A Behavioral Approach to Language
Assessment and Intervention for
Children With Autism
Mark L. Sundberg, Ph.D., BCBA
[email protected]
Language
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The primary focus of an intervention program
for children with autism should be on the
development of effective language and social
skills
What is Language?
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How do we talk about it?
How do we measure it?
What are its parts?
How do we assess it?
How do we teach it?
What theory of language should we use for
children with autism?
Theories of Language
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Linguistic theory can be classified into three separate, but often
overlapping views: biological, cognitive, and environmental
Proponents of the biological view (e.g., Chomsky, 1965; Pinker,
1994) argue that language is innate to humans and primarily a
result of physiological processes and functions, and language has
little to do with environmental variables, such as reinforcement
and stimulus control
Brain------->Words
No significant applications of Chomsky or Pinker to autism
Theories of Language
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Cognitive psychologists argue that language is controlled by internal
cognitive processing systems that accept, classify, code, decode, and
store verbal information (e.g., Brown, 1973; Piaget, 1926; Slobin,
1973), and language has little to do with environmental variables,
such as reinforcement and stimulus control
Language is viewed as expressive and receptive, and the two are
referred to as communicative behavior that is controlled by cognitive
processors
Cognition------>Words
Cognitive theory, and the resulting expressive-receptive framework
dominates the current language intervention programs for children
with autism, including many behavioral programs
How is Language Measured in a
Traditional Linguistic Analysis?
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The focus is on response forms, topography, and structure
Phonemes
Morphemes
Lexicon
Syntax
Grammar
Semantics
Mean length of utterances (MLU); words, phrases, sentences
Classification system: nouns, verbs, prepositions, adjectives,
adverbs, etc.
An Environmental Analysis of Language:
Skinner’s Book Verbal Behavior
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Language is learned behavior under the functional control of
environmental contingencies
“What happens when a man speaks or responds to speech is clearly
a question about human behavior and hence a question to be
answered with the concepts and techniques of psychology as an
experimental science of behavior” (Skinner, 1957, p. 5)
The analysis of verbal behavior involves the same behavioral
principles and concepts that make up the analysis of nonverbal
behavior. No new principles of behavior are required
Chapter 1 of Verbal Behavior is titled “A Functional Analysis of
Verbal Behavior”
A Functional Analysis of Verbal Behavior:
The Basic Principles of Operant Behavior
Stimulus Control (SD)
Motivating Operation (MO/EO)
Response
Reinforcement
Punishment
Extinction
Conditioned reinforcement
Conditioned punishment
Intermittent reinforcement
How is Language Measured in a
Behavioral Analysis?
The verbal operant is the unit of analysis
(e.g., mands, tacts, & intraverbals)
MO/SD
Response
Form and function is measured
Consequence
A Behavioral Approach
to Language
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What does behavioral psychology have to offer to
parents and professionals who work with children
with autism?
Basic teaching procedures and methodology derived
from Applied Behavior Analysis
These procedures and methods have a solid research
foundation that can be easily found in over 1500
empirical studies that have been conducted over the
past 60 years
Behavioral Procedures
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Reinforcement
Prompting
Fading
Modeling
Shaping
Chaining
Pairing
Differential reinforcement procedures (e.g., DRO, DRI, DRL)
Intermittent reinforcement procedures (e.g., FR, VR, FI, VI)
Behavioral Procedures
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Extinction procedures (e.g., planned ignoring)
Punishment procedures (e.g., reprimands, time out)
Generalization and maintenance
Discrimination training
Errorless learning
Transfer of stimulus control
Task analysis
Fluency procedures
Contingency contracting
Token economies
Additional Behavioral
Procedures and Methods
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Individualized assessment and intervention program
Frequent opportunities to respond
Use of discrete trial teaching procedures
Incidental & natural environment teaching procedures
Data collection
Interspersal techniques
Behavioral momentum techniques
Peer and social interaction training
Parent and staff training in behavior analysis
Functional analyses of problem behavior (Iwata, et al. 1982)
A Behavioral Approach
to Language
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What else does behavioral psychology have to offer?
In addition to the use of specific procedures (e.g., prompting,
fading, and differential reinforcement), a second and critical
contribution of behavioral psychology involves the “analysis” of
the effects of those procedures on behavior
It is not enough to simply immediately deliver an edible to a child
after a particular behavior, but an analysis of the effects of that
edible on behavior is essential to determining if the edible is
indeed a form of reinforcement
The same can be said for all of the behavioral procedures
A Behavioral Approach
to Language
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What else can a behavioral approach offer?
Skinner’s analysis of language found in the book Verbal
Behavior (Skinner, 1957)
Language is learned behavior under the functional
control of environmental variables (Skinner, 1957), just
like a tantrum
Skinner’s Analysis of
Verbal Behavior
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The traditional linguistic classification of words, phrases and sentences, as
expressive and receptive language blends important functional distinctions among
types of operant behavior, and appeals to cognitive explanations for the causes of
language behavior (Skinner, 1957, Chapter 1)
At the core of Skinner’s analysis of language is the distinction between the mand,
tact, and intraverbal (traditionally all classified as “expressive language”)
Skinner identified three separate sources of antecedent control for these verbal
operants
EO/MO control------->Mand
Nonverbal SD--------->Tact
Verbal SD-------------->Intraverbal
There is an established body of empirical support for this distinction (for a review
of the research, see Sautter & LeBlanc, 2006)
The Behavioral Classification
of Language
Mand: Asking for reinforcers. Asking for “Mommy” because you
want mommy
Tact: Naming or identifying objects, actions, events, etc. Saying
“Mommy” because you see Mommy
Intraverbal: Answering questions or having conversations where
your words are controlled by other words. Saying “Mommy”
because someone else says “Daddy and...”
