - L.H.
  • More prevalent in males if linked to testosterone - disregard females
  • Evidence to support this comes from post-mortems of 2 dyslexia sufferers
  • Conson (1994) supports theory - planum temporale of non-dyslexics arranged in regualr columns where dyslexics are arranged irregularly
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Cognitive Explanation

Visual & phonological deficits affect a child's reading ability

Phonological processing =

  • The way that people process sounds within words.
  • May have adequate hearing but have difficulty identifying sequences & reproducing sounds within a word

- e.g. 'tell me how a couch and chair are alike' - this is heard loud & clear, but may become - 'tell me how a cow and hair are alike' - may become more difficult in noisy environment or listening to complex information

Evidence - Bryant + Bradley reported result of longitudinal study; testing effects of sound awareness on subsequent reading ability; 400 unable to read tested for memory/verbal intelligence & phonological task involving listening to 4 spoken words 3 were similar - had to identify odd one out; 4 years later tested again on original task

Visual Processing =

  • Unable to process fast-incoming sensory information adequately
  • Result in confusion of letter order/poor memory of visual form of words
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Magno-cellular Theory

  • Magno-cells are large neurones in the brain
  • Form part of visual pathway, linking the retina to visual cortex
  • Responsible for timing & sensory motor events - e.g. when reading series of rapid eye movements punctured by brief pauses - retina fixing on sequence of letters on page
  • Brain lines up each image (letter) with previous one to gain smooth image

Stein believes that as foetus is developing, something damages nerve cells as they grow and try to conect in the brain - links to biological theory - also believes the attack is selective and only targets nerves that relay information about fast changing events e.g. magno-cells; the weakness could lead to a visual confusion of letter order poor visual memory for the written word

Stein emphasises that a visual perception deficit could be used to explain dyslexia - individuals who have the disorder often experience difficuties in visual perception tasks - links to visual processing + cognitive difficulties - a link has also been made with phonological diffculties, explaining confusion with letter sounds

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'Giftedness is a term that refers to individuals who have a speical ability, beyond that if their peers, which identifies them as different'

Characteristics of gifted children:

  • Wide vocabulary & talked early
  • Very retentive memory
  • Wide general knowledge & interest in the world
  • Sets high standards and is a perfectionist
  • Loses interest when asked to do more of the same thing

Mathematically Gifted; skip over immediate steps in a logical argument & have amore general ability to think in the abstract rather than concrete

Musically Gifted; able to sing in tune/have perfect pitch & able to remember the whole of a tune after only hearing it once or twice

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Testing Giftedness

Robinson - 2 groups of gifted individuals; garden variety gifted - high IQ scores (130-150) and without and extraordinary ability in one area; highly gifted - extremely high IQ scores (151+) and/or a remarkable skill in one or more areas

Gardner (1983) - theory of multiple intelligences, 6 distinct kinds - linguistic, musical, spatial, logical/mathematical, bodily-kinesthetic, inter/intrapersonal -all individuals capable of achieving measure of competence in each kind - every 'normal' person posses unique blend of all of them a 'gifted' person is advanced in one area

Terman - outcomes of longitudinal study, highly intelligent children; 643 10 year olds IQ of 151 studied over 30 years, assessed for intelligence/physical & motor ability/language skills/motivation and life achievements; follow up assessment at 35 years old > high level of intelligence maintained, 60% graduates outstanding in chosen field - substantially higher income than average college graduate; working class & minority children under-represented a 1/3 from middle class professional families, ppts nominated by teachers - bias, no control group of those with average IQ to make a comparison - BEE - giftedness = very high IQ score typically at 140-150 - supports

  • The definition of an IQ test is narrow & ambiguous - what do they measure - intelligence or ability to perfom well on these sorts of tests
  • Possibility of single/multiple intelligences as proposed by Gardner
  • Autistic individuals may perform poorly on an IQ test but have an exceptional mathematicl/artistic ability
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Gifted Chidren & Information Processing

What makes a genius?

