Many children with autism have difficulty moving beyond basic language such as asking for reinforcers (e.g., “Can I have the ball?”) and labeling items (e.g. “It’s a car!”), and have difficulty with more advanced language such as having a conversation. Daily social interactions we take for granted such as explaining our feelings, laughing at jokes, or talking about the day’s events usually do not come naturally for children with autism. Although it can be a long process, it is possible to teach conversation skills systematically using the methods of applied behavior analysis (ABA).
In previous articles, we talked about the behavioral approach to language, which asserts that language is learned behavior and can be taught utilizing the same ABA principles that behavior analysts use to teach other behaviors, such as eating with a fork. We also identified the main verbal operants (types of language) described in 1957 by B.F. Skinner: manding, tacting, echoic, and intraverbal. Echoic refers to vocal imitation (i.e. repeating a sound or word), manding refers to requesting for items or activities, and tacting refers to labeling or describing items, attributes, and events which are present. An intraverbal is a type of expressive language where a person is responding to something else another person said, such as answering questions or making comments during a conversation. In general, intraverbal behavior involves talking about items, activities, and events which are not present. The ability of your child to have conversations is heavily dependent on your child’s acquisition of intraverbal behavior.
An intraverbal is different from a mand because it is not controlled primarily by wanting something. An intraverbal is different from a tact because it is not controlled primarily by seeing something. Intraverbal language is controlled by verbal statements made by other people. If a child feels hungry and says, “I want a sandwich” it is classified as a mand because what was said was brought about by a desire to eat something. If a child sees a character in a book eating a sandwich and says, “He’s eating a sandwich,” it is classified as a tact because the child is commenting on something he sees. However, if a teacher asks her students to name their favorite lunch foods and a student says, “Sandwich!” it is classified as an intraverbal because what was said was brought about by something someone else said.
As you can imagine, for a child with autism, manding and tacting are a little more concrete, and thus easier than explaining to someone what happened at school, or responding to statement, “Tell me about yourself.” Sure, we can teach a verbal child to simply memorize answers to various questions, but if you want your child to learn to speak spontaneously and to actually understand what other people are talking about, it’s a good idea to cover the basics first:
Before teaching intraverbal language, I recommend making sure your child has a very strong manding repertoire and a very strong tacting repertoire. Your child should be able to request for a variety of reinforcers, even when those reinforcers are not present. He should also be able to label a variety of common items and actions.
Other prerequisites probably include solid receptive language skills (e.g. responding to an instruction such as, “Give me the picture of the cat” or “Go get your shoes”) and question discrimination (e.g. discriminating between the question, “What color is it?” versus “What is it?” in random order). Many children with autism can answer questions in isolation, such as when you hold up flashcards and ask the same question each time (e.g. always asking “What is it?”), but may have difficulty quickly discriminating between the two questions when asked in random order. Obviously, there are many different types of questions to ask about an object, but “What is it?” versus “What color is it?” is a good place to start.
Also, prior to teaching intraverbal language skills, your child should also be able to select items based on a description of the item (e.g. feature, function, and class). For example, when looking at pictures of a chair, a shoe, a flower, and a car, and you ask the child to give you the one that grows outside, he should be able to select the flower.
Intraverbal language can range from very simple to very complicated. A detailed analysis of verbal behavior, and the potential problems that can arise when teaching intraverbal language is beyond the scope of this article. However, as a brief overview, here are some basic intraverbal skills that should be covered in your child’s language intervention program:
Filling in the missing words from songs. Many children will actually respond to this quite easily. Start by singing a song that the child likes, but leave out certain words for your child to fill in, such as “Twinkle twinkle little…” and wait for your child to say, “star.” Eventually you should also practice other non-song fill ins such as, “Ready, set …” or “Let’s put on our socks and…”
Animal/object sounds. This is another simple intraverbal response to teach. Start with fill in the blank type questions such as, “A dog says…” or “A car goes…”
Word associations. The idea is to get the child to make connections between words, places, actions, or events. Start with simple, highly preferred two-word associations such as, “Sesame… (street),” “Mommy and… (daddy)” and move to other common word associations such as, “Shoes and… (socks).” Make sure you use word associations that your child can already mand or tact.
