Don’t Just Speak, Communicate!

Over the last several years, I have worked with individuals with ASD ranging from children to adults. It is amazing how very different each case is, even though the diagnoses are the same. However, one thing that is consistent across individuals diagnosed with ASD is the deficits in communication skills.

Verbal behavior, as defined by Skinner, is the the vocal or nonvocal behavior of an individual which is reinforced by the behavior of another person. There is a relationship between the speaker and the listener where the speaker’s behavior affects the behavior of the listener, and vice versa. For example, a toddler says, “More juice,” and the listener reinforces that behavior by filling the cup with juice. However, there is more to language than just making requests. Skinner broke verbal behavior into six subcategories known as “verbal operants.” 

 Verbal Operant  Description
Mand Making a request
Tact Naming or identifying items
Echoic Imitating language
Intraverbal Answering and asking questions
Textual Reading written words
Transcription Writing and spelling spoken words 

Instead of just assessing and teaching expressive and receptive language, Sundberg and Michael (2001) state that Skinner’s verbal operants break down skills so that students with ASD can receive a more comprehensive program on language development. Individuals with ASD can be taught to respond to language stimuli appropriately through the manipulation of antecedents and consequences and direct instruction. 

One component of communication is manding. Requesting items, or manding for items, plays a vital role in the beginning development of language, and is also an important part of everyday interactions. Teaching a child to mand for items can be done in a variety of ways using the principles of applied behavior analysis. First, desired items can be withheld to increase motivation. This is known as manipulating the antecedents to prompt the mand. For example, a teacher may withhold a student’s favorite ball during recess to teach the student to mand for the ball. During meal times, I have intentionally withheld items such as straws, spoons, and forks to prompt students to spontaneously mand for those items. Many educators and caregivers teach manding by using food as a reinforcer. However, I would rather teach students to mand in more natural situations. Life does not come with a pack of Skittles, and students with ASD need to be taught how to request items that are needed, not just items that are highly desirable. 

Skinner’s definition of verbal behavior is important because it clarifies that verbal behavior is not just referring to vocalizations. I have worked with several students who were nonverbal. In teaching these students to communicate, I have used everything from picture symbols and choice boards to complex communication systems such as the Proloquo2go App on an iPad or SayItSam. Teaching students to communicate wants and needs through manding can decrease problem behaviors. Many times, students with ASD engage in inappropriate or aggressive behaviors because of the deficits in communication skills. When individuals with ASD do not have any means to communicate, then frustration builds, leading to major meltdowns. By using direct instruction, time-delay, modeling/request imitation, and manipulating antecedents and consequences, these individuals can learn a appropriate ways to communicate. 

Below are procedures for a student to expressively request/mand an item using vocal language:

1. When the child indicates a desire for an item or activity by reaching, grabbing, whining, crying etc., withhold the item and use time-delay.

2. If the child names the item to request it, provide natural positive reinforcement by giving the child the item.

3. If the child doesn’t name the item, use the following least-to-most prompts hierarchy:

a. Provide a fill-in (ex. You want the _________).

b. Use modeling/request imitation by saying the name of the item and encourage the child to imitate.

c. Ask the child to point to the item (provide gentle physical assistance if necessary)

4. Provide natural positive reinforcement after the child requests the item even if prompting was needed.

For more lesson plans on teaching verbal behavior and communication skills, CLICK HERE

Manding is one basic form of communication that can be taught. While educators and caregivers can increase verbal behavior by manipulating antecedents and consequences, and using direct instruction, instruction on communication skills can be made more meaningful by teaching in natural contexts with natural reinforcers. 

Not only should individuals with ASD be taught in natural environments, but they should also be taught to communicate for a variety of purposes. As I mentioned before, I don’t believe students should be taught how to mand only for items that are highly desirable; individuals should also be taught to request items that are needed. In addition, educators and caregivers should provide explicit instruction using peers to teach communication for social engagement. Teaching intraverbal skills to students with ASD is important for their success in inclusive settings. Peer mediated interventions can be used to teach individuals with ASD to comment on activities, respond to comments, initiate greetings, and so much more! 

Written by Jennifer Rodecki, M.Ed.

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