  • Innate talent - genes
  • Environment
  • Individual differences - personality
  • The way we process information - cognitive ability

Summary of information processing strategies of the gifted:

  • The ability to transfer new knowledge and skills to new situations with ease
  • They are aware of their own cognitive abilities in terms of strengths and weaknesses
  • They are able to process information in a flexible way
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Sternberg's Triarchic Theory of Intelligence

The theory sees intelligence goverened by 3 systems

Componential Intelligence = number of components that function together & relationship between intelligence and internal world of indvidual it includes: what IQ tests measure, cognitive abilities, mental processes & learning/planning/doing things

Experimential Intelligence = account of the level of experience of the individual, it examins: creativity, insight, ability to see connections, organisation of knowledge in both novel & automatic processing situations

Contextual Intelligence = interested in intelligent behaviour in the everday world & adaptibility to new situations, directed towards one or more of 3 behavioural goals: adaptation, selection & shaping


  • The 3 sub theories of intelligence provide a broad basis for characterising the nature of giftedness - allowing explanation for both moderate & high levels of giftedness
  • Proposes people should be tested on relevant behaviours in realistic environments rather than just using IQ tests
  • Behaviour should also be assessed in relation to novel situations or development of automatic behaviours
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Social & Emotional Development of Gifted Children

  • Intelligent children who are told they are gifted are more likely to have emotional problems
  • Parents who encourage their children to believe they are gifted, discourage them from relationships with those they beleive are not good enough
  • Gifted children can become bored at school - attitudes continues through life

Research -

Miraca Gross (1993) longitudinal project of 75 exceptionally gifted Australian children; investigated school experience, the opportunities offered and the effects of early school life on their education/social development

  • Used a variety of research methods to collect data, including observations, questionnaires & interviews
  • She found that an awreness of the differences between themselves and the majority of their age peers can have a depressing and demotivating effect
  • Children were aware they were disliked & rejected and this intensified their existing problem of the self-concept


  • Children with exceptional intellectual abilities tend to internalise their problems - schools/parents unaware of the extent of problems
  • Exceptionally gifted often seek out friends who are several years older than themselves
  • Study provided rich source of data - eco-logically valid (anchored to real-life situations)
  • Children between the ages of 11-16 years experience the most problems
  • Girls cope much better than boys - higher anixety levels & lower in terms of social status
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Giftedness & Family Implications

  • Geoff Lewis considers that a creative environment which encourages intellectual behaviour is important in a gifted child's potential
  • The advice given to parents of gifted children is: the child is a 'child' first and a 'gifted child' second - same basic needs as other children -love/security/acceptance- should be accepted as child not adult; the child must not be pushed, all children resent pressure - encouragement is needed but so is time for play
  • The 2 activities that Lewis believes can assist gifted children are:
  • Out of school activities > establishing an enrichment network & a mentor system where it enables them to develop skills & interests
  • Mentoring programme > aim to foster individual talent for students whose needs & abilities are not easily catered for at school - system establishes an informal relationship between talented student & a person with knowledge/skills they are willing to share

Criticism - it is important to train teachers to provide the level of education that is needed in schools

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Giftedness as a Special Need in Education

There are 3 area that can be identified as helping to treat giftedness as a special need

IDENTIFICATION - there isoften difficulty in identifying gifted children

Evidence - Pegnato + Birch found that teachers aren't as good at identifying gifted students in their classrooms; form an initial group researchers identified students with an IQ of 136+, teachers were then asked to judge & identify the gifted individuals; 45% selected gifted 31% slected those with avergae IQs; Eval - few studies, short term, retrospective studies, element of investigator bias

SPECIAL PROVISION WITHIN CURRICULUM - Van Tassel-Baska identified 5 essential elements to the success of a prog. for gifted adults: guidance, instruction, mentorship, acceleration, enrichment

Evidence - Stanley + Benbow (1983) investigated effectiveness of an enrichment prog. for the mathematically gifted; children showing unusually high ability on the mathematical component of the US scholastic ptitude test attended a summer school where they recieved tuition in complex mathematical skills including uni-calculus; various beneifts recorded - positive attitude, enhanced self-esteem, successful at attending competitive universities; gifted children can benefit substantially from well -managed enrichment programmes; Eval - schools reluctant to accelerate, validity?

EXTRA-CURRICULAR PROVISION - Lewis (1995) - parent enrichment network

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