Verbal Behavior in Autism: The Definition

11 Jan 2022
Discover the verbal behavior definition in autism, its components, and pivotal role in communication therapy.

Understanding Verbal Behavior

Verbal behavior, in the context of autism, refers to communication using words, sentences, and other vocalizations, and includes understanding the speaker and the listener. It also comprises the skills to request, label, comment, repeat, and answer questions. Furthermore, verbal behavior is behavior that is reinforced through the mediation of another person's behavior, and it involves a speaker and a listener.

Verbal vs Nonverbal Communication

Verbal and nonverbal communication are two distinct types of communication that people use in their daily interactions. Verbal communication involves expressing thoughts, ideas, and feelings through spoken or written language. Its effectiveness can be influenced by factors such as volume, tone, clarity of speech, and choice of words, as well as the receiver's listening skills and feedback received.

On the other hand, nonverbal communication includes using body language, facial expressions, gestures, and other body movements to convey messages. Nonverbal cues can either emphasize or contradict spoken words and include aspects like tone of voice, body language, and eye contact, all of which impact how the message is received.

Importance of Communication Cues

Understanding communication cues, such as maintaining eye contact and displaying body language that reflects interest in the speaker's message, is essential for fostering effective communication. These cues play a significant role in both verbal and nonverbal forms of communication and can greatly influence the effectiveness of the communication process.

In the context of autism, understanding and using these cues can be particularly challenging, and a significant part of therapy and intervention involves teaching these skills. Recognizing the importance of these cues and incorporating them into daily communication can greatly improve the effectiveness of verbal behavior.

In the following sections, we will delve deeper into the definition of verbal behavior, its components, therapy approaches, and assessments.

Skinner's Definition of Verbal Behavior

The understanding of verbal behavior within the context of autism is deeply rooted in the work of B.F. Skinner. Skinner's theories have shaped the scientific and therapeutic approaches to verbal communication in individuals with autism.

Initial Definition by Skinner

Skinner's preliminary definition of verbal behavior is "behavior reinforced through the mediation of other persons". His definition was centered around the influence of other individuals in reinforcing certain behaviors. It was a broad definition that encompassed any behavior that was influenced and reinforced by the responses of others.

Skinner later refined this definition to "behavior reinforced through the mediation of other persons [who] must be responding in ways which have been conditioned precisely in order to reinforce the behavior of the speaker". This refined definition puts emphasis on the role of the community in reinforcing and shaping verbal behavior [3].

Refinements and Criticisms

Skinner's definition of verbal behavior aimed to circumscribe verbal behavior as a particular kind of social behavior. It focused on the selective action of reinforcement based on the correspondence to the conventions of a community [3].

Skinner deliberately avoided using the word "language" in his definition of verbal behavior. His refusal to use the term was rooted in his criticisms of linguistics and his desire to present his explanation of verbal behavior as an alternative that would be "appropriate to all special fields" [3].

Skinner's definition and concept of verbal behavior have been influential, but they have also been subject to criticism. Some argue that his definition is too broad and does not adequately address the complexity of human communication. Others question the emphasis on reinforcement as the primary driving factor of verbal behavior.

Despite these criticisms, Skinner's definition of verbal behavior remains a cornerstone in the study and treatment of verbal communication issues in autism. It provides a framework that guides the understanding and intervention strategies employed by professionals in the field.

Components of Verbal Behavior

As we delve deeper into the verbal behavior definition, it becomes clear that it's a complex interplay of various elements. Two crucial components that shape verbal behavior are the influence of the verbal environment and the mediation by the verbal community.

Verbal Environment Influence

Verbal behavior is significantly shaped and sustained by the verbal environment in which it occurs. This environment is influenced by the reinforcing practices of the verbal community. Simply put, the way we talk and the words we choose are often a response to the environment around us and the people we interact with.

For instance, a child learns to say "water" when he is thirsty because his verbal community (parents, caretakers) reinforces this behavior by providing the requested water. Over time, the child associates saying "water" with receiving water to drink, which in turn strengthens this verbal behavior.

This concept also applies to the broader societal context. For example, cultural norms, social conventions, and even regional dialects can all influence verbal behavior, shaping the language and communication styles individuals adopt.

Mediation by Verbal Community

Verbal behavior is not only influenced by the environment but also mediated by the verbal community - the group of individuals who interact with the speaker. In fact, it's the reinforcing action of this community that selects the properties of the verbal behavior based on their correspondence to the community's conventions [3].

This means that the verbal behavior of an individual is shaped by the feedback they receive from others in their verbal community. For example, if a child uses incorrect grammar while speaking, the verbal community might correct them, helping them to learn the appropriate language structure.

In essence, the verbal community plays a vital role in the development and refinement of verbal behavior. It's through this constant interaction and feedback that individuals learn to communicate effectively and conform to the language conventions of their community.

In conclusion, the definition of verbal behavior extends beyond mere words spoken or written. It's a complex construct that is shaped by the interplay of the verbal environment and the verbal community. Understanding these components can provide valuable insights into how verbal behavior develops and evolves, especially in the context of autism.

