How to Teach Language to Children with Autism Part 1: Manding

How to Teach Language to Children with Autism Part 1: Manding

As mentioned in a previous article, the way behavior analysts teach language is a little different from how other professionals teach language.  Basically, ABA practitioners believe that language is learned behavior and can be taught utilizing the same principles of learning that are used to teach a child to brush his teeth, share a toy, or raise his hand instead of calling out.

Previous articles discussed the theory behind language acquisition (from an ABA perspective), but this article will focus on how to begin teaching language to children with autism or other related disorders. Before beginning a language intervention program, an assessment should be conducted by a trained professional such as a Board Certified Behavior Analyst (BCBA) or Speech-Language Pathologist (SLP). The method of communication should be decided upon before starting the program as well. For example, will the child be communicating via speaking, sign language, or a picture system?

Regardless of which type of communication system your child will be using, Behavior Analysts generally agree that the first type of language to teach a child is manding. Manding is the ABA term for requesting for reinforcers.The mand is great to start with because it directly benefits the child; consequently most children are highly motivated to mand.

Here are some tips for teaching a child to mand:

Reinforcement. You need to first figure out what the child’s strongest reinforcers are. Sponge Bob? Candy? Tickles? Books? Computers? In order to teach your child to request something, your child needs to actually want the item. Too many times I have seen teachers and parents try to force their child to say something that the child has no interest in saying (such as, “It’s a ball” when looking at a picture of a ball). Don’t worry, the goal is to teach your child to say all kinds of things, but it’s best to start with items your child wants. We want to make talking as reinforcing as possible!

Motivation. This goes hand in hand with reinforcement, but takes it a step further. Your child may like apples, but may not want them at the moment. Therefore, it is important to teach when the child is motivated. If you know she wants a book at the moment, use that opportunity to teach her to mand for a book. For example, if your child brings you a book and tugs on your shirt use that moment to teach your child how to use language to request for a book. (You can also entice your child by offering him or her various reinforcers throughout the day.)

Teaching. The words you should focus on teaching should be items or activities that your child likes, and you should teach when your child is motivated. But how do you actually go about getting your child to speak or sign? You want to keep everything clear and concise so as not to confuse the child. Also referred to as discrete trial teaching, the idea is to 1) expose the child to something- a situation, an item, a comment, an instruction etc. 2) wait for the child’s response and 3) provide appropriate consequences depending on the child’s response. Here’s what that looks like in practice:

  1. You place your child’s favorite book in plain sight but just out of reach  
  2. Your child says, “Book please”
  3. You say, “Excellent job asking nicely! Here ya go! (And give the book to your child)

Of course, it’s not always that easy. What do you do if your child doesn’t ask nicely? What do you do if your child can’t even say the word book? This is where prompting comes into play. A prompt is a hint, or anything else that helps a child emit the correct response. Initially, you can prompt the child by giving him the answer. For example:

  1. You can ask your child, “What do you want?” You would then wait a couple seconds, and say, “Book.” Then you would wait for the child to repeat you.
  2. Your child repeats you and says, “Book”
  3. Then you would say, “Yes! You want a book, here ya go!”

Overtime, you would want to fade your prompts, so that instead of saying “book” you might just say the sound of the letter B. You can also remind your child to communicate by simply asking the child “what do you want?” or “use your words sweetie.”

If your child cannot echo (repeat you) then allow your child to use a close approximation of the word. For example, your child might say, “bah” or “ook” instead of “book” That’s ok in the beginning. If your child cannot produce approximations (or any sounds) you might consider starting with sign language. If your child shows prolonged difficulty with sign language then you might want to consider picture communication systems. But the teaching strategies remain the same. If your child is using pictures you might initially prompt your child by showing her the correct picture. If using sign language, you can model the correct sign or help your child sign. Initially, you should praise your child and give her the reinforcer even if you have to prompt her. But you must gradually fade your prompts.

Another consideration worth mentioning is that behavior problems often coincide with problems with communication. An effective behavior intervention program involves the use of reinforcement for communication, and non-reinforcement for problem behavior.

Teaching language to children with autism can sometimes be a long, difficult process. It is best to consult a professional if your child does not acquire language easily. A professional will have extensive knowledge regarding the assessment of language, the use of prompts, how to fade prompts, reinforcement, and behavior management. Other special considerations include the ability to effectively teach prerequisites and related skills such as cooperation, imitation, and receptive language. 

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