Academic journal article The Journal of Speech-Language Pathology and Applied Behavior Analysis

Teaching Sign Language to a Nonvocal Child with Autism

Academic journal article The Journal of Speech-Language Pathology and Applied Behavior Analysis

Teaching Sign Language to a Nonvocal Child with Autism

Article excerpt


Skinner first coined the terms mand, tact, and intraverbal in his 1957 book, Verbal Behavior. In this book, he defined a mand as "a verbal operant in which the response is reinforced by a characteristic consequence and is therefore under the functional control of relevant conditions of deprivation or aversive stimulation" (p. 35). In other words, mands are controlled by an establishing operation or more simply, a person's motivation. Asking for juice when you are thirsty or asking for shoes when you want to go outside is considered a mand.

Skinner defined a tact as "a verbal operant in which a response of given form is evoked (or at least strengthened) by a particular object or event or property of an object or event (p. 82)." Saying "cup," for example, when you see a cup or because someone holds up a cup and asks, "What's this?" is an example of a tact. More simply put, a mand can be thought of as a request and a tact as a label. In the intraverbal, there is no point to point correspondence between the verbal stimulus and the response. In other words, what one speaker says and what another speaker responds does not match. Intraverbals can be thought of as the building blocks of conversation. For example, signing toy when someone asks, "Sign toy" is a simple intraverbal response. A more complex intraverbal would be saying "star" after someone says, "Twinkle, twinkle, little ..."

Sundberg (1998) and Hall and Sundberg (1987) suggest teaching these verbal operants to students with autism using signs. However, Sundberg (1998) speculates that many sign language training programs may not be successful because first signs taught are not mands. Rather, first signs are often complex concepts such as "please," "thank you," "yes, " and "toilet" and the motivation to learn these particular signs may not be there. Further, Sundberg (1998) hypothesizes that some sign language training programs often select "more" as one of the first signs to teach because it provides a way for the student to receive a desired item and the sign is relatively easy to make. Problems may arise when teaching "more" as a first sign when the listener does not know what the child wants more of. Subsequently, "more" may become a generalized mand for "I want." However, when teaching students to mand for preferred items or activities (e.g., juice, cookie, toy, etc.) as first signs, signs may be acquired relatively quickly and in some cases, promote vocalizations.

Bartman and Freeman (2003) taught a 2-year-old with autism to mand for four preferred items. The first sign remained in acquisition longest with each subsequent sign decreasing in total number of trials to mastery. For example, the first sign was mastered in 34 sessions, the second sign in 21 sessions, the third sign in 12 sessions, and the fourth sign was mastered in only 9 sessions. In addition, anecdotal observation suggested the toddler began to echo the name of the item she was signing for. Although this participant appeared to learn to sign rather quickly for items she wanted, a comparison of rate of acquisition of mands, tacts, and intraverbals was not made in this study.

Although it has been suggested to teach mands as first signs (Sundberg, 1998), there is no empirical support that shows mands are acquired more easily. Bram and Sundberg (1991) studied the use of specific and general reinforcement to teach 8 young nonvocal adults to tact a variety of foods. In the specific reinforcement condition, participants were shown a picture of a food and taught to tact (i.e., label) it. For each correct sign (both prompted and unprompted), they were given a small bite of the food depicted in the picture. For example, if the participant correctly signed for peaches when shown a picture of peaches, he or she was given a peach slice. Highly preferred items were used and participants immediately received the item they were asked to label. This condition may be considered part mand if the participant was motivated to obtain the reinforcer. …

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