Applied Behavior Analysis in Conjunction with Verbal Therapy

ABA in Conjunction with Verbal Therapy

The world has come a long way since B.F. Skinner first published “Verbal Behavior.” Researchers and scientists who work with people who have autism integrate Applied Behavior Analysis to teach certain desired behaviors and skills. Such skills and behaviors include grooming, domestic capabilities, punctuality, competence in the workforce, and fine motor dexterity. By reinforcing these, applied behavior analysts help people to function in society.

The other side of the coin is discouraging negative behaviors. Applied behavior analysts must do so in a way that is neither hurtful to the person nor ineffective. Usually, analysts begin such therapy before the age of 4 years, but because Applied Behavior Analysis is only now coming to the fore, they must also work with adults who might never have had such therapy.

Related resource: Top 25 Best Applied Behavior Analysis Programs

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The Research Aspect

Psychology Today states that Applied Behavior Analysis begins with a baseline of already-proven theories of development, learning, and social interaction. Thereafter, analysts research ways either to better the learning process or to evaluate certain things and then modify existing theory.

Analysts train not only the people with autism, or similar conditions, but also the teachers, parents, and other adults in the people’s lives. Those people must know how to interact and deal with someone with such a condition. For such therapy to be effective, it must be continuous and flexible. People with autism and similar conditions thrive in known environments and don’t deal well with change, which is why constant therapy is necessary.

The Base Process

The analyst will begin with the simple question: Which behaviors require change? After evaluation, the analyst will prioritize each of the behaviors on the list because it’s generally a bad idea to try to fix everything at once. For each behavior, the analyst must set a goal for the person, devise a method of evaluating success, and rigorously follow-up. Working together with the person with autism, the analyst will reinforce any success and use that as the next baseline toward further improvement. It is a tricky proposition because the analyst must keep track of many behaviors, solutions, and evaluations all at once.

How Language and its Acquisition Fit in

Skinner postulated five categories of language-based behavior:

  • Mand
  • Tact
  • Intraverbal
  • Echoic
  • Autoclitic

Mand is a direct statement, such as, “I want juice.” Tact involves an environmental description, like, “The juice bottle is in the refrigerator.” Other people’s responses to either a mand or a tact are considered intraverbal, like, “No, the juice bottle is not in the refrigerator. It is on the kitchen table.” Echoic is just how it sounds: imitation of others. Autoclitic communication is a variant of one of the others. An example would be, “I think I want juice.”

In people without autism, these processes are normal and functional. When someone has autism, however, one or more of the processes doesn’t work right. The person might know exactly what to say but might not be able to put it into words. Verbal therapy was Skinner’s method of dealing with these possible disconnects. In fact, language acquisition is the chief problem of people with autism because of the way it affects all other aspects of life.

Applied behavior analysts must also rely on other professionals, medical or otherwise, to affect the necessary changes through therapy. Some of these others include doctors, teachers, physical and occupational therapists, and speech-language pathologists. In rare cases, analysts must consult with specialists, such as surgeons, ear-nose-throat doctors, or orthopedists. Language acquisition problems aren’t always behavioral, however. Sometimes, they are actual speech impediments. The central problem in dealing with young children is the difficulty in telling the difference between the two. This is especially true because many speech impediments lead to increased frustration on the part of the person with autism, which leads to behavioral problems.

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Verbal Therapy

For purposes of this example, let us consider a person with autism named Sue. The mand is the most basic form of communication. Through it, Sue describes what she wants. In our previous example, the object was a glass of juice. Sue says, “I want juice.” The analyst will present Sue with a glass of juice and then reinforce the concept by saying, “Juice,” and pointing to the glass. This is a tact. The mand-tact couplet is the basic building block of verbal therapy.

If Sue were not to know the word “juice” and simply wanted the juice, she would point to the glass. At that point, the analyst will give Sue the juice and say, “Juice,” while pointing to the glass. In this case, the mand and tact have switched positions. Sue learns the word “juice” before learning to ask for it instead of the other way around.

Another key strategy is called errorless learning. It is useless to point out an error when Sue may not know the correct word in the first place. Instead, the analyst simply repeats encouraging tacts until Sue “gets it.” This process requires constant and frequent reinforcement. The analyst holds the glass of juice until Sue is able to ask for it without prompting or encouraging tacts.

Parents, teachers, and other adults in Sue’s life must also use the same strategy so that Sue feels at ease. As stated, people with autism do not deal well with change, so maintaining a “united front” is essential to successful outcomes. Once the mand-tact/tact-mand process is solidified in Sue’s mind, the analyst can move on to the more advanced concepts that Skinner outlined in 1957.

Five dozen studies over the years have shown the efficacy of these methods when it comes to language acquisition. Those studies, however, did not find correlative evidence of the overall effect on independence and living skills, so more research in both verbal therapy and the broader effects of language is necessary. Inspired by Skinner, modern applied behavior analysts will most likely make new discoveries and breakthroughs to better people’s lives.