Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders

, Volume 20, Issue 2, pp 233–253

Stimulus complexity and autistic children's responsivity: Assessing and training a pivotal behavior

  • John C. Burke
  • Laurie Cerniglia

DOI: 10.1007/BF02284721

Cite this article as:
Burke, J.C. & Cerniglia, L. J Autism Dev Disord (1990) 20: 233. doi:10.1007/BF02284721


Interdisciplinary research suggests that autistic children's limitations in responding to environmental stimuli may be directly related to the number of components contained in the stimuli; as the number of components increases, such children hypothetically would exhibit greater difficulties in responding. The central purpose of this experiment was to assess whether such children indeed exhibit greater difficulties in responding as the number of components contained in an environmental stimulus was increased from one to four. If the children's responsivity was a function of stimulus complexity, a second focus of this experiment was to assess the feasibility of teaching them to respond to a complex environmental stimulus containing up to four components and to determine whether the effects of the intervention would generalize to other situations involving complex structured and social stimuli. Data gathered using a multiple baseline design across behaviors and children indicate that all of the children exhibited fewer correct responses to a stimulus as the number of stimulus components was increased from one to four. The results further showed that the training program used in this investigation was effective in producing some generalized increases in the children's responses to complex structured and social stimuli. Conceptualizing autistic children's responses to complex multicomponent stimuli as a pivotal target behavior that can be operationally defined may have important implications for understanding and altering the children's responsivity and development.

Copyright information

© Plenum Publishing Corporation 1990

Authors and Affiliations

  • John C. Burke
    • 1
  • Laurie Cerniglia
    • 2
  1. 1.Department of Behavioral Psychology, The Kennedy InstituteJohns Hopkins University School of MedicineBaltimore
  2. 2.University of CaliforniaSanta Barbara