The Behavioral Classification
of Language
Echoic: Repeating what is heard. Saying “Mommy” after someone else
says “Mommy”
Imitation: Copying someone’s motor movements (as they relate to sign
language). Placing a “5” hand on the chin after someone else places
their “5” hand on their chin
Copying-a-text: Writing “Mommy” because someone else writes
“Mommy”
Textual: Reading words. Saying “Mommy” because you see the
written word “Mommy”
Transcription: Writing and spelling words spoken to you. Writing
“Mommy” because you hear “Mommy” spoken
Listener: Following instructions or complying with the mands of
others. Touching a picture of mommy when asked “Touch mommy”
The Behavioral Classification
of Language
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Skinner (1957) calls this collection of language skills “The
Elementary Verbal Operants”
The elementary verbal operants are separate repertoires and
functionally independent at the time of acquisition, and each
must be taught
Speaker and listener skills are separate repertoires and each
must be taught
More complex language, such as conversations and language
related to social skills, is comprised of these basic elements
The Application of Skinner’s Analysis of
Verbal Behavior
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Language Assessment
Determine the operant levels of verbal (and related) skills
Identify language acquisition/learning barriers
Obtain developmental comparison data
Where to begin intervention (placement)
Establish IEP goals
Curriculum design
Teaching strategies (e.g., augmentative communication, DTT-NET)
Track progress, make changes
The Application of Skinner’s Analysis of
Verbal Behavior
Language Assessment
Traditional assessments
Based on the expressive-receptive distinction (e.g., Peabody
Picture Vocabulary Test, Expressive One-word Vocabulary
Test).
Standardized vs. criterion referenced assessments
Verbal behavior assessment
Based on the elementary verbal operants
Based on a functional analysis of verbal behavior and other
related behaviors
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The Application of Skinner’s Analysis of
Verbal Behavior
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Verbal Behavior Milestones Assessment and Placement Program:
The VB-MAPP (Sundberg, 2007)
The VB-MAPP contains 150 verbal behavior milestones across
3 developmental levels and 14 different verbal operants and
related skills
In addition, the program includes an assessment for language
acquisition barriers
A detailed task analysis of each verbal operant and related skill
A curriculum placement system
An IEP guide, and progress scoring system for each verbal
operant and related skill
The Application of Skinner’s Analysis of
Verbal Behavior
Language Intervention
The focus is on the verbal operants and related skills, rather than
on the expressive-receptive distinction
The verbal operants provide a behavioral framework for daily
language training, IEP development, skill tracking, etc.
Mand training
Role of motivating operations (MO/EO) in verbal behavior
Intraverbal training
Role of verbal conditional discriminations in verbal behavior
Multiple control and joint control
Automatic reinforcement
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The Application of Skinner’s Analysis of
Verbal Behavior
A descriptive functional analysis of verbal behavior
A behavioral analysis of words, phrases, and sentences emitted by
children with autism
Same basic principles of behavior as nonverbal behavior
What is the source of control?
Might not be the same source of control observed in a typically
developing child (e.g., I have a red shirt on)
Each verbal operant can be susceptible to unwanted sources of
control
Defective mands (I want candy. What’s that?)
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The Application of Skinner’s Analysis of
Verbal Behavior
A descriptive functional analysis of verbal behavior
Defective tacts (Bounce ball, Black car, Under table)
Defective intraverbal responses (Poopies evoked by What do you
smell in the oven?)
The task for the behavior analyst is to determine what the correct
source of control should be, and how that source can be
established
The functional analysis of verbal behavior is on-going
The failure to conduct such an analysis may not only result in rote
or defective verbal repertoires, but unchecked, these repertoires
may become difficult to change
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Verbal Behavior Teaching
Strategies
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Early mand training
Frequent opportunities to mand
Use of the MO to teach the other operants
Contriving and capturing MOs
Use of multiple control procedures
Verbal Behavior Teaching
Strategies
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Establishing verbal stimulus control and verbal conditional
discriminations
Listener responding by function, feature, and class(LRFFC)
Typical language development as a curriculum guide
Stimulus-stimulus pairing procedures
Automatic reinforcement
Verbal Behavior Teaching
Strategies
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Interspersal techniques (mixing the verbal operants in training
“Mixed VB”)
VB modules
Behavioral momentum procedures
Errorless learning procedures
Using transfer of stimulus control procedures to teach new
operants
Verbal Behavior Teaching
Strategies
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Minimal use of punishment
First trial data and probe data
Variation in intonation, pitch, prosody, pacing, etc.
Augmentative communication
Discrete trial as well as natural environment training
The child’s daily schedule and IEPs are driven by the
elementary verbal operants
Conclusions
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A behavioral approach to language intervention for children
with autism consists of six components
1) the use of the basic teaching procedures and
methodology derived from applied behavior analysis
2) the use of a conceptual analysis of language based on
Skinner’s functional analysis of verbal behavior
3) the use of the verbal operants as a basis for language
assessment
Conclusions
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4) the use of the verbal operants as a basis for language
intervention
5) the use of a functional analysis of verbal behavior to
analyze all aspects of verbal development, including
language barriers
6) the use of a variety of teaching strategies that are
suggested in part by a verbal behavior analysis of
language
Conclusions
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Behavior analysis in general, has provided a powerful
conceptual and methodological treatment strategy for
children with autism
Skinner’s behavioral analysis of language can only improve
the gains already accomplished
In 1978 B. F. Skinner wrote …
“Verbal Behavior…will, I believe, prove to be my most
important work” (p. 122)
Perhaps this is because language is the most important aspect
of human behavior
Language is the most important aspect of the treatment of
children with autism
Thank You!
For an electronic version of this
presentation email:
[email protected]
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