Verbal behavior in the field of autism

ANDl (Applied Behavior Analysis) is the applied science that uses learning principles to try to generate changes in behaviors that are socially significant (Cooper, 2007). These general laws describe relationships between behaviors and environmental events and were developed by a basic science called Experimental Analysis of Behavior (Hersen & Sledge, 2002). The behavioral principles that ABA emphasizes are those related to operant conditioning: reinforcement, punishment, extinction, stimulus control, and discrimination. In the field of they serve to guide procedures that will aim to improve the areas of language, academic, play, social and self-esteem (Leaf & Mc Eachin, 2008).

The fundamental contributions of ABA for the treatment of developmental disorders have mistakenly led it to be identified as a type of approach or a set of techniques aimed purely and exclusively at autism (Dillenburger & Keenan, 2009), however research shows that this science has also developed interventions that have empirical support in therapeutic, educational, business and industry, sports, health and medicine fields; in individual and group contexts (Hersen & Sledge, 2002; Martin & Pear, 2007).

Early and intensive behavioral intervention in autism

The so-called “Lovaas Program” developed at the University of California (UCLA) was a pioneer in empirically demonstrating that an intensive, early, behavioral intervention, in the child’s natural environment and including the family in the treatment can significantly improve the deficits that we found in this population (Lovaas, 1987; McEachin, Smith & Lovaas, 1993). Although it was the first to carry out studies that support its application in the field of autism, others have subsequently been developed within ABA. Currently, Pivotal Response Training (PRT), Early Start Denver Model (ESDM), Verbal Behavior (VB) are some of the best known, each with its particular characteristics and evidence studies. This growth in various global treatment packages has led to the term EIBI (Early and Intensive Behavioral Intervention) not being restricted to the “Lovaas Program” only, and being a generic name used to group the variety of intervention interventions. behavioral cut (Green, Brennan & Fein, 2002; Degli Espinosa, 2011).

Within the literature of the EIBI curricula, language, a core area in the intervention, is usually divided into two large areas: receptive, to refer to the understanding of what others say, and expressive to talk about the language that is used to relate. with the people. This nomenclature comes from the field of psycholinguistics and is used by “classic” ABA programs to treat language (LeBlanc, Esch, Sidener & Firth, 2006). However, the “Verbal Behavior” Approach is one of the exceptions, including a specific classification of language, whose birth and development occurs within the behavioral analytical framework (Sundberg & Partington, 1998; Sundberg & Michael, 2001).

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Verbal behavior in autism

The Verbal Behavior Approach (Barbera & Rasmussen, 2007) is a global treatment based on ABA that is characterized by the use of the Skinnerian classification of language (Skinner, 1957) and the use of structured and naturalized forms of teaching (Sundberg & Partington, 1998). Another very important aspect is the use of teaching strategies based on research on motivation (Sundberg & Michael, 2001). Its dissemination began with the publication of the book Teaching language to children with autism or other developmental disabilities, written by Mark Sundberg and James Partington (1998). In this book, various behavioral strategies for language development in boys and girls with language development disorders are presented for the first time in an organized manner.

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Definition of language

The term “language” has found different definitions throughout history, and it is possible to find as many different conceptualizations as there are authors (Colombo, 2008). Popularly, people refer to language to account for two people talking or establishing some type of communication. Some authors conceive language as exclusive to man and point out that it is a function of innate variables (Chomsky, 1959; Colombo, 2008). Others point out that language is the result of internal processing systems that are responsible for decoding, classifying, storing and retrieving verbal information (Feldberg & Demey, 2015). In other words, it is not currently possible to establish a unanimous definition of the term language. To overcome this difficulty, applied behavior analysis coined the term Verbal Behavior proposed by B. F Skinner (Skinner, 1957).

