What Are Verbal Operants? - Here On The Spectrum
August 17, 2022

Verbal operants are words or phrases used to express thoughts and ideas. They can be simple, like “I need a break,” but they may also have more complex meanings, such as “I feel uncomfortable because you’re staring.”

Verbal operants are a type of Verbal Behavior that is often used in autism. They include words such as “I,” “me,” and “mine.” Read more in detail here: what are verbal operants aba.

Many autistic children who are undergoing treatment are being treated using Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA) therapy. While not all autistic children have speech impairments, most do, and failing to acquire language is one of the disorder’s first symptoms (Mody, 2013). With regard to verbal behaviors, ABA therapy includes observation and data collection on communication and language abilities as well as the development of a treatment strategy to address any observed delays or impairments. In this article, the word “verbal” refers to both spoken language and any other ways a kid with autism may use to communicate with others, such as utilizing a Picture Exchange System, pointing, making eye contact, touching, or signing. 

The publication of B.F. Skinner’s book Verbal Behavior in 1948 marked the beginning of a boom in the study of language and communication. In addition to introducing his work on language development to the public, Skinner outlined the many roles that language may play in the text. Today’s “most efficient treatment plans for children with language impairments in autism spectrum disorder are driven by this study” (Verbal Beginnings). 

Skinner’s study outlined five verbal operants, which are fundamental communication and language abilities that kids are trained to utilize in a variety of contexts and are generalizable. Children with autism are specifically taught remediation skills linked to verbal operants in a variety of contexts. These operants are still being explored in ABA today. Children are more likely to advance in other verbal operant categories if they gain language skills within one of them, according to Cooper, Heron, and Heward’s applied behavior analysis Second Edition (2007). 

Mand, touch, echoic, intraverbal, and autoclitic are some of these operant categories (although imitation is also considered one at times). 

Examples of Verbal Operants

With the use of ABA verbal behavior treatment, autistic children may link a word’s meaning to its function and the intended outcome. “Verbal behavior treatment doesn’t only use labels as words” (cat, car, etc.). Instead, it teaches us the value of language in asking for things and articulating ideas (Autism Speaks). 

The three-term contingency for each of the main verbal operants is summarized in the examples below (of spoken language answers), which were taken from the Journal of Speech and Language Pathology and Applied Behavior Analysis (Frost, 2006). Every operant example has an antecedent that is either a motivational operation (MO), an environmental factor, or a verbal conduct. Each operant example also has a consequence, which may be either educational or social or regarded direct (directly connected to the MO). 

MAND: a demand

Anterior: Motivational action

Direct repercussions 

I want some milk, Mary says as she enters the kitchen where her mother is seated. Mary receives milk from Mom when she opens the fridge. 

Mary questioned her parents because she wanted to acquire what she desired, which encouraged her. She was certain that her mother would fulfill her wish. 

TACT: a remark made to tell a story or call attention

Environment as an antecedent

Social and educational consequences 

Example: Johnny turns to his instructor and remarks, “It’s hot today,” while gazing out the window. That’s for sure, his instructor responds.

*Note: Johnny was driven to talk to his instructor because of a stimulating element in his surroundings and because he was certain that his teacher would agree to give him a social consequence. 

A term used to react to or address a question that is INTRAVERBAL

Behavioral verbal antecedent

Consequence: educational/social 

Tomasina’s mother inquires, “How’d you do on your project?” I received a B, Tomasina announces. Good, says mom.

*Note: Tomasina wanted to hear her mother react to her verbally, and she understood that by answering her mother’s question, she would get a favorable response.

ECHOIC: a term that is repeated or echoed

Behavioral verbal antecedent 

Consequence: educational/social 

As an example, Mrs. Thompson informs Mary that Trenton is the capital of New Jersey. Trenton is home to New Jersey’s capitol, according to Mary. Yes, Mrs. Thompson responds.

Mary is quoting Mrs. Thompson; please take note. 

Depends on other verbal activity, which changes its impact on the listener (uses the phrase “I suppose”). AUTOCLITIC

Behavioral verbal antecedent 

Consequence: direct

Michael tells his father, “I believe I’m going to get ill,” waking him up in the middle of the night. His father hurries him into the restroom. 

*Note: The inclusion of the phrase “I suppose” makes this example autoclitic. 

What About Nonverbal Individuals? 

The technique of responding will change when teaching verbal operants to autistic children who are nonverbal (do not speak), but the motive and outcomes of these chances will be the same. 

Read the following examples:

A youngster who is unable to speak may readily express their want for milk by signing, utilizing an image exchange system, or speaking using a speech-generating device. 

A nonverbal youngster may respond to inquiries, provide information, or bring attention to something. They can also repeat back what has been said. 

Nonverbal children with autism may access verbal communication just like children who utilize spoken language thanks to modern technology and speech and language therapies. 

Using generic verbal operators

While practicing verbal operant communication with autistic children—both those who speak and those who do not—is crucial to their language development, the kids also need to experience using their abilities in a variety of situations and to a variety of persons. 

If Andrew exclusively uses the mand operant to inform Mom, “I need to use the bathroom,” at home and only while he is with Mom, he shouldn’t ask others to do the same. Andrew has to get experience informing others in public, such as a waiter or waitress, as well as his instructors, babysitter, friend, and family members. 

“Mands should take place in the presence of new listeners, contexts, etc., in addition to generalization across MOs. Therefore, tests for the occurrence of the mand in the presence of new MOs and novel SDs responsible for its development should be included in measures of mand generalization. It’s crucial to ensure that a kid can ask an adult for assistance when faced with other challenging activities (MO generalization) as well as with other adults in other settings (stimulus generalization) when educating them to ask their instructor to tie their shoes. 2017 (Miguel). 

Verbal behavior and the use of verbal operants with autistic children have been the subject of decades’ worth of rich and in-depth study. Since B.F. Skinner’s groundbreaking work on verbal behavior in the behavioral sciences and in education, speech pathologists, clinicians, teachers, and parents have had the opportunity to use evidence-based therapies and observe children’s language and developmental progress.  

Taylor Wilson

Northeastern State University offers the Master of Education degree.

Disorders of Behavior and Learning | Georgia State University

March 2020

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Verbal operants are a type of behavior that is used in the autism community to help children with autism. Verbal operants are also called “operant verbal behavior” or OVB. Reference: verbal operants examples.

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