What are the verbal operants and why do they matter?

Verbal behavior seems like the newest buzz word in the world of Autism. Parents ask me almost every day what it is and how it is different from applied behavior analysis (ABA). Truthfully, it is usually used interchangeably. Technically speaking though, it is the part of ABA that teaches children how to use language to communicate.

Verbal behavior was developed by Skinner back in the 1950’s. Contrary to what many people think, it is not a new term. Truthfully in my personal opinion, which is not a popular one, behavior therapists are being forced to reconcile the dark history of applied behavior analysis and are using new words to create new connotations.  Whether that is true or not, verbal is a critical instructional methodology for kids with Autism.

Children who have only a speech delay benefit largely from speech therapy. Speech therapy will help most kids who do not have any developmental delays with talking as long as they are physically able to. However, children with Autism require more than just speech therapy. That’s because children with Autism by definition have delays in all areas of communication. All people with Autism start off with communication delays.  It is important to note that many people with Autism learn to communicate just as well as any neurotypical person. However, without delays in communication a person cannot get a diagnosis in Autism.

At this point, it is very important to understand a delay in communication is not the same as a delay in language. Language is vocal. Most of communication is non vocal. Early stages of communication includes eye contact, especially using eye contact to initiate and respond to joint attention and using gestures such as pointing.  Reaching or grabbing for something or trying or bringing someone to a desired object is typically not considered communication.

Children with Autism do not use eye contact or gestures to communicate unless they are taught to do so in early childhood development. This is where applied behavior analysis comes in. Applied behavior analysis is most commonly known for its ability to address problem behavior. However, the truth is that in its initial applications, it was primarily used to show a person what a correct response is.


Let’s look at a very basic example of how that works.

Let’s say that an adult puts a button on the table in front of a child. The child has no idea what it is for. The child pressed the button and the adult gives the child a cookie. The child may not initially understand that he was awarded the cookie for pressing the button. However, if the same thing happened five times, eventually they will learn that when they press the button, they get a cookie.  Now, whenever the child wants the cookie, they will press the button.

That’s how ABA works. Behaviors that a child does not know or understand are taught using a highly structured approach. A response is given, the child responds either independently or with help and the behavior is reinforced usually by a child getting an object that they desire. Eventually the child will learn to engage in the behavior and the reinforcement can be faded. Then the child can engage in the behavior independently.

Today applied behavior analysis has many practical implications. However, when using applied behavior analysis to conduct what it is commonly called verbal behavior or simply teaching a child to talk, this is the most basic application.

The main reason that parents seek out ABA is because they want their children to learn to talk. While this is not the only purpose of an ABA program, it is often the main component.   Most often children learn language naturally by hearing others speak. But as stated earlier, children with Autism do not. They require language to be taught to them directly. ABA therapist break down language into some very basic components called operants. By teaching these operants or skills individually, ABA therapist can significantly increase a child’s ability to use language to communicate and after reading this section, so can you.

In behavior therapy, the verbal operants are: a mand, an echoic, a tact and an intraverbal. Once you understand each of these terms, it will be easy to tell them apart and you will know what to teach. In typical language development, they are learned in that order. However, from my personal experience, some children with Autism will follow the progression out of order. This is usually depends on what stimulus a child attends to, what lessons a therapist selects to teach first and whether or not they engage in vocal stereotypy.

Some children with Autism are very vocal even at a very young age. They will repeat almost anything an adult says or they will initiate words independently but they are out of context. These are vocalizations but may not be functional language. That’s why is imperative that a person understands verbal operants. The verbal operants provide a way to know if a child is truly communicating. The following section will explore the different types of verbal operants in detail and give examples of them.

A mand is in simple terms a request. The learner wants something, says what they want and gets what they said. It is triggered by a person’s desire for something. The fancy ABA term for that is specific reinforcement. This is the only operant where reinforcement is specific to what is said. Requesting is one of the main components of language. Children constantly ask for things. Requesting is the most motivating type of language and the one children learn first. Think about it, you get what you say. There is very real tangible consequence when you ask for something that is favorable. Therefore, it should be the first operant taught and initially the one that is focused on the most.

The second operant typically learned is an echoic. In this operant, someone says something that the learner repeats and the learner receives something unrelated to what is said. It is triggered by something someone else says. This is called nonspecific reinforcement. At this point, this probably sounds really confusing so let me give you an example to illustrate. A teacher says. “Say blue.” The child says, “blue” and the teacher says. “Great job.”

