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Verbal Behavior Therapy

What Is Verbal Behavior Therapy?

Verbal Behavior Therapy teaches communication using the principles of Applied Behavior Analysis and the theories of behaviorist B.F. Skinner. By design, Verbal Behavior Therapy motivates a child, adolescent or adult to learn language by connecting words with their purposes. The student learns that words can help obtain desired objects or other results.

Therapy avoids focusing on words as mere labels (cat, car, etc.) Rather, the student learns how to use language to make requests and communicate ideas. To put it another way, this intervention focuses on understanding why we use words.

In his book Verbal Behavior, Skinner classified language into types, or “operants.” Each has a different function. Verbal Behavior Therapy focuses on four word types. They are:

  • Mand. A request. Example: “Cookie,” to ask for a cookie.
  • Tact. A comment used to share an experience or draw attention. Example: “airplane” to point out an airplane.
  • Intraverbal. A word used to answer a question or otherwise respond. Example: Where do you go to school? “Castle Park Elementary.”
  • Echoic. A repeated, or echoed, word. Example: "Cookie?" “Cookie!” (important as the student needs to imitate to learn)

Verbal Behavior Therapy begins by teaching mands, or requests, as the most basic type of language. For example, the individual with autism learns that saying "cookie" can produce a cookie. Immediately after the student makes such a request, the therapist reinforces the lesson by repeating the word and presenting the requested item. The therapist then uses the word again in the same or similar context.

Importantly, students don’t have to say the actual word to receive the desired item. In the beginning, they simply need to signal requests by any means. Pointing at the item represents a good start.

This helps the student understand that communicating produces positive results. The therapist builds on this understanding to help the student shape the communication toward saying or signing the actual word.

Importantly, Verbal Behavior Therapy uses “errorless learning.” The therapist provides immediate and frequent prompts to help improve the student’s communication. These prompts become less intrusive as quickly as possible, until the student no longer needs prompting. Take, for example, the student who wants a cookie. The therapist may hold the cookie in front of the student’s face and say “cookie,” to prompt a response from the child. Next, the therapist would hold up the cookie and make a “c” sound, to prompt the response. After that, the therapist might simply hold a cookie in the child’s line of sight and wait for the request. The ultimate goal, in this example, is for the student to say “cookie” when he or she wants a cookie – without any prompting.

In a typical Verbal Behavior Therapy session, the teacher asks a series of questions that combine easy and hard requests. This increases the frequency of success and reduces frustration. Ideally, the teacher varies the situations and instructions in ways that catch and sustain the student’s interest.

Most programs involve a minimum of one to three hours of therapy per week. More-intensive programs can involve many more hours. In addition, instructors train parents and other caregivers to use verbal-behavior principles throughout the student’s daily life.

Who Responds to Verbal Behavior Therapy?

Reports suggest that Verbal Behavior Therapy can help both young children beginning to learn language and older students with delayed or disordered language. It likewise helps many children and adults who sign or use visual supports or other forms of assisted communication.

What is the History and Scientific Support of Verbal Behavior Therapy?

Skinner published Verbal Behavior in 1957 to describe his functional analysis of language. In the 1970s, behavior analysts Vincent Carbone, Mark Sundberg and James Partington began adapting Skinner’s approach to create Verbal Behavior Therapy. Since 1982, the Association for Behavior Analysis International has published the annual, peer-reviewed journal The Analysis of Verbal Behavior.

Many small studies have supported the effectiveness of Verbal Behavior Therapy with children. (Dr. Sundberg summarized these in 2001, here.) However, a 2006 review of the scientific literature concluded that more research is needed to confirm effectiveness and identify who is most likely to benefit from the approach.

For more information and resources related to behavioral interventions for autism, please see on Treatment Overview, Video Glossary and FAQ pages. Autism Speaks has a number of resource-packed tool kits for free download here. They include our 100 Day Kit for families who have a child recently diagnosed with autism. These resources are made possible through the generous support of our families, volunteers and other donors.