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What Are Verbal Operants?

Many children who have autism and who are in treatment, are receiving Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA) therapy. While not every child with autism has a speech deficit, most do, and “a failure to develop language is one of the earliest signs of autism,” (Mody, 2013). Part of ABA therapy is related to verbal behaviors: observing and taking data on communication and language skills and coming up with a treatment plan to target any delays or deficits found. When the term verbal is referred to in this article, it is considered not only spoken language but also any other means a child with autism may communicate with others, such as using a Picture Exchange System, pointing, using eye gaze, touching, or signing. 

The study of communication and language took off when in 1948, B.F. Skinner published his book entitled Verbal BehaviorIn the text, Skinner described the several functions of language as well as opened the public eye up to his research on language development. This research currently “drives the most effective treatment packages for children with language deficiencies in autism spectrum disorder today,” (Verbal Beginnings). 

A major consequence of Skinner’s research is that he defined five verbal operants, which are elemental language and communication skills that children are taught to use in many settings and are generalizable. Verbal operants in ABA are still studied today and children with autism are explicitly taught remediation skills related to them in various settings. In Cooper, Heron, and Heward’s Applied Behavior Analysis 2nd Ed., children who learn language skills within one verbal operant are more likely to grow in the other operant categories (2007). 

These operant categories include: mand, tact, echoic, intraverbal, and autoclitic (although imitation is also considered one at times). 

Verbal Operant Examples

Through the use of ABA Verbal Behavior therapy, children with autism can connect a word with a purpose and the desired result. “Verbal Behavior therapy does not focus on words as labels only (cat, car, etc.). Rather, it teaches why we use words and how they are useful in making requests and communicating ideas,” (Autism Speaks). 

The following examples (of spoken language responses) represent a summary of the three-term contingency for each of the primary verbal operants, which was found in the Journal of Speech and Language Pathology and Applied Behavior Analysis (Frost, 2006). Each operant example has either a motivational operation (MO) antecedent, an environmental antecedent, or a verbal behavior antecedent. Also, each operant example has a consequence, which is either considered direct (directly related to the MO) or educational/social. 

MAND: a request

Antecedent: motivation operation

Consequence: direct 

Example: Mary walks into the kitchen where Mom is sitting and says, “I want some milk!” Mom opens the refrigerator and gives Mary milk. 

*Note: Mary was motivated because she wanted to get what she wanted, which is why she asked her mom. She knew that her mom would get her what she wanted. 

TACT: a comment used to share an experience or draw attention

Antecedent: environment

Consequence: educational/social 

Example: Johnny, looking out the window, turns to his teacher and says, “It’s hot today.” His teacher says, “It sure is!”

*Note: There was a stimulating aspect of Johnny’s environment that motivated him to speak to his teacher and he knew that his teacher would respond to allow him to receive a social consequence. 

INTRAVERBAL: a word used to respond or answer a question

Antecedent: verbal behavior

Consequence: educational/social 

Example: Mom asks Tomasina, “How’d you do on your project?” Tomasina says, “I got a B!” Mom says, “Great!”

*Note: Tomasina was hoping to get a verbal reply from her mother, and in this case, Tomasina knew by responding when her mother asked the question, she’d get a positive response back.

ECHOIC: a repeated or echoed word

Antecedent: verbal behavior 

Consequence: educational/social 

Example: Mrs. Thompson says to Mary, “The capital of New Jersey is Trenton.” Mary says, “The capital of New Jersey is Trenton.” Mrs. Thompson says, “Yes!”

*Note: Mary is repeating what Mrs. Thompson says. 

AUTOCLITIC: depends on other verbal behavior and that alters its effect on a listener (uses the words “I think.”

Antecedent: verbal behavior 

Consequence: direct

Example: Michael wakes his dad up in the middle of the night and says, “I think I’m going to be sick.” His dad rushes him to the bathroom. 

*Note: This example is considered autoclitic because of the words “I think.” 

What About Those Who Are Nonverbal? 

Practicing verbal operants with children with autism who are not verbal (do not use spoken language) will look different in the method of response, but the motivation and consequences surrounding these opportunities will be the same. 

Read the examples below:

A nonverbal child can easily request milk by saying “I want milk” by signing, using a picture exchange system, or by using a speech-generating device. 

A nonverbal child can also make comments to share or draw attention to something and can answer questions and repeat something back that is said as well. 

With the various technological devices out there and speech and language interventions, nonverbal children with autism can access verbal communication the same as children who use spoken language. 

Generalizing Verbal Operants

While practicing using verbal operant communication with children with autism (those using spoken language and those who are nonverbal) is important to their language development, the children must practice generalizing their skills to various settings and with various people. 

If Andrew is only telling Mom “I need to use the restroom” at home and only with Mom, then he may not use the mand operant in other settings and request this with others. Andrew needs to practice telling his teachers, his babysitter, his friend, and someone in public, like a restaurant employee. 

“In addition to generalization across MOs, it is important that mands occur in the presence of novel listeners, settings, and so on. Therefore, measures of mand generalization should include testing for the occurrence of the mand in the presence of novel MOs responsible for its form as well as novel SDs responsible for its occurrence. When teaching a child to ask the teacher to tie her shoe, it is important to guarantee that the child can also ask for help in the presence of other difficult tasks (MO generalization), as well as with other adults, in different environments (stimulus generalization),” (Miguel, 2017). 

There have been decades of rich and thorough research and practice on verbal behavior and the use of verbal operants with children with autism. Since B.F. Skinner’s revolutionary introduction to verbal behavior in the realms of behavioral sciences and education, speech pathologists, clinicians, educators, and parents have been able to practice research-based interventions and see children’s developmental and language growth.  

Brittany Wilson

Master of Education (M.Ed.) | Northeastern State University

Behavior and Learning Disorders | Georgia State University

March 2020

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