Sometimes it is hard to differentiate between mands and echoics when children are first learning mands because therapists will assist or prompt a child to give a correct response by telling them what to say. For example, if a child wants an apple and his therapist says, “say apple,” and the child says, “apple.” If the behavior results in specific reinforcement (the child gets the apple), it is a prompted mand, not an echoic.  Echoics are mostly used in ABA to clean up pronunciations or to teach children to build upon their language by speaking in sentences. It can be an important part of an ABA program but it is the operant that occurs least often naturally in language.

The third verbal operant is a tact. A tact is when a person makes a comment about something they see, touch, smell, taste or hear. This operant is triggered by something in the environment. In order to be considered a tact, the comment must be made about something present. For example. “This tastes great.” “I see a yellow bird.” “I can hear a train.” Once again, reinforcement is non specific.  Some tacts that someone may learn in ABA is to identify an object’s color, features, category, attribute or function. When visuals are used to teach this, such as books, puzzles or flashcards, it is a tact.

The final and fourth verbal operant is an intraverbal. This is the most natural conversational tact that is used in conversation. This is when someone makes a comment or asks a question based upon what another person says without the object they are discussing being present. For example, “What’s your name?” “My name is Jessica?” “My favorite color is pink.” “Cool, my favorite color is blue.” Intraverbals are similar to echoics in that another person triggers the behavior. But it is different because with intraverbals reinforcement is non specific.  It is different from a tact in that there is no visual is present.

In order for anyone to have a fluent conversation, they must be able to use all four verbal operants. The next time you have a conversation, think about this final chapter. You will quickly notice yourself using all four operants in conversation.

The following chart will summarize all the info above just to make sure it is really clear:

References

Cooper, J.O., Heron, T.E., & Heward, W.L. (1987). Applied Behavior Analysis.





Starting School With Autism

Congratulations! Your child is about to start school. It is exciting, but it can also be scary. Sending any child to school for the first time is hard for any parent, sending a child with special needs to school, especially one that has a difficult time communicating can be even scarier. 

Fortunately, there are things that you can do to make the transition easier for you and your child. Here are my best 10 tips.

Tip 1–Prepare Your Child Ahead of Time 

Many children with Autism fear change.  The good news is that once school starts, the consistent structure and schedule will be wonderful for you child. However, while it is new, the change in routine can be challenging for many kids to cope with. This is compounded by the fact that children who are starting school for the first time might not fully understand what is going on and what to expect.

There are some things you can do to help ease your child’s anxiety by preparing them ahead of time.

  • For a few weeks before school expose them to books and videos about school. Talk to them frequently about starting school using language they can understand. Even if it seems like your child may not fully understand the books or videos, show them to them anyway. At the very least, they will create visual associations that could ease their comfort in a new environment.
  • Use social stories to help prepare your child to understand that he will start school. Social stories are short stories that are designed to teach a child how to act in a social situation. They were researched and developed by Dr. Carol Gray in 1993 and since then, dozens of studies have demonstrated their effectiveness. I use them all the time in my private practice working with families like yours.
  • Countdown the days until school with your child. Cross off the days until school on a calendar to provide a visual countdown for your child. This will help make sure they know exactly what to expect . 

Tip 2–Know the Goals on Your Child’s Individualized Education Plan (IEP)

I am going to be real for a minute. You may not like what I have to say but it is true. Your child’s teacher is being handed a stack of IEPs for each and every one of their students. They are long, lengthy legal documents that generate verbose and confusing text that all sounds the same. It is not likely many teachers will read it and actually use it to develop your child’s education program. The more you as a parent know about your child’s IEP, the better they will do in school.

Know what your child’s goals are. Ask the teacher what they are working on and make sure the lessons they choose, address the goals you agreed upon at your child’s IEP meeting. If you haven’t already, make sure you participate in the creation of those goals! Know what support services your child is supposed to receive. Make sure if your child is supposed to be pulled out of the classroom for services such as speech therapy, physical therapy, occupational therapy, that those sessions are actually happening as opposed to the therapists being used as an extra set of hands to pass out snack.

Most often, teachers like myself who work with kids with Autism do it because they are really passionate about helping kids but unfortunately this isn’t always true. You are your child’s best advocate and it is ultimately up to you to make sure their needs are being met. Knowing your child’s IEP will help you to have informed conversations with your child’s teachers and ensure they are aware of his goals.

Tip 3— Take a Tour of The School

Ideally, the first time a child visits their new school and classroom shouldn’t be the first day of school. While every school has different policies, most schools are very accommodating and will let you and your child visit. Sometimes they will even let your child spend part of a day in his future classroom. 

