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Verbal Behavior Therapy for Children with Autism

February 8, 2021


Verbal Behavior Therapy is a communication theory that initiates language: like any other observable action, is a learned behavior that can be acquired, developed, and sustained by applying behavior strategies. Supporting language and communication development with verbal behavior strategies differs from other traditional language theories. Still, it shares the conventional goal of promoting more effective, appropriate, and consistent communication proficiency in children who have ingrained difficulties acquiring these skills. 

Verbal Behavior Therapy for Children with Autism

What is Verbal Behavior Therapy?

Verbal Behavior Therapy (VB) is a method that teaches communication using the principles of behavior modification and the theories of behaviorist B.F. Skinner. Verbal Behavior Therapy helps children focus on understanding the benefits of using language. 

Skinner’s approach labeled the different language types as verbal operants (mand, tact, echoic, and intraverbal). Man is asking for reinforcers; tact is naming items, actions, events, objects, etc. Proverbial is answering questions and having conversations in which previous statements or words control the speaker’s words, and echoic repeats what has been heard. The secondary verbal behavior terms are textual reach, which is reading written words, and transcription, which is writing, and spelling words spoken to an individual. 

VB teaches children to make simple requests through language, picture exchange, or pointing to the desired object. Imagine someone asking a parent or teacher about Josh’s language skills by saying: “Does Josh have (or know) the word ‘chips’?” Does he know what “chips” means? The answer to the question is more complex than it might seem. With Skinner’s approach to language as behavior, you would want to get more information about the specific situations in which Josh shows that he knows what “chips” means. For example:

  • Asking for a chip when he wants one (a mand)
  • Telling someone else when he sees a chip (a tact)
  • Repeating “chips” when someone else says, “chips” (anechoic)
  • Answering “chips” in response to a question (an intraverbal)
  • Pointing to a chip when someone asks him to (listener behavior)

Some behavior analysts use Skinner’s language analysis because they think it helps them identify all the parts of the meaning better. Typically developing children may learn all these meanings quickly that it is not crucial to distinguish between them. However, some children with language delays may need to be taught each of these individually. 

Is Verbal Behavior Therapy part of Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA?)

Verbal operants are at the core of Verbal Behavior Therapy. VB aims to teach language and communication skills by helping students understand why words are used and how they can help the student communicate what he/she may want. VB is highly supported in the field of ABA therapy. The primary goal of increasing communication and understanding of language is shared. Interventions focused on verbal operants can be incorporated into an ABA program. 

Many experts recommend that ABA professionals, educators, and caregivers teach across all operants to encourage the best language acquisition and understanding of how language works for students. 


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How to use Verbal Behavior Therapy and see results

Verbal Behavior Therapy programs require at least one-to-three hours of therapy per week, but more intensive programs can include many more hours. Therapists who provide and are trained to use verbal behavior strategies in their daily lives are generally Board Certified Behavior Analysts (BCBA), special education teachers, or speech and language pathologists. 

Each child presents a unique skill set; therefore, every program will be individualized to that child’s needs. The programming used is usually based on the Verbal Behavior Milestones and Placement Program (VB-MAPP) developmental curriculum. VB-MAPP is when data is collected daily for each skill taught and the number of skills mastered each week. Mastered targets are reviewed regularly to ensure the maintenance of the skills. 

What does a typical Verbal Behavior Therapy session look like? 

Every session will vary because each child is unique; typically, the teacher or therapist will have a series of questions. These questions combine easy requests with more difficult ones so that the frequency of success rises. The therapist will vary the instructions so that the child is unresponsive. If, for example, the operant that needs work is the mand, a session may look like this: the verbal behavior therapist will teach mands first as the most basic type of language. If the child says: “marker,” the therapist will then repeat the word and bring it over to the marker. The therapist will then use the word again in the same context, reinforcing the meaning and teaching this operant. 

The individual does not have to say the actual word to get what he/she is asking for. For example, suppose the child points to the marker – in that case, the therapist will still bring the marker to him/her: the therapist first focuses on teaching the child with autism that communication brings about positive, desirable results. But the therapist does not stop at letting the child point; eventually, the therapist will help the child toward better communication by saying or signing the word “marker”. 

Conclusion

Verbal Behavior is a communication theory that initiates language and, like any other observable action, is a learned behavior that can be acquired, developed, and sustained by applying behavior strategies.


Behaviorist B.F. Skinner’s Verbal Behavior Therapy (VB) method teaches communication using the principles of behavior modification. VB is not too concerned with the forms or structures of speech. Still, these are important in the analysis of linguistics, and verbal operants are at the core of the therapy. VB aims to teach language and communication skills by helping students understand why words are used and how they can be used to help the student communicate what he/she may want.

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