Verbal Behavior Intervention - Insights into the Benefits

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Verbal Behavior Intervention with Autism

There have been many questions concerning how verbal behavior intervention affects autistic individuals. This highly successful and popular intervention was created by BF Skinner, who is also credited with developing the extremely successful ABA therapy. ABA therapy has helped countless individuals with autism, and verbal behavior intervention builds on that foundation.

Verbal behavior intervention can be broken into four distinct categories; mands, the ability to echo, the ability to label, and responding in a conversational environment. The purpose of verbal behavioral intervention is to assist a child in understanding that the use of language and making requests will assist them in getting what they want. By using verbal behavior intervention, many people have noticed a dramatic decrease in problem behaviors as autistics are able to express themselves.


One of the basic building blocks of language is mands. In the average child mands are the first elements of speech. A mand is simply a verbal request for something that a person wants. One of the most powerful tools in developing language is to elicit a response through the use of demands which are commonly referred to as “mands”.

An example of a mand would be a child who says “more juice please”. The child wants juice and therefore the basic understanding is obtained that if a verbal request is made the juice will be given. If mands are not learned then it is nearly impossible to teach autistic individuals how to control their environment and social settings.

When determining mands in each individual case the first step is to teach a child to request what they want, and to give away something they do not want.

The Ability to Echo

The ability to echo, when discussing verbal intervention for autism, is generally referred to as echoic. It is defined simply as the ability to imitate natural sounds. Echoic builds on the principle that most people learn by imitation. Therefore by increasing reinforcement of the words that an autistic child echoes, the chances that the child will begin to use the word without prompting increase greatly. This is an integral part of verbal intervention.

The Ability to Label

The ability to label is often referred to as tact. In simplified terms a response can be elicited by the use of a certain object. An example of a tact may be a child labelling all crescents as “moon”. The child has assigned a label to a shape. When this is done naturally it is considered a “pure” tact while if it is elicited or evoked through manipulation it is considered impure. An example of an impure tact would be if a therapist displayed a picture of a crescent to evoke the word “moon” from the child.

Responding in a Conversational Environment

This category of verbal behavior intervention for autism is referred to as intraverbals. Intraverbals are defined by BF Skinner as “Verbal behavior that is elicited by a verbal stimulus that does not have point-to-point correspondence to the verbal response” In layman’s terms this means that a verbal response to a question or a prompt is evoked without the help of a visual cue or picture.

One of the most common forms of intraverbal training is through the use of songs. Words are left out of the song and the student is asked to fill in the missing word or blank. An example would be a child who answers “spider” when the therapist says “The Itsy Bitsy” and then pauses to allow the child the opportunity to fill-in the blank. Another example would be when a therapist begins the alphabet songs by singing “A, B, C” and then pauses. It is at that point that the child will need to reply with the letter “D”. When singing, a therapist may sing “Twinkle Twinkle Little” and the child would reply with the word “star”.


Verbal behavior intervention is seen as a highly beneficial form of ABA therapy. Results range from an increase in verbal functioning and increased positive behavior to the ability to integrate into a typical school system, and even in some cases a complete reduction in autistic behavior. While results are based on each individual, the one factor that has been associated across the board is early intervention. The earlier autistic children received verbal behavior intervention, the greater the chance of positive results.