Many times, children with Autism will attend contained classrooms that have children in a fairly broad age range. This means that when they enter school, they will likely see some familiar faces. It will also give your child a chance to get comfortable with their new teacher.

Some people think that children with Autism are not interested in people and as a result, they skip this step. This is simply not true. The fact that children with Autism struggle with knowing how to act in social situations does not mean they don’t desire to create bonds with others. Whether or not they are able to express it, they know the difference between friends and strangers and receive the same comfort we do by seeing a familiar face.

Tip 4— Create a Visual Schedule for Your Child

Children with Autism are visual learners. As a result, schedules are very helpful in knowing what to expect. Most children have difficulty with transitions because they do not know what will happen before or after an activity. Creating a schedule will show them what happens before and after school. This will make them far more comfortable about going to school and will ease their anxiety about coming home. 

Ideally, put something your child enjoys on the schedule right after school such as eating a favorite snack, going to a fun place or time to play with their favorite toy. This will motivate them and give them something fun to think about.

Tip 5— Make Sure Your Teacher is Aware of Your Child’s Sensory Needs and Send in Sensory Toys

Sensory behaviors are part of Autism. These behaviors, technically called stereotypy, can include hand flapping, mouthing objects, spinning car wheels, lining things up, watching parts of a video repetitively, fixating on one toy, holding things in their hands, rubbing their feet on people and countless other behaviors.  Make your teacher aware of what your child’s sensory behaviors are and send in any toys that will help them be more comfortable and focus in school.

For example, if your child uses a chew tube at home because they mouth objects, send it in! It is important your child has it in school. If your child will drink from one specific cup, send it in! If using sensory balls helps your child focus, pack them! Send whatever you think will help your child be more comfortable and successful. Many parents choose not to send things in because they are afraid teachers will judge them or limit access to them. But, most teachers are grateful to have something that works for your child.

Tip 6–Make Sure Teachers and Support Staff Know about Special Accommodations like an Alternative Augmentative Communication (AAC) System.

Many children with Autism will have received some type of service such as early intervention, speech or applied behavior analysis before starting school. This almost always includes the development of an AAC system. An AAC system is a way for a child to communicate while they are learning to talk. This could include a picture board, a formal program such as Picture Exchange Communication System (PECS) or a voice output system such as a Dynabox or iPad app like Poloquo2go. Make sure to send this in and make sure that you child’s teacher is trained on how to use it.

Insist your child be allowed to have access to his communication system all of the time. This is your child’s way of communicating. Taking it away, even putting it out of your child’s reach for a few moments to make more  room on the table for and art project or snack is equivalent to putting a hand over your child’s mouth so they cannot speak. It is never ok.

Tip 7— Get The Same Toys the School Has Ahead of Time

Do your very best to find out what toys, puzzles and books will be in your child’s classroom. Get the same ones and teach him how to play with them. Most behavior problems occur in school when children do not know how to manage or occupy their downtime. 

There is something to be said about kids liking toys that are new and different. That is true, but kids with Autism usually lack some play skills which means without being taught how to play with new toys, they may not be able to. This will result in them spending more time engaging in sensory behaviors or having tantrums.  It is better to make sure they at least know what to do with the toys that will be in their classroom.

Tip 8— Take Advantage of Community Programs to Practice School Skills 

If your child is new to school they may be new to group activities like circle time and art projects. Do everything you can to make sure your child has lots of practice before school starts and school is not your child’s first exposure. They will likely need a lot of practice before they know how to sit and participate. Almost every public library in the nation has a circle time. Call your town’s library and the library in the towns surrounding you and bring your child to as many of them as possible. This is one of the best ways to prepare your child for school activities.  

Tip 9— Send in Your Child’s Reinforcers

Most children with Autism will receive some form of applied behavior analysis (ABA) in the classroom. ABA works by giving your child reinforcers or rewards when they engage in a desired behavior. It helps to show them what a correct response is and know what is expected of them. 

Many times children with Autism are picky and only like a few things. I don’t need to tell you that! How many times have you bought new foods or toys that your child has rejected? It may be really hard for your teacher to find something your child really enjoys. The more motivating a reinforcer is, the more a child will learn, this is always true. One of the best ways you can help your child learn more effectively at school is to send in what reinforcers have worked at home.

Tip 10— Ensure Your Child Has Identification

Every parent’s  biggest fear is that their child does not talk and that there is a possibility that they will wander out of a classroom. I would love to tell you that could never happen but we are all too keenly aware from watching the news that it does. 

