What does my therapist mean when they say, “Verbal Operants”?

Many children diagnosed with Autism who are receiving ABA Therapy have programs that focus on the treatment of language delays.  Programming developed as part of the treatment is commonly based on the analysis of Verbal Behavior.  These programs focus on the development of “verbal” language skills that allow communication between an individual who is being “verbal” and others who are “listening”.  These skills are addressed in both children who can vocalize words and those who find other ways to communicate.

 A note about the word “verbal.” In behavior analysis, we always look at the reason a response occurred. “Verbal” is typically understood as “spoken” in everyday use. However, behavior analysts see all communication that affects a listener as “verbal.” What this response looks like – whether hitting, using PECS, signing or speaking – is of less concern to behavior analysts than why it happened. This is why an analysis of the cause of language, which we call verbal behavior, drives our treatments.

Before any treatment can begin, an assessment needs to be conducted to identify the skill deficits that need remediation. In general, Speech and Language Pathologists (SLPs) use standardized, linguistic based assessments (Esch, LaLonde & Esch, 2010) that break language down into 1) the form of the response (e.g. word structure), 2) mode of the response (e.g. receptive vs. expressive), 3) word relationships (e.g. synonyms, antonoyms etc) or 4) other characteristics (e.g. such as phonological processes). However, these assessments fail to account for the reasons that language occurs. We may say “water” for many different reasons.  Simply teaching a child to say the word “water” does not teach them to use it when they feel thirsty or to learn to say it in a social situation when they want to show someone “water” that may have spilled on the floor.  These occur for different reasons and research has found that children with language delays do not learn to use it in different contexts without being taught to use it in each context separately. 

This revolutionary approach to understanding language was first addressed by B.F. Skinner, in his book Verbal Behavior.  He referred to the reasons that language occurred as its function and launched an understanding of language development and its use that catapulted the creation of a research body that drives the most effective treatment packages for children with language deficiencies in autism spectrum disorder today.

To better understand common causes of language that therapists refer to as “Verbal Operants” see the table below:

All of these “Verbal Operants” commonly occur in day to day situations. You meet your friend at a restaurant. When he walks in he waves and you wave back (motor imitation). The place is new to you and as you settle in, you begin to scan the menu (textual response). A waiter passes by carrying a plate of mussels and you say to your friend: “Wow! They have mussels here!” (tact). After making their selection, your friend quickly runs to the restroom. Meanwhile, your waiter comes to the table and asks: “What can I get for you today?” (mand for information). You respond: “I would like to try the beef Carpaccio” (mand for food). Your friend comes back just in time and places their order (mand). As the waiter walks away, your friend asks you: “What did you get?” (mand) and you respond: “I got the beef Carpaccio. It sounds so amazing.”  (intraverbal).

If we were to then examine the total responses made by the waiter, we would see that he engages in transcription as he takes your order down on his note pad, in listener responding skills (or receptive language skills) as he brings you the drinks you request and manding in the form of handing the ticket to the chef who then prepares your meal.

The above scenario illustrates the most important relationship in verbal behavior: that between the speaker and the listener. Language is so much more than just speaking. Rather, it is a complex relationship between environment, antecedents and consequences, which in turn inform the responses described above. By looking beyond the form of the response (e.g. “What can I get you?” versus handing the chef a ticket) and look rather towards its function (e.g. manding) within the environment, we can begin to understand why certain language occurs. While these interactions seem like difficult and complex tasks, behavior analysts who have studied them are able to break them down, see which prerequisites to learning the skills are missing, and develop step by step program that allows children to learn them one piece at a time.   

By Verbal Beginnings’ Fran Nelson.

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