How to Teach Language to Children with Autism Part 2: Tacting

How to Teach Language to Children with Autism Part 2: Tacting

In previous articles, we talked about the behavioral approach to language and how to teach language to children with autism or other disorders associated with speech delay. We talked about how the first type of language to teach a child is manding. Manding is the ABA term for “requesting for reinforcers.” Yes. I’m wondering why we don’t just call it “requesting” too. That’s ABA for you.

Anyway, manding is the best type of language to start with because it directly benefits the child. Asking for something leads to the child getting that item. Therefore, children are usually extremely motivated to use their words in this context.  

But can you imagine if all you knew how to do was ask for things? How would you comment on how beautiful the sunset is? How would enjoy a joke between friends, or communicate your innermost thoughts and feelings? Even simple things, like having a conversation about what you did yesterday would elude you. Anyone who has witnessed a previously non-verbal child start requesting things knows what a joy speaking-even just a little bit- can be for that child, and what a relief it can be for the parent. However, language training should not stop there. Having a complete verbal repertoire can increase your child’s quality of life beyond imagination.

The second type of language identified by B.F. Skinner (1957) is the tact. Tacting is naming or identifying items, actions, events, and attributes. For example, while reading a book, a child might see a picture of a car and say, “Car.” That’s tacting. Seeing a blue car and then saying, “Blue” is also tacting. Hearing the siren of a fire truck and saying, “Fire truck” is tacting as well. Many ABA therapists call tacting, “expressive labeling.” Yes. We ABA therapists enjoy confusing others. Just kidding. The reason why we separate language into various verbal operants (manding, tacting, intraverbal, echoic, etc.) is because there are different functions of language. The recognition that language has different functions, and that different types of language are controlled by different stimuli and/or different motivations are why ABA therapists (specifically, those specializing in “Verbal Behavior” programs) have been so successful with teaching language to children with autism. When we break down language into separate verbal operants, it allows for a precise analysis of what to teach, and how to teach.

So today let’s talk about how to teach a child to tact. Once a child has a few mands you can start tact training. It’s a good idea to start with items the child can mand for so that the child is motivated to label, but you might not want to start with highly reinforcing items like cookies because the child may get upset when she names the item, but does not gain access to the item. (Although at some point she will have to be OK with tacting highly reinforcing items.) Also, you can start with pictures of items or real-life items, but eventually the child should learn to label both. I prefer to start with real life items, because that’s what typical children usually learn to label first- actual items they see in their daily life.

When teaching tacting, the key is your “SD” (discriminative stimulus aka your instruction or question). Darn that ABA lingo! Remember, when teaching a child to mand our SD is, “What do you want?” However, when teaching a child to tact our SD should be, “What is it?” Another key distinction between labeling (tacting) and requesting (manding) is that when the child labels the item, you should not give the item to the child. Instead, reinforce the child with praise such as, “Right! It’s a car!” The child must learn to label an item, but not expect to receive the item.


The first trial might look something like this:

SD: “What is it?” (As you show the child a toy car) followed by a prompt: “Car”

Child’s response: “Car” (She is repeating you.)

Your feedback: “Great talking! It’s a car!”

After you ask the child, “What is it?” you need to immediately tell the child what it is (It’s better to not wait for the child to guess or get frustrated). In effect you are saying, “What is it? Car.” Then you need to reinforce the child for repeating you. Just like mommy and daddy get super excited when baby talks, we need to reinforce our students for talking so that they continue to talk. (It’s OK if your child’s articulation isn’t the greatest. Praise her anyway. Over time you can require clearer responses. If your child cannot repeat words or sounds she hears then you may need to start with sign language or a picture communication system such as PECS. You may also need to get help from a speech therapist or behavior analyst.)

The next step is to fade your prompt. Usually this means that you would simply stop giving the child the answer and wait for them to label the item on their own. For other kids, you may need to give them a partial vocal prompt such as, “Kuh” (the beginning sound for car”).

The ultimate goal is for a child to spontaneously label things that she sees or hears without always needing to be asked, “What’s that?” Many children will begin to label things in the environment spontaneously on their own, but many children will not. Therefore it’s crucial to sometimes omit the question, “What is it?” and simply hold up an item and wait for (or prompt) the child to name the item, and then reinforce the child with praise. I also recommend labeling things for your child throughout the day. For example, while walking to the park, you can say, “Look at those flowers!” Or while eating lunch you can label the foods on your child’s plate. 

Hopefully these strategies will help your child expand his or her vocabulary. Tact training can be as simple as naming common items (e.g. book, mom, car, spoon, etc.) and as advanced as labeling items and events using sentences complete with adjectives, prepositions, and conjunctions. Take it one step at a time, and celebrate each new word your child learns. 

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