If your child wanders, make sure his teachers know and fight to get him a 1:1 aid. If your child cannot communicate his name, your name and your phone number, make sure they are always wearing an identification bracelet. It should identify that they have Autism, their name, your name and your phone number. 

Some parents fear this will stigmatize their child or that they will have a difficult time keeping them on. These two things may be true but it will help keep them safe and that is the most important thing.

It is my hope and prayer these ten tips ease your fears about sending your child to school.  School will be a fun and safe place for your child. He will learn, grow and explore at a whole new level and you will watch him blossom before your eyes.

As a therapist, I can only imagine what it is like to send a child that can’t speak for themselves to school. But, what I can promise you, is if you follow these ten tips, you can be their voice.

3 Strategies to Help Your Child With Autism Be Successful in The Community

One of the most common complaints I get from parents is that their children can have a great deal of difficulty when out in the community. This can range from something relatively benign like touching things on the shelf or far more serious like running away from parents or throwing themselves on the floor in the street. Frankly, it is not frustrating for parents when their children struggle in the community but, it can also be very dangerous.

Here are 3 strategies I use with the families I work with that will help increase the likelihood that your child is successful.

Tip 1: Use Visuals To Help Increase a Child’s Success

I find a lot of stress can be alleviated if children know what to expect. I like to use visuals to let children know where they will go before they leave the house or when they are transitioning the community.

I typically suggest keeping a binder ring with pictures of places you commonly go to in the community on your keychain. This will make sure you are always prepared to show your child where they will go. If you are going to multiple places on one trip, you can also use a visual schedule while out in the community. Using a velcro schedule with pictures attached will help kids understand when it is time to transition.  When things come up and you have to go somewhere unplanned, you can also just google the location your cellphone to show them when out.

Example of a Binder Ring With Locations
Example of a Picture Schedule

This may seem easier said than done and honestly, it can be a lot of work.  But, it can save you a lot of frustrating and avoid potentially dangerous situations when out.  

Tip 2: Practice In an Easy Location Before Going to More Difficult Locations

Recently, I had a family hire me to work with their child in the community who would frequently have tantrums in stores. He would throw himself on the floor no matter where they went and refuse to walk.  I suggest we bring a timer and start off by setting it for thirty seconds and giving him a small snack as a reinforcer (reward) when he walks nicely for thirty seconds. First we did it in his backyard! It is a place that is familiar and fun and did not have any negative associations like stores did.

When we did go into the community, we started off on a track to make sure he was in a place that was safe in case he tried to run away or have a tantrum. Then we shifted to stores.  Eventually we were able to increase the time he walked to 40 seconds, 1 minute, 2 minutes, 3 minutes and 5 minutes before he got his snack. Eventually, he didn’t need the timer at all. This whole process took only a few weeks. Now, the family can have trips to the mall and even restaurants without worrying about meltdowns.  This strategy has worked for dozens of the families I have consulted with and I know it will work for you too.

Tip 3: Use social stories.

Social stores are stories that you can read to a child before you go out into the community that will tell them how they are supposed to respond. Let’s remember children with Autism don’t always have the social skills we have and sometimes behavior that looks like naughty is just because they don’t know how they are supposed to act or respond to a situation.  

Being in an unknown situation can also create anxiety.

A social story can be used to help them know that to expect and how they should respond.

It is now that difficult to write and there is really not much to it. Here’s a social story you can use about going to the grocery store

Today, we will go to the grocery store. That’s great. We will get a lot of my favorite foods at the grocery store. There will be a lot of other people there. That’s ok. Mom will be there with me and she will keep me safe. When I am at the grocery store, I will walk nicely without touching things in the isle.  If I walk nicely, it will make Mom very happy. We will only be in the store for a short period of time and then we will leave. When we leave mom, will give me a snack for doing a great job. Going to the grocery store is totally fine!

Being able to participate in community activities can be so stressful for families that have children with Autism. I want you to know you can do all the same activities other families enjoy. It is true that you may have to do some extra work to prepare but your child is capable of enjoying all the things this world has to offer with just a little extra support.

3 Thing You Must Know Going Into an IEP Meeting!

You are Your Child’s Best Advocate. How much you know going into an IEP meeting can radically change your child’s life. These 3 tips are critical for getting your child the right program for them.

 

A Story of HOPE: Laura’s Story

Laura is a remarkable woman who I deeply respect and admire. Laura and i met while I was working with a child in her classroom. We quickly became close friends. Laura was diagnosed with multiple disabilities and received special education services from early childhood to adulthood. In this video, she discusses how she went from special education student to assistant special education teacher. Her courage and commitment to giving back is an truly and inspiration.

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