Language as verbal behavior

The verbal response is understood as a behavior and analyzed based on the triple contingency, that is, the observation of the environmental stimuli that occur before and after each response (Skinner, 1957; Virués Ortega & Miguel, 2013). A traditional conception alludes that language cannot be learned by the same learning principles as other behaviors (Chomsky, 1959; Colombo, 2008), however currently there are various studies that show that it is possible to generate significant changes in language based on analytical-behavioral strategies (Greer & Ross, 2014; for a current summary of research in Verbal Behavior see Pérez Fernández, 2016).

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The term “Verbal Behavior” is a type of specific response that refers to the interaction that occurs between a Speaker and a Listener. This behavior is characterized because the speaker is reinforced by the mediation of a listener, differentiating it from “non-verbal behavior” in which a person’s response is affected by the direct consequences experienced with the environment (Skinner, 1957). For example, if a person pours some juice into a glass, the movements of grabbing the jug and tilting it will be reinforced by the liquid falling into the glass. This would be a non-verbal behavior since the reinforcement is given without another person intervening. But if this same person says to his or her partner “could you serve me some juice?”, and thereby gets them to put juice in his glass, this consequence would be mediated by another person, thus entering the definition of Verbal Behavior.

Functional analysis of language

It is important to make a distinction between the formal study of language and the functional one. From the formal perspective, the study of language implies establishing topography as an object of study (Sundberg, 2007). With topography we refer to the form or structure of language. A formal analysis could occur when a linguist studies the correct use of words in a sentence, for example dequeism: “I think we have work.” A speech therapist uses a formal perspective when she works on the articulation of a phoneme in a child.

An essential characteristic of formal analysis is that it can be carried out in the absence of the speaker; the conditions under which the person performed certain verbal behaviors may not even be known. In the analytical-behavioral framework, it is not the topography (the form) of the behavior that guides the analysis but rather it focuses on the relationship between the behaviors and the environment. In a functional analysis, it is not important what form a behavior takes but rather what function it fulfills.

The Verbal Behavior Approach is a global treatment based on ABA that features the use of the Skinnerian classification of language.

Therefore, when we talk about verbal behavior we are not referring exclusively to vocal, spoken responses. As stated previously, the term Verbal Behavior emphasizes those responses in which another person mediates the consequences and therefore we can find diverse topographies: vocal, signs, PECS (Picture Exchange Communication System), writing, etc. (Carbone, Sweeney-Kerwin, Attanasio & Kasper, 2010; Virués Ortega & Miguel, 2013).

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This distinction serves to demarcate the field of study of the different approaches; however, the work carried out by the models focused on the study of the form of language is not rejected or minimized, but complementarity with a functional approach that can be considered necessary is considered necessary. identify the contextual variables that explain its development.

Speaker and listener: organization of work programs

In a social interaction, different language functions are presented. In this section, the responses will be described according to their relationship with the environmental stimuli, the classification that emerges from this description and the impact on the treatments’ curriculum.


Listening is not a simple passive task; on the contrary, it requires an active role on the part of the person listening. Listening subjects must be able to discriminate the different stimuli in the context to respond appropriately to each of them and in this way know how to reinforce the behavior of the person who is speaking. The responses emitted by a Listener can be varied but they are all characterized by having a verbal antecedent (the verbal behavior of a Speaker). In the treatment of boys and girls with autism, a common program that works on the Listener function is the so-called “receptive image discrimination” where the child is asked to point to a particular image.


In this instance the subject, depending on environmental events, emits verbal behavior receiving particular consequences from a Listener. The behaviors included in the Speaker function can be differentiated, and therefore classified, according to specific antecedents and consequences. Skinner, in his book “Verbal Behavior” (1957), described six basic operants: command, tacts, echoic, intraverbal, textual and transcription. For reasons of space we will only develop the first four.


Command in simple words is asking for something you want. The term refers to the verbal operant that specifies its own reinforcement and that is controlled by establishing operations (EO). Let’s look at the definition in parts:

When we talk about “specifies its own reinforcement” we are referring to situations such as when a person orders a coffee in a bar, they are clearly saying what they want. When you ask a person “what is your name?” A special type of information is being requested. When a child points to the bottle he implies that he wants the milk. In other words, the command is the only verbal operant that describes to the Listener what the…