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Verbal Behavior Therapy for Children with Autism

October 23, 2023

Various approaches promise to help manage autism: Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA), speech-language therapy, occupational therapy, and more. But have you heard of Verbal Behavior Therapy? Among all of these, the verbal behavior approach stands out as a highly effective method that may change your little one’s life for the better.

In this comprehensive guide, you will find out all of the core principles of verbal behavior therapy. These will help you enhance your child’s social skills and help them live a happy and fulfilling life.

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):

  • Mand is asking for reinforcement
  • Tact is naming items, actions, events, objects, etc. 
  • Intraverbial is answering questions and having conversations in which previous statements or words control the speaker’s words
  • 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.

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Autism Behavior Interventions

VB teaches children with ASD 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)

Verbal Behavior Therapy: Techniques and Strategies 

Verbal behavior therapy uses various techniques and strategies to promote language development. The most common ones are discrete trial training, functional communication training, incidental teaching, and joint attention activities.

Discrete Trial Training

Discrete Trial Training (DTT) involves breaking down complex skills into smaller, more manageable components. Through repetition and positive reinforcement, children with autism learn to associate specific verbal behaviors with desired outcomes.

Functional Communication Training

Functional Communication Training (FCT) is based on teaching alternative communication methods, such as using gestures, pictures, or assistive devices. FCT equips children on the spectrum with tools to express themselves effectively.

Incidental Teaching

Incidental teaching capitalizes on natural opportunities for communication. Caregivers and therapists create scenarios where the child is motivated to communicate by encouraging the use of language in real-life situations.

Joint Attention Activities

Joint attention activities help children by incorporating activities that encourage sharing the focus on an object or topic with someone else. This helps foster social engagement and communication.

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Autism Verbal Behavior Therapy Process

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. 

Although every session will vary because each child is unique, there are certain things that each program follows: assessment, targeted interventions, data collection, and analysis.

Assessment and Individualized Plan

The therapy begins with a comprehensive assessment of the child’s communication skills, strengths, and areas needing improvement. Based on the assessment, the therapist designs a personalized intervention that’s made to address the child’s unique needs.

Targeted Interventions

Therapists and caregivers implement targeted interventions aligned with the child’s individualized plan. These interventions often focus on specific verbal behaviors, gradually progressing from simple to complex language skills.

Data Collection and Analysis

Data are collected during therapy sessions to track the child’s progress. This data-driven approach enables therapists to modify interventions and strategies through analysis, which ensures continuous improvement.


The main goal of VB therapy is generalizing communication skills beyond therapy sessions. Children are encouraged to apply what they’ve learned in various real-world situations, fostering independence and confidence.

What Does a Typical Verbal Behavior Therapy Session Look Like?

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 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. However, the therapist does not stop at letting the child point. Eventually, the therapist will help the child better communicate by saying or signing the word “marker.” 

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Autism Behavior Interventions

Benefits of Autism Verbal Behavior Therapy

Autism verbal behavior therapy offers many benefits. Some of them are:

  • Enhanced communication: Through VB, children on the spectrum develop the ability to effectively communicate their thoughts, needs, and feelings, which reduces frustration and enhances social interaction.
  • Improved social skills: As communication improves, so do social interactions. Children learn how to initiate conversations, engage, and respond appropriately.
  • Increased independence: The skills acquired through VB therapy empower children to become more self-reliant in daily activities and interactions.


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 linguistics analysis, 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.


Q: How early should autism verbal behavior therapy start? 

A: Early intervention is crucial. Starting as soon as a diagnosis is made can help get better results.

Q: Can nonverbal children benefit from verbal behavior therapy?

A: Absolutely. VB therapy tailors interventions to individual needs, which makes it suitable for both verbal and nonverbal children.

Q: Is verbal behavior therapy a long-term commitment? 

A: The duration varies based on the child’s progress. Regular evaluations help determine how long the therapy is going to last.

Q: Can VB therapy be combined with other interventions? 

A: Yes, VB therapy can complement other interventions, like occupational and speech therapies, which enhances their overall outcomes.

Q: How can parents reinforce therapy at home?

 A: Consistency is key. Parents can use strategies from therapy sessions in daily routines and engage in communication-rich activities.

Q: Are the benefits of verbal behavior therapy long-lasting?

A: When skills are generalized and consistently practiced, the benefits can have a lasting impact on a child’s communication abilities.

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