One of the first steps in providing treatment to individuals with impaired communication skills is to teach them how to request their wants and needs.  In fact, the frontline treatment for two of the causes of severe problem behavior is to teach the person to request caregiver attention/access to preferred items or to request escape from events the person finds aversive (see my previous post on this topic;  Skinner referred to requesting as manding.  He described this as operant behavior in which the verbal response specifies the consequence that should follow the verbal response.  For example, saying "water" when thirsty/motivated to drink specifies that the person listening to this should provide access to water.  This interaction involves two persons, a speaker and a listener.  However, I'm going to pose the question of whether or not possessing this skill, manding, is sufficient for establishing verbal behavior.  Stated another way, if someone expresses their wants and needs but does not demonstrate any other communicative behavior, are they verbal?

[As an aside, Skinner's framework does not require response to be vocal to be verbal.  Gestures and other forms of communication also serve the functions that vocal responses can serve so they are also verbal. Thus, sign language, picture-exchange communication, etc. can all be forms of verbal behavior.]

Skinner's Verbal Behavior provides a framework for interpreting language in terms of its function rather than its form.  The response "water" may be a request or mand but it could also be a comment (e.g., a response emitted upon reaching a beach) or another form of verbal response.  Teaching a child to read a word, though important, does not teach them how to use the word.  That comes from additional experience.  All children require feedback from a verbal community when learning how to communicate with others.  Establishing requesting or manding is a crucial early verbal operant.  Deprivation, for instance, serves to provide the motivation for such responses and a verbal community serves to prompt and reinforce manding.  The cries of an infant can be thought of as proto-mands.  The parent hears the cries of the infant and responds by providing food or warmth or attention or a diaper change...  The response of the caregiver serves to not only provide for the infant but also establishes a dynamic interaction wherein the infant will learn crucial responses.  Mands will emerge and the experience of caregivers responding to the child will lead to more complex behavior.  However, this process of learning does not always go smoothly.

Skinner's initial definition of verbal behavior in VB suggests any response in which the consequences for that response are mediated by another person is verbal behavior.  So, in this sense, manding is verbal behavior.  That said, manding alone does not make one part of a verbal community.  The child that requests meets consequences that increase the probability of requesting but to be a member of a verbal community it is necessary to also serve as a listener.  Skinner lays out the different functions that verbal behavior can serve.  He provides many examples of each type of behavior and describes the process by which these responses are taught and the consequences that they meet in the natural environment

One important form of verbal behavior Skinner discusses is the listener repertoire.  Interaction between two persons requires reciprocity to be "interaction."  Thus, verbal interaction requires that one be a speaker AND a listener to be part of a verbal community.  This is where the person with autism, especially those severely affected, often have problems.  Listener responses are complex.  They require attending to the speaker and some of the context of the speaker's behavior will be conveyed by their facial expression, eye gaze, gestures, and other cues beyond their vocalizations.  Clearly teaching mands or requesting is a necessary first step towards establishing verbal behavior but there is so much more that needs to follow.

Providing effective instruction in communicative skills to children with ASDs also requires teaching identifying facial expression, following eye gaze, and other responses.  These are not impossible goals but they are important and critical to establishing the child as a member of the verbal community.

About the Author

Bill Ahearn, Ph.D., BCBA-D

Bill Ahearn is Director of Research at the New England Center for Children, a private nonprofit educational facility for children with autism.

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