WH questions. The possibilities are endless! What’s your name? What’s your sister’s name? Where are you going? What’s your teacher’s name? Where are your toys? Where are your shoes? etc.
WH questions which have more than one answer. Again, the possibilities are endless. This activity will help your child realize that there are many things to say about a single topic. Ask your child questions such as: What do you like to eat? Can you name some animals? What things can you see at the beach? Because children with autism may not understand that the answers can change, you may need to model different ways to answer the question, for example, you might prompt your child to say, “Water, sand, and kites” on one trial, and “Sand, birds, shovels, and pails” on the next trial. Also, you may need to use visual prompts initially. For example, when talking about things you see at the beach, you and your child can look at pictures of the beach together while pointing out items you see.
Answering multiple questions about the same topic. This will also help your child realize that there are many things to say about a single topic and will help your child stay on topic for a longer duration. For example, if the topic is school, you can take a few minutes and just ask your child about school: What school do you go to? What’s your teacher’s name? What do you do at school? What did you eat at school? Who do you play with at school?
- Pick items that are meaningful to your child. Try not to resort to teaching your child to simply memorize things they have no clue about. For example, before teaching your child word associations like computer, mouse, typing, and the Internet, he should be able to label a computer and a mouse when he sees one, and should also probably understand that a keyboard is for typing and that you can play online games on the Internet using a computer.
- Keep it very simple initially. When beginning intraverbal training, what is taught may not be super functional for the child. Let’s face it, being able to say, “Lamb” after hearing someone else say, “Mary had a little…” will only get your child so far. But that’s not the purpose behind teaching simple intraverbal relations such as this. The purpose is to begin to free your child’s verbal responses from being dependent on a model of what to say (echoic), needing to see something in order to talk about it (tacting), or a motivation to receive a particular item or activity (manding). Remember, in general, intraverbal behavior involves talking about items, activities, and events which are not present. Since children with autism tend to be visual learners, preferring to deal with concrete relations, intraverbal relations are often more difficult to teach, and we need to start small.
- You might also need to work on your child’s ability to recall events. If your child has difficulty with this, talk about fun events as they are occurring, and ask your child to recall what was done within 5 minutes of the termination of the activity. Gradually increase the time between the termination of an activity and asking your child to recall what was done.
- The ultimate goal for any type of language training is for the child to be able to engage in spontaneous language- to ask questions and make comments without you prompting him to do so. All of the skills listed above are designed to help bridge that gap and help your child move into using language more spontaneously. Another way you can help your child learn to make spontaneous comments is by modeling them in your daily interactions with your child. Make a habit of making fun, enthusiastic comments about things your child is doing throughout the day, and reinforce your child for their attempts to comment or ask questions.
- Read to your child. Reading helps foster language and social skills, and will stimulate your child’s imagination. You can also use books to teach your child to recall past events. After reading a book you can ask your child questions about the book, and then go back and look at the pictures to help your child remember what happened.
Well, this concludes our series on how to teach the basic verbal operants to children with autism or other disorders resulting in speech delay. Since it is impossible to provide all of the details needed for a comprehensive language program, and since it is not uncommon for problems to arise, or for children to get stuck on certain concepts, I highly recommend creating a language program with the help of a Board Certified Behavior Analyst (BCBA), or a Speech-Language Pathologist (SLP) with an understanding of the verbal operants. Also, there are many good books out there for learning how to teach language to children with autism (see references below).
Speech and language acquisition is an ongoing process. Language is essential for many activities we do in daily life, so don’t give up! Try to keep your child’s language program fun and engaging. Encourage your child to talk, and talk to your child often.
Sundberg, M. L. (2008). Verbal behavior milestones assessment and placement program: The VB-MAPP. Concord, CA: AVB Press.
Sundberg, M. L., & Partington, J.W. (1998). Teaching language to children with autism or other developmental disabilities. Danville, CA: Behavior Analysts, Inc.
Barbera, M.L., & Rasmussen, T. (2007). The verbal behavior approach: How to teach children with autism and related disorders. Philadelphia: Jessica Kingsley.