Description: Verbal Behavior is a term coined by B.F. Skinner to describe a behavioral approach to the acquisition of language in individuals of typical development. It emphasizes that communication is a behavior that follows the same laws and principles as other forms of behavior. In his book, Verbal Behavior, Skinner introduced and described new terms to refer to language processes from a behavioral perspective (e.g., mands, tacts, intraverbals). Although Skinner did not discuss interventions to promote language development for children with autism spectrum disorder, many professionals have recently applied Skinner’s concepts to develop teaching procedures for these children and call their procedures “Verbal Behavior” or “Applied Verbal Behavior.”

Research Summary: Teaching procedures based on Skinner’s analysis of Verbal Behavior have been developed to increase vocalizations in previously nonverbal children, but studies on the efficacy of these procedures have yielded inconclusive findings. Several small studies support the use of Verbal Behavior procedures to teach mands (requests made verbally, through sign language, or with picture symbols). Whether Verbal Behavior procedures are a new development within the broader field of ABA, or simply a new name for tools and strategies that have historically been present in the field, is a matter of some debate and controversy.  In any case, although some evidence supports basing teaching procedures on Skinner’s conceptual analysis of language, much more research is needed to determine whether these approaches are truly new and to evaluate overall outcomes that might be achieved from a comprehensive Verbal Behavior curriculum.

Recommendations: Teaching procedures derived from Skinner’s analysis of verbal behavior may be effective for teaching some communication skills to children with autism. Additional research, however, is greatly needed to test whether these procedures are effective for teaching complex, flexible, and generalized verbal repertoires to individuals with autism. Additional research is also needed to determine the differences, if any, between teaching procedures based on Skinner’s analysis of verbal behavior (e.g., mand training) and already established teaching procedures (e.g., incidental teaching). Research is also needed to test the effectiveness of the comprehensive use of curricula based on Skinner’s analysis of verbal behavior.

Selected References:

Selected scientific studies

Barbera, M.L. & Kubina, R.M. (2005). Using transfer procedures to teach tacts to a child with autism. Analysis of Verbal Behavior, 21, 155-161.

Carroll, R. A, & Klatt, K. P. (2008). Using stimulus-stimulus paring and direct reinforcement to teach vocal verbal behavior to young children with autism. The Analysis of Verbal Behavior, 24, 135-146.

Jennett, H.K., Harris, S.L., and Delmolino, L. (2008). Discrete trial instructions vs. mand training for teaching chidlren with autism to make requests. The Analysis of Verbal Behavior, 24, 69-85.

Hernandez, E., Hanley, G.P., Ingvarsson, E.T., (2007). A preliminary evaluation of the emergence of novel mand forms. Journal of Applied Behavior Analysis, 40, 137-156.

Stock, R.A., Schulze, K.A., and Mirenda, P. (2008). A comparison of stimulus-stimulus pairing, standard echoic training, and control procedures on the vocal behavior of children with autism. The Analysis of Verbal Behavior, 24, 123-133.

Systematic reviews of scientific studies:

Sautter, R.A., LeBlanc, L.A. (2006). Empirical applications of Skinner’s Analysis of Verbal Behavior with Humans. The Analysis of Verbal Behavior, 22, 35-48.

Carr, J.E., & Firth, A.M. (2005). The verbal behavior approach to early and intensive behavioral intervention for autism: A call for additional empirical support. Journal of Early and Intensive Behavioral Intervention, 2, 18-27.

Sundberg, M. L., & Michael, J. L. (2001). The benefits of Skinner’s analysis of verbal behavior for children with autism. Behavior Modification, 25, 698-724.

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