Academic journal article The Behavior Analyst Today

Questions on Verbal Behavior and Its Application to Individuals with Autism: An Interview with the Experts

Academic journal article The Behavior Analyst Today

Questions on Verbal Behavior and Its Application to Individuals with Autism: An Interview with the Experts

Article excerpt

A note about the interviews from the editors:

The use of Skinner's Verbal Behavior (VB) classification system has been increasingly applied to learners with autism. We asked several of the best known behavior analysts to answer some key questions regarding this practice, the state of research regarding the advantages of this approach, and the confusion that exists regarding the application of VB to this population of learners.

We structured the responses to follow each question separately, indicating the responder in each case. At the end of the interviews, you will find relevant references from each responder.

We are very grateful to Dr. Mark Sundberg, Dr. Barbara Esch, Dr. John Esch, and Dr. Andrew Bondy for their thoughtful and wise replies.

1. Can you briefly explain the relevance of Skinner's analysis of verbal behavior to intervention for children with autism?


Skinner's analysis provides a guide for teachers and professionals, as well as parents, to determine factors that relate to the control of language. When we teach any skill, I must know the controlling conditions currently in place- where we are now- and the controlling conditions I aim for by the end of the lesson- where we are going. Skinner reminds us to always consider the ABCs of behavior and not to become 'blinded' by the behavior in isolation.

Esch and Esch

First, it's important to recognize that the advantages of Skinner's analysis of verbal behavior (1957) aren't limited to just those individuals with a diagnosis of autism. The analysis is widely applicable to any language behavior, whether typical or atypical, developmentally appropriate or developmentally delayed, regardless of age, diagnosis, or etiology of condition.

Skinner's analysis made it clear that language responses occur, not in isolation, but within a context of ongoing environmental events (i.e., antecedents and consequences). Responses that occur within particular contexts are said to have different functions. As Iwata and colleagues (1982/1994; also see Hanley, Iwata, & McCord, 2003; Lerman et al., 2005) and many other researchers (see Sautter & LeBlanc for a review, 2006) have shown, a functional analysis of behavior is critical to informing intervention. If responses are weak, wrong, or otherwise somehow deficient, an analysis of the contexts in which they occur can help us determine what to do. That is, we can identify the stimuli that currently evoke and maintain behavior (or those that currently fail to do so) and we can compare this information to the stimuli that should control these, or other, responses that we want to develop. Then we can use behavioral procedures (e.g., prompting, fading, differential reinforcement) to eliminate errors by establishing desired language skills (or other skills) under appropriate stimulus control. Without this analysis, we run the risk of recommending interventions that may be ineffective at best, or detrimental at worst.

For children with a diagnosis of autism, Skinner's analysis also provides a wealth of "why to's." Many skills that are absent or difficult to acquire for individuals with autism (e.g., echoic, self-echoic, self-editing, problem solving, autoclitics) are discussed in Verbal Behavior, yet these topics remain severely under-investigated by researchers. It would be very helpful to have more research in these areas so that clinical interventions could be developed to address these important skills.


The most important component of an intervention program for a child with autism involves the development of language and social skills (e.g., Lovaas, 1977). In the early years of autism treatment (i.e., Bijou, Baer, Wolf, Risley, Hart, Sloane, Birnbrauer, and Lovaas, at the University of Washington in the 1960s) immediate and significant gains in language and social skills were made from the systematic use of basic behavioral procedures (e. …

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