Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA) is a science based on the philosophy of behaviorism.

1.  Is Verbal Behavior ABA?

Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA) is a science based on the philosophy of behaviorism. Behaviorism focuses on the scientific examination of both observable behavior and "private events" (e.g., thoughts, feelings) to determine the principles or "rules" governing behavior development (learning new skills) and behavior reduction (modifying/changing negative behaviors). These principles are used b y behavior analysts to assess behavioral repertoires and to design behavior change procedures.

A variety of behavior change procedures have been developed through the science of ABA. Examples include "discrete trials," "incidental teaching," "direct instruction," "individualized reinforcement systems," "precision teaching," and many others. These may be used individually or in combination depending on a learner's needs. Five strategies are common among the application of any behavior change procedure: 1) target behaviors are defined behaviorally, 2) assessments are conducted, based on recorded observations of the behavior, 3) behavior change procedures are selected in consideration of (among other things) observation and interview data, 4) repeated measures are used to track responding during baseline and intervention phases, and 4) program modifications are made based on continual data-analysis.

Verbal Behavior Therapy (more appropriately termed "applied verbal behavior" or AVB) refers to a combination of behavior change procedures aimed toward teaching the communicative functions described by Skinner (1957) in a book called Verbal Behavior. These functions include, for example, "echoics" (repetition of a verbal model), "mands" (requesting), "tacts" (reference), and others. In other words, applied verbal behavior refers to the use of ABA for teaching the Verbal Behavior targets defined by Skinner.

2.  How does AVB different from other applications of ABA?

The difference between AVB and other ABA protocols varies, depending on the particular ABA protocol to which it is compared. When compared to traditional discrete trial teaching protocols (e.g., Lovaas, 1982), the following differences may be noted:

Traditional Discrete Trial Teaching AVB

Initial emphasis on compliance and imitation Initial emphasis on pairing (helping the child to associate the therapist with reinforcement) and mand training (helping the child to request reinforcers) Use of the Me Book (Lovaas, 1982) