Academic journal article The Journal of Early and Intensive Behavioral Intervention

The Verbal Behavior Approach to Early and Intensive Behavioral Intervention for Autism: A Call for Additional Empirical Support

Academic journal article The Journal of Early and Intensive Behavioral Intervention

The Verbal Behavior Approach to Early and Intensive Behavioral Intervention for Autism: A Call for Additional Empirical Support

Article excerpt

Early and intensive behavioral intervention (EIBI) has been firmly established and disseminated as one of the most effective treatments for early childhood autism. Recently, a number of practitioners have employed a variant of this approach in which the language curriculum is organized and taught according to Skinner's (1957) analysis of verbal behavior. In this commentary, we briefly describe the verbal-behavior approach to EIBI and summarize the existing data that support its use. Although the approach is conceptually sound and is supported by a modest literature on the acquisition of verbal operants, no outcome research currently exists to directly support the long-term application of the verbal-behavior approach to children with autism. Thus, we outline three steps that clinicians and researchers can take to collect and publish outcome data on the verbal-behavior approach so that correspondence between dissemination and empirical evidence can be better coordinated.

KEYWORDS: autism, early and intensive behavioral intervention, verbal behavior.


Applied behavior analysis has been successfully applied to behavioral excesses and deficits in the area for autism since the 1960s (e.g., Lovaas, Freitag, Gold, & Kassorla, 1965). However, it was not until the publication of Lovaas' (1987) seminal outcome study on early and intensive behavioral intervention (EIBI), the McEachin, Smith, and Lovaas (1993) follow-up study, and Catherine Maurice's (1993) Let Me Hear Your Voice that behavioral treatment was widely and effectively disseminated. The Lovaas (1987) study, along with several others (e.g., Anderson, Avery, DiPietro, Edwards, & Christian, 1987; Harris, Handleman, Gordon, Kristoff, & Fuentes, 1991), differed from earlier efforts in the effects of comprehensive and intensive (e.g., up to 40 hours per week) behavioral treatment that spanned several years were evaluated. Furthermore, Lovaas (1987) showed that with EIBI some children with autism were able to obtain normal intellectual functioning. Although recent critiques have questioned the probability of achieving such "best outcomes" (Shea, 2004), no other treatment approach has been able to replicate the magnitude of effects produced with EIBI (for a review, see Smith, 1999).

The EIBI model developed by Lovaas (1981, 2003) (hereafter referred to as the "Lovaas approach") has arguably been the most significant influence on the instructional methodology employed by behavioral practitioners in recent years. This methodology includes discrete-trial instruction (Smith, 2001), intensive treatment delivery, and a developmentally sequenced curriculum (e.g., Leaf & McEachin, 1999; Lovaas 1981, 2003). We refer the reader to Lovaas and Smith (2003) for a more detailed description of their approach to EIBI.

More recently, an alternative EIBI service-delivery model has emerged. Sometimes referred to as "Applied Verbal Behavior" (Burk, n.d.) (hereafter referred to as the verbal behavior [VB] approach), this model appears to have increased in popularity and demand among practitioners and consumers alike as evidenced by the publication of a treatment manual (Sundberg & Partington, 1998) and corresponding assessment (Partington & Sundberg, 1998), numerous online resources including a listserver (Verbal Behavior--ABA & Teaching Verbal Behavior, n.d.) and resource store for program materials (Verbal Behavior Network--Resources, n.d.), and clinically oriented workshops (e.g., Bosch, Saltzman, & Granpeesheh, 2004). Although the VB approach shares a number of similarities with the Lovaas approach (i.e., treatment intensity, hierarchically organized curricula, operant training techniques), there are important differences between the two which are described in the next section.

As a response to the rapid pace of dissemination of the VB approach, the purpose of the current paper is to discuss a series of steps that practitioners and researchers can take to ensure that the dissemination and implementation of the VB approach is tempered by equally driven efforts to generate outcome data substantiating its use in favor of other models (e. …

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