What is Verbal Behavior Therapy – Lighthouse Autism Center

Verbal Behavior Therapy is a vital tool used to help those with autism improve their communication skills. Learn more about this approach to teaching communication and the benefits it offers to those with autism.

What is Verbal Behavior Therapy

Lighthouse Autism Center uses the Verbal Behavioral (VB) branch of Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA). Verbal Behavior Therapy (VBT) is used to teach communication and language skills by focusing on why we use language, the purpose of words and how they can be used by the speaker with characteristics of autism to get their needs met or to communicate ideas. 

VB is derived from the same philosophy of behaviorism, employs basic scientific methodology and is concerned with the development of an individual’s socially and educationally significant behaviors. Its examination stresses the use of language in the environmental context within a verbal community.

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How Verbal Behavior Therapy works

VBT uses verbal operants, or types of verbal behavior, to teach autistic children how to better communicate, and can be very effective as a part of early intervention. A few of these operants are:

  • Mand: When a person or child uses language to make a request. For example, the child is thirsty, says “water”, and receives a glass of water to drink.
  • Tact: When a person or child labels something in the environment. For example, the child sees a glass filled with water and says “water”. 
  • Intraverbal: When a person or child is able to respond to a question. For example, a teacher asks “Would you like a glass of water to drink?” and the child responds “Yes”.
  • Echoic: When a person or child repeats what another person said. For example, a teacher says “water” and the child repeats the word “water”.

The History of Verbal Behavior Therapy

The research and practices of VBT are based on the book Verbal Behavior, published in 1957 by a very influential behaviorist, B.F. Skinner. Skinner discovered operant conditioning, which is the fundamental idea that behaviors that are reinforced will tend to continue, while behaviors that are punished will eventually end. 

While the analysis of VB is extended from lab experiments of operant conditioning, it involves not only the environmental variables but also the behavior of other people who also use the same language. In other words, VB operates at the level that both the listener and the speaker are taken into consideration along with any and all other factors in the environment.

VB is different from other language theories that emphasize the cognitive or physiological process inside the living organism. B.F. Skinner’s analysis of verbal behavior turns the focus to controlling variables in the environment that impact the cause or function of language. 

This means that VB is not only for vocal verbal language but also non-vocal use of language such as gestures, eye contact, pointing and the use of other nonverbal cues. VBT is not too concerned with the forms or structures of language, but these are important in the analysis of linguistics.

A therapist working with an autistic child.

The Pros of VBT

There are a number of benefits to the Verbal Behavior approach to ABA.

  1. Enhances analysis of the way we learn to speak in a natural environment. (Language acquisition can be natural but should not be confused with being innate.)
  2. Allows language to be broken down into small sections for in-depth analysis.
  3. With the analysis, specific instructional sequences can be systematically developed for an autistic individual.
  4. When learning issues occur, the analysis allows us to pinpoint possible sources.
  5. Allows for individualized instructional strategies based on what the individual needs.
  6. Helps create intensive and systematic intervention plans for individuals who have difficulties with communication and/or intellectual disabilities.
  7. Intervention plans for individuals with difficulties with language and/or disabilities can be incorporated into natural and artificial settings.
  8. Advances empirical research due to operational definitions that can be precisely defined, and each small component can be isolated to pinpoint the primary controlling variables.

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