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:


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

Why Kids With Autism Often Have Behavior Regressions Right After They Acquire More Language

Does it feel like every time your child takes a step forward in one area, he takes a step backwards in another? Do you find yourself time and time again being confronted with old behavior problems you thought you had gotten past?  Have the strategies that were effective before seemed to stop working? Are you wondering what you are doing wrong? The answer may be both frustrating and a relief — Nothing– This is a common experience that is reported by most parents of children with Autism.

Although the degree may cary, all children with Autism have delayed language.  The number one priority of almost every parent I have ever worked with is that their child is able to learn and and use language. The number one fear that almost any parent has is that they won’t be able to.  

Watching a child be able to get something they want for the first time is one of my favorite parts of working with kids with Autism. The first time it happens, their eyes light up and you can see them experiencing joy. For the first time, they have learned a way of getting what they want without crying or tantruming.

For kids who can’t talk, their world is very limited. Some kids are able to use gestures or take their parents to objects that they want. But, still they are limited to only asking for things they can see.

Have you ever wondered why your child start crying at as restaurant when you gave him a food you know he likes? It is really frustrating, especially if you don’t know why.  As frustrating as it is for parent or teacher, it is even more frustrating for a child.

Imagine you went to your favorite burger joint! You ordered a bacon cheese burger.  You could taste the mouth water meat in your mouth as you waited for it. But when they brought it, they brought you a black bean veggie burger on ice burg lettuce instead of a bun … Now unless you are a vegetarian, you would probably be pretty frustrated. The good news is, you would know how to tell the waiter, that he brought you the wrong thing and your delicious burger would soon be on its way.

Well your child can’t do that. They walk into a restaurant super excited to eat chicken nuggets and pizza shows up.  They would love to be able to say, “No, mom I wanted chicken nuggets.” You would love to be able to ask your child, “What do you want and have them respond.” But that may not be possible. So you gave him what you thought he would want and he cried when he wanted something else.

Since your child can’t talk, they try to use behaviors like a tantrum as a form of communication. Tantrums are frustrating for everyone — teachers, parents and even more importantly children. I have witnessed thousands of tantrums in my life. I have seen hundreds of kids so frustrated that they are not able to get what they want and so many parents just like you ready to pull their hair out because their child just wouldn’t stop.

That’s why one of the first thing that any behavior therapist will work on is reducing tantrums. Simply, your therapist teaches your child- this is not a form of communication. As long as the behavior plan is always carried out in your child’s life and he never gets what he wants as a result of having a tantrum (which is easier said than done), the tantrum will stop.

You will think as a parent you have gotten past the behavior. Really, what you did is teach your child that tantrum is not a form of communication or sometimes it won’t work in a specific situation..

The good news is, most children with Autism will eventually be able to tell us what they want. Whether it is pointing to pictures on a choice board, using PECS, and iPad program such as Proloquo2go or Touch Chat to help them talk or tell us vocally, they will be able to make their needs met.

When this happens initially everyone gets so excited, they give the child exactly what he wants every time they ask. If you ask your child what he wants for a dinner and he replies vocally, “A donut!” You get so excited he answered you for the first time you jump up and down and clap for him and drive to Dunkin Donuts in a blizzard. I have personally spent two hour long sessions doing nothing but having a child come to the table and ask for a break the first time he has learned to say, “I need a break.” instead of running away from the table or having a tantrum.

For a few days, nothing could possibly get your family down. Your child is happy because he is getting exactly what he wants. You are happy because the months or years of sacrifice and running to see therapist has paid off. You literally feel like you just landed a spaceship on the moon and found potable drinking water! But, as exciting as it when your child learns to say words, it quickly becomes an expectation and the thrills wears off.

The fourteenth time your child asks for donut, and the baker’s dozen you bought has run out you say — No!

That moment turns your child’s world completely and utterly upside down.  They have learned that they ask and they get. Your and your therapists have spent years teaching them if they ask they can have what they want and suddenly- the rules have changed!

They asked and they didn’t get! Prior to this moment, your child has never conceived this as possible. This is not how the asking game is supposed to work. They have no idea what to do. Their new communication system is broken. In panic and desperation they try something that has worked in the past — a tantrum!

Does this sound familiar?  At this point, I get a call from every parent– frustrated and in tears. They don’t know what they did wrong. Their child was doing so well. He was communicating and using his words and then suddenly out of nowhere he just stopped and went back to tantrums.

There is good news. You are not alone. This is not uncommon. It is not your fault and most importantly — it will NOT last forever. It will likely last a few days- maybe a week.

Use the exact same procedures to eradicate the tantrum that worked in the past. EXACTLY THE SAME ONES. Let me repeat that to make it clear — EXACTLY — EXACTLY– EXACTLY– the sames ones! They worked in the past and they will work again. Five out of ten parents will tell me at this point- they don’t want to go back to the token board or rewarding good behavior with stickers because they are taking a step backward.

To be blunt, if you do it, in a couple of days your child will realize once again tantrum is not communication and the misbehavior will stop. If you don’t this problem can be drawn out for months and it will create a lot of unnecessary frustration for you and your child.

At this point your child will learn- Sometimes asking me will get what me I want. This is called and intermittent schedule of reinforcement in the made up behavior language that I personally find unnecessarily complicated. But– if you hear the term- that is what your therapist means.

The bottom line kids have to learn to hear no. Read that again — They have to learn it — The implication of this is that they don’t necessarily no how to do it.

Rest assured — they will learn.

So, when your child takes a few steps forward and soon after it feels like you are taking a giant step back- don’t worry and don’t blame yourself. It is an annoying and frustrating but necessary and short lived part of the process.

Should I Encourage or Discourage Vocal Stereotypy?

Should I Encourage or Discourage Vocal Stereotypy? Find out in this week’s episode!

Do you want to get your child to stop repeating you and start initiating language?

I am so excited to post this video because it is the question I was asked the most when surveying what would assist parents you like the most! Are you frustrated that your child just keeps repeating you? They can talk but rather than answering questions they are just repeating what you say! While this can be a difficult problem to solve, there is something you can do to make it a lot easier. I am happy to explain it is in this three minute tip!

What’s the difference between verbal and vocal behavior?

In this short video, Jessica explains the difference between verbal and vocal behavior.

Does ABA lead to robotic sounding language?

One of the biggest fears that parents have is that children with Autism who receive ABA will develop robotic sounding speech. This is valid because there is some truth to it but in this video, I will share some ways you can minimize this effect and possible eliminate it all together.

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