Information about ABA and
Verbal Behaviour

A center-based, ABA program for children with ASD using verbal behaviour 

What is ABA?

ABA was first defined by Baer, Wolf, and Risley in 1968 and, as noted in the definition provided by Cooper, Heron and Heward (2007), it is a science, and not a particular teaching method or methods specifically designed for children with autism. This science uses the empirically validated principles of behaviour to generate procedures that are applied to behaviour to produce socially significant changes. Furthermore, ABA relies on methods (e.g., data collection, single-subject experimental designs) to demonstrate the relationship between the procedures applied and the resulting behaviour change(s).

Parents, professionals, and even the media often misuse the acronym ABA (applied behaviour analysis) as a synonymous for autism treatment. Although the only validated comprehensive early intervention approach is indeed based on ABA (see Eikeseth, 2009 for review), referring to autism treatment as ABA is misleading because interventions based on ABA can mean many different things. Further adding to the confusion, ABA is often erroneously used interchangeably with the acronym IBI (intensive behavioural intervention) and/or the application of discrete trial training.

To read more about the confusion about ABA/IBI please see Myra's article for the QcABA newsletter (from November 2011) here

What is Verbal Behaviour (VB)?

There has been much debate in the community about what Verbal Behaviour is both within the field of professionals and from the users of ABA services. Is it an Approach? Is there evidence that 'it' works? How does it differ from 'other' ABA models?

ABA programs that decide to make use of Skinner's analysis of Verbal Behaviour as a construct for teaching language skills can be said to be using Verbal Behaviour. In reality, these programs are, or should be, identical to any ABA program in its use of the fundamental principles of Applied Behaviour Analysis. Using the analysis of verbal behaviour is simply an extension of this analysis into language and communication. Thus, the question of whether or not VB 'works' is null and void; using VB is simply an extended way of using the principles of behaviour analysis with language, and the application of these principles is well-grounded in the research as effective for individuals with developmental delays and ASD's. ABA programs that do not make use of Skinner's analysis usually categorize language into 2 categories; receptive and expressive, and then define language by the kind of word it is (i.e. verb, preposition, etc…). Skinner 's analysis proposes that language, or verbal behaviour, could be classified in the same way behaviourists had classified non-verbal behaviour, and that this meant language could be classified by what function it served instead of by the way the word sounds.

Much like other practitioners in the field who choose to make use of Skinner's analysis, programs that use Verbal Behaviour also tend to make use of the research related to EO/MO (establishing operations/motivating operations) and therefore utilize teaching procedures that correspond to this research. These procedures include the use of behavioural momentum, errorless teaching, specific error correction procedures, transfer trials, teaching to fluency, and mixing and varying instructional tasks, using both discrete trial teaching as well as Natural Environment Teaching, amongst others. It is likely this tendency to use particular teaching methods that are derived from a particular body of research that has resulted in VB becoming known as a specific 'Approach'.

The mand is arguably the most important operant, as this is the one that allows the speaker to make their needs and desires known to others. Often children on the spectrum have a weak mand repertoire, and consequently some inappropriate and problem behaviours emerge to compensate for this. Therefore, a critical element of a VB program is an intensive mand-training component from the very start, if possible. Another important characteristic is that instruction occurs both in instructor-controlled formats (Discrete Trial Instruction/Intensive Teaching) but also in the natural environment (also known as Natural Environment Teaching/NET). NET is essentially a format of instruction which is child-directed and uses their natural and changing motivation to develop and expand on emerging skills.

For more information on the other operants and the particulars of VB, see the site:

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Autism Links and Ressources
The official site for the Behaviour Analysts Certification Board.
Dr. Vincent Carbone's clinic website - a leading practitioner and researcher in the field of Behaviour Analysis, specializing in Verbal Behaviour.
Very clear and concise information for parents or providers.
A clinic in Toronto and the reason I got into this field.
A site where you can buy all sorts of materials for your home program.
A very informative site with lots of information, materials, and resources about autism.

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