between the objectives used to structure what a child is taught and the child’s eventual independent, socially responsible functioning are much less obvious. This is particularly the case for preschool children, for whom play and manipulation of toys (e.g., matching, stacking of blocks) are primary methods of learning and relating to other children.
Often, behaviors targeted in education or therapy are not of immediate practical value but are addressed because of presumed links to overall educational goals. The structuring of activities in which a child can succeed and feel successful is an inherent part of special education. Sometimes the behavior is one component of a series of actions that comprise an important achievement. Breaking down a series of actions into components can facilitate learning. Thus, a preschool child may be taught to hold a piece of paper down with one hand while scribbling with another. This action is a first step in a series of tasks designed to help the child draw and eventually write.
Other behaviors, or often classes of behaviors, have been described as “pivotal behaviors” in the sense that their acquisition allows a child to learn many other skills more efficiently (Koegel et al., 1999; Pierce and Schreibman, 1997). Schreibman and the Koegels and their colleagues have proposed a specific treatment program for children with autism: pivotal response treatment. It includes teaching children to respond to natural reinforcers and multiple cues, as well as other “pivotal” responses. These are key skills that allow better access to social information. The idea of “pivotal skills” to be targeted as goals may also hold for a broad range of behaviors such as imitation (Stone, 1997; Rogers and Pennington, 1991), maintaining proximity to peers (Hanson and Odom, 1999), and learning to delay gratification (understanding “first do this, then you get to do that”). Longitudinal research has found that early joint attention, symbolic play, and receptive language are predictors of long-term outcome (Sigman et al., 1999). Although the research to date has been primarily correlational, one inference has been that if interventions succeed in modifying these key behaviors, more general improvements will occur as well (Kasari, 2000); another explanation is that these behaviors are early indicators of the child’s potential developmental trajectory.
Sometimes goals for treatment and education involve attempting to limit and treat the effects of one aspect of autism, with the assumption that such a treatment will allow a child to function more competently in a range of activities. For example, a number of different treatment programs emphasize treating the sensory abnormalities of autism, with the implication that this will facilitate a child’s acquisition of communication or social skills (e.g., auditory integration; sensory integration). For many interventions, supporting these links through research has been difficult. There is little evidence to support identifiable links between general treatment of a class of behaviors (e.g., sensory dysfunction) and improvements in another class of behaviors (e.g., social skills), especially when the