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Verbal Operants in Autism: Types and Strategies

September 13, 2023

“Look, Sarah! That’s a car. Can you say ‘car’?” You’ve probably used such a phrase many times without knowing you’re using verbal operants. But what are verbal operants, and how can they help your child with autism?

You’re about to learn more about this incredible concept. In this comprehensive guide, we’ll break down what verbal operants are and how they apply to teach language and communication skills to children on the spectrum.

Verbal Operants in Autism: Types and Strategies

What are Verbal Operants?

Language development in infants and toddlers starts with patterns such as cooing, gestures, babbling, and recognizing some spoken words. Some children with language development delays may follow these patterns in different ways.

For example, some children with autism develop echolalia, which is the act of repeating words or phrases without appropriate context or communication purpose. In contrast, others may have expressive language but limited receptive language. 

Receptive language refers to the child’s ability to understand and respond to spoken language. For example, the child can listen and execute instructions like “put your shoes on.” Expressive language refers to the child’s ability to express themselves, such as opinions, how they feel, what they want, etc.

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In the book Verbal Behavior by B.F. Skinner, Skinner highlights that language has several functions. He defines verbal behavior as reinforcement through the mediation of a listener. Skinner also highlights that the context in which we use a word describes our understanding of the word. For example, when saying: “I want to go run” and “Does the engine run?” the word “run” has different meanings in the context that it is used. Verbal behavior requires the participation of the speaker and the listener.

From Skinner’s observations, verbal operants are the units or elements of communication that collectively inform our use of language, i.e., the way language is broken down into different elements for different purposes. It involves the speaker and the listener responding in relation to the behavior of the speaker.

For parents or therapists to assess a child’s language skills in terms of verbal behavior, the key questions include:

  1. Can the child repeat? Applying the echoic operant
  2. Can the child request? This is the mand operant
  3. Can the child label things in the environment without instruction? This is tact 
  4. Can the child engage in a conversation about things? This is the intraverbal

Types of Verbal Operants

Verbal operants are functional units of language that describe different ways in which people use language to communicate. As described by behaviorist B.F. Skinner, there are four main types of verbal operants: mand, tact, intraverbal, and echoic, and some recently added subtypes.


The mand is a request. In typical development, a child uses the mand operant to request for what he/she wants. For example, the child can say “more cookie” or “give shoe.” If the child understands how words are used to request something, it indicates that the child understands and applies the mand operant appropriately. 


Tact is the action of labeling and communicating something we encounter for the first time. For example, if a child notices a truck, giraffe, or cloud for the first time and calls out “truck,” “giraffe,” or “cloud” from the moment, they notice it while simultaneously pointing at it with emotion such as shock or surprise.

This behavior is known as tacting. Some children with autism struggle with tacting because it requires the child to notice and simultaneously respond emotionally to it.

The tact requires a desire to share an experience with a listener and is maintained by the listener acknowledging it. For example, when a child sees a truck, the behavior is “truck!” and the parent responds, “Oh wow, a truck!”


When we engage in conversation, we’re applying the intraverbal operant. Intraverbal operant refers to our ability to hear what is being said or spoken and link it to what we know without any visual representation.

For example, if you’re playing a game and someone is describing an object to you, i.e., “What is the name of something with four legs that can be used to place something on top of it?”. The other person can respond with the answer “table.”  

It is a global understanding of a word; it requires the child to be able to mentally visualize the object and understand what the object is and its function just by its description. If the child can form a picture of it and give you the name, the child has applied an intraverbal operant.


Echoic is the child’s ability to repeat what the parent or therapist says exactly back. For example, the therapist can say: “Say chair,” and the child repeats, “chair.”

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Strategies for Teaching Verbal Operants in Autism

Teaching verbal operants to children with autism requires patience, consistency, and evidence-based strategies. Some of the most effective approaches include Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA), Visual supports, and Speech and language therapy.

Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA)

ABA therapy is a widely recognized method for teaching verbal operants. It involves breaking down language skills into smaller, manageable steps and providing positive reinforcement for successful communication attempts.

Visual Supports

Visual aids, such as cards and communication boards, can be highly efficient when it comes to teaching mand and tact operants, especially to non-verbal children with autism.

Speech and Language Therapy

Working with a speech and language therapist can provide tailored strategies and exercises to target specific verbal operants, which ensures a personalized approach to language development.

Implementing Verbal Operants at Home

By understanding what each verbal operant is, parents are well-placed to apply these at home.

The behavior of the speaker influences the behavior of the listener. Therefore, it is a relationship between both parties, and active engagement on both ends influences the consequent behavior and response.

For parents to teach the child verbal operants they struggle with, they need to be actively engaged. It can be challenging to focus the child, but through repetition, the child will start to pick it up.

It is also important for parents to obtain training, as well as consider working alongside an ABA therapist with training in Verbal Behavior Therapy. Verbal operants such as tact don’t come easily to some autistic children. 

The therapist can suggest certain exercises to implement at home so that learning does not just occur in the therapy space but at home as well. This will, therefore, support a balanced learning program for the child that carries over beyond the therapy space.

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Language is not simply the quantitative measure of words the child has learned but the application of those words in the right context. Verbal operants break down language in building blocks, which is beneficial for autistic children who may be strong in one operant but require intervention in another—this supports a child-centered approach.

Parents can obtain training from ABA therapists so they can implement the measures to improve their child’s language and communication skills at home.


Q: What are the main types of verbal operants?

A: Verbal operants include mands, tacts, intraverbals, echoics, and textual operants. Each of them serves distinct functions in communication.

Q: How can I assess the language proficiency of someone with autism?

A: Language proficiency can be assessed through standardized tests, observations, and consultations with speech therapists and behavior analysts.

Q: Is verbal operant therapy suitable for all individuals with autism?

A: Verbal operant therapy can be customized to meet the unique needs of each individual with autism, making it a versatile approach for many.

Q: What role do parents play in verbal operant interventions?

A: Parents and caregivers are crucial in supporting verbal operant interventions. They provide consistency and reinforcement in everyday interactions.

Q: Are there any potential ethical concerns with using verbal operants in autism therapy?

A: Ethical considerations revolve around respecting a child’s autonomy and dignity, ensuring consent in communication, and safeguarding their rights throughout the therapy process.

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