Verbal Behavior Therapy

Verbal Behavior Therapy is a treatment approach that aims to improve communication skills in individuals with autism. It centers on the principles of Applied Behavior Analysis and the theories of behaviorist B.F. Skinner. The therapy focuses on teaching language by connecting words with their purposes, emphasizing on the reasons why words are used and how they help in making requests and communicating ideas [4].

Principles and Approach

The foundation of Verbal Behavior Therapy lies in its classification of language into types referred to as "operants". Each operant serves a different function in communication. The therapy focuses on four types of word usage to work towards achieving communication goals. The therapy is designed to promote the understanding of the implications of verbal behavior definition, which is integral to the treatment process.

The aim of Verbal Behavior Therapy is to motivate the individual to learn and utilize functional communication, which can enhance their ability to express their needs and desires more effectively. The therapy employs positive reinforcement methods, where desired behaviors are rewarded, leading to an increase in the frequency of such behaviors.

Techniques and Programs

Verbal Behavior Therapy employs several techniques to promote language acquisition and communication skills. One such technique is 'errorless teaching', which involves providing immediate and frequent prompts to ensure the student provides the correct response each time. These prompts are gradually reduced as the student progresses, promoting independence and confidence in their communication abilities.

Most Verbal Behavior programs involve at least one to three hours of therapy per week. However, more intensive programs may require many more hours. Importantly, instructors also train parents and caregivers to use verbal behavior strategies in their daily life, which provides consistent reinforcement and promotes generalization of skills.

Despite its effectiveness in promoting language development, it's important to note that the evidence on the broader benefits of Verbal Behavior Therapy is limited. A review of 60 published studies in 2006 concluded that while the therapy helps many children with autism develop spoken language, the evidence on whether the approach produces broader benefits in daily living skills and overall improved outcomes is limited [4].

Nevertheless, Verbal Behavior Therapy remains a widely used approach in addressing communication challenges faced by individuals with autism. It represents a significant aspect of autism treatment and contributes to enhancing the quality of life for many individuals on the autism spectrum.

Types of Verbal Operants

Verbal behavior, as defined by B.F. Skinner, can be categorized into different functional units or operants. Each of these operants serves a unique role in verbal communication and is crucial in interventions designed to teach language. This section will explore some of these operants, namely mands, tacts, intraverbals, echoics, and textuals.

Verbal Operants – Behavior Bubbles

Mand, Tact, Intraverbal

Verbal operants such as mands, tacts, and intraverbals form the backbone of verbal communication.

A mand is a form of verbal behavior where the speaker makes a request or demand. This type of operant is particularly important in early language development as it allows the individual to express their needs and wants.

A tact, on the other hand, is a type of verbal behavior that is under the functional control of a non-verbal stimulus. This operant allows the speaker to "make contact with" the world and extend the listener's contact with the environment. Moreover, tacts are versatile and can undergo several extensions such as generic, metaphoric, metonymical, solecistic, nomination, and "guessing" [6].

Lastly, an intraverbal is a form of verbal behavior that is controlled by other verbal behavior. This type of operant is often studied using classic association techniques and is crucial in conversational exchanges.

Echoics and Textuals

In addition to mands, tacts, and intraverbals, there are other types of verbal operants that play significant roles in verbal communication. These include echoics and textuals.

An echoic is a verbal operant that involves repeating or echoing what another person has said. This type of operant is particularly essential in language development as it facilitates imitation and repetition, key elements in learning new words and phrases.

A textual operant involves reading written words, where the written words control the verbal response. This type of operant plays a crucial role in academic learning and literacy skills.

These different types of verbal operants play a crucial role in verbal behavior by allowing individuals to express their wants, describe their environment, engage in conversation, imitate others, and read written words. Understanding these operants can provide a better understanding of the verbal behavior definition and offer insights into how communication skills can be improved, particularly in individuals with communication challenges such as autism [1].

Assessments in Verbal Behavior

Understanding and measuring verbal behavior, in line with Skinner's definition, is a critical aspect of therapy for individuals with communication challenges. Two prominent assessments currently used in the field of Verbal Behavior are the ABLLS (Assessment of Basic Language and Learning Skills) and the VB-MAPPS (Verbal Behavior Milestones Assessment and Placement Program). These assessments are directly linked to specific skills that can be taught to develop language targets for home or school-based programs [5].

ABLLS Assessment

The ABLLS is a criterion-referenced assessment that evaluates a wide range of language and learning skills, including receptive language, expressive language, social interaction, self-help skills, and academic skills. It provides a detailed analysis of an individual's current abilities and aids in the development of individualized intervention plans [4].

The scope of the ABLLS assessment can be seen in the table below:

This assessment is a valuable resource for educators, therapists, and parents working with individuals with communication challenges. It aids in identifying specific language targets, tracking progress, and designing effective intervention strategies to promote language development and communication skills [1].

VB-MAPPS Assessment

The VB-MAPPS is a comprehensive assessment tool that focuses on the development of language and social skills. It assesses a wide range of verbal operants, such as manding, tacting, intraverbals, and listener responding. The VB-MAPPS provides a roadmap for intervention planning and tracking progress [4].

The focus areas of the VB-MAPPS assessment are outlined in the table below:

Like the ABLLS, the VB-MAPPS is an essential tool for those working with individuals with communication difficulties. It helps pinpoint specific language targets, monitors progress, and assists in crafting effective intervention strategies to enhance language development and communication skills.








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