There is a huge focus on verbal behavior in Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA) and for a reason. When you hear the words “verbal behavior” you may think vocal speech. But verbal behavior is so much more than that!
The formal definition of verbal behavior is a response that is reinforced through the mediation of others. In layman’s terms, verbal behavior accounts for anything a person does that communicates something to another person. For example, even though gestures are not vocal, if I point across the room at a water bottle and you immediately grab it and hand it to me, that response of pointing is now considered verbal behavior! You’ve essentially confirmed (or reinforced) that me pointing at an object, i.e., tangible, was sufficient enough to communicate my wants and needs (read more about tangibles and reinforcement here).
Sign language, picture communication, writing, and even the arts, such as music and paintings, all fall under the umbrella that is verbal behavior. Why is this important to note?
Some children with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) may express themselves through ways that are harmful to themselves or others. They may also exhibit disruptive behavior, like wandering or throwing objects during class time. Following direct observation (read more on our initial assessment process here), these responses can be identified as verbal behavior. Meaning, they are signaling a want or need for a material, food, a trip to the bathroom, or help. Direct observation can pin down what they are communicating, therefore allowing us to teach a more effective communicative response (e.g., saying, “help”, signaling bathroom, showing us a picture of food).
This leads to another important finding. Is calling someone “non-verbal” appropriate? Behavior analysts say no. Non-verbal means they do not listen to others’ communication or participate at all, whether it’s showing signs of distress or crying. A more appropriate term would be non-vocal. I challenge you to replace non-verbal permanently when referring to a human being. Not only is it more appropriate, but it also leads to the discussion of “how does this person communicate?”.
As we mentioned previously, behavior analysts (BCBAs) use direct observation to identify an individual’s wants and needs to teach the right communicative response depending on the environmental context. This indicates that behavior analysts view language through a functional perspective rather than structural. Both matter, but a structural account provides rules based on form (how it sounds or looks) rather than why it is occurring.
To get a better understanding on our functional approach to language, check out our next blog as we will dive into the very important verbal operants. Can’t wait? Browse our blog for more topics surrounding ABA and Autism.