ABA Jargon: Verbal Operants



So, today's jargon term is "Verbal Operants". Big words, right? Okay, what in the heck are people talking about when they say "verbal operants"? All right. Our actual definition here. Verbal operants. Functional units of language as described by B.F. Skinner in his book Verbal Behavior from 1957. They include Receptive, Echoic, Mands, Tacts, and Intraverbals. Now, ladies and gentlemen, on your first day of Autism after you've gotten a diagnosis for somebody in your family and somebody talks about well, we're going to work on the Verbal Operants, if I went and looked this definition up, I would probably light my hair on fire and run screaming into the street. Right?

What does this have to do with me, how can this help me, I don't get it. Right? The only thing I get in this definition on day one of Autism is B.F. Skinner rings a bell with me. Right? But I'm not even sure what. I'm busy doing laundry. Yeah, B.F. Skinner, what does he have to do with me. So let's move on to our working definition of verbal operants. Verbal operants is when language is broken down into different elements that serve different purposes. Okay. So the different purposes of language, if you think about it, when we're trying to teach somebody to speak and have a conversation it seems like it would be easy but the reality of it is quite different.

So, we break it down into being able to understand what someone is saying to you, that's the Receptive that was on the other list. Right? Being able to repeat things. We can call that Echoics, 'cuz you're echoing somebody. Being able to request things, that's the Mands that they talk about, that you wanna be able to request things. I want a cookie. Right? Being able to comment on new things, that the Tacting, so seeing something in your environment and being able to comment on it. And being able to have a conversation.

I know that there are so many of you out there who are like, well my child can speak. When people ask me if my child is verbal or not, I answer that my child is verbal because they can speak. But we're not getting conversation. And they can ask for things, but we're not getting to conversation. And how do we get to conversation? We know that if you take things in one big chunk and it's a complicated thing we're not really gonna see the progress that we want. But if you eat that elephant one bite at a time, that what we do, we separate things into smaller bite sized chunks and that we can get to real progress.

So if you're looking to get to conversation with a child, or an adult for that matter, if you're looking to build those language skills to get to conversation, and by the way I'm not just talking about vocal communication, because some of this is nonverbal. Some of this is being able to make gestures. In fact, we're gonna be talking about that kind of thing with one of our guest in a little while in the second hour. But we want some non-vocal communication as well. Then you really need to know what the verbal operants are and understand that in a good ABA program you are going to work through the full gamut.

For those of you who have teenagers who are in a special day class, there's a few of you I can think of in particular that write to me and say, my child can list a whole bunch of things, but we're not having a conversation where I say, what did you do at school today, and he or she says to me, well, we did this and we did this. Hey, what are we having for dinner? That you wanna get to that kind of conversation. The only known effective way of getting to that is through the verbal operants. So knowing and understanding them can make a huge difference. Knowing and understanding that your school program is not working on Intraverbals. Right? And shockingly you're not getting to conversation, 'cuz the intraverbals is where you get to conversation.

Well if you're not teaching it, it's not going to happen miraculously, not for our kids. Language is amazing and the brain's ability to get to language, I now understand it to be absolutely miraculous. I didn't get that before I had a child with Autism. Because it just happened. It just happened. I would see little kids and I would see my nieces and nephews and they just picked it up like little sponges. And I missed the miracle. I will tell you one of the greatest gifts of having a child on the Autism Spectrum is that it forces you to see the miracles. And it also, if you pay attention, you can find ways to work on your own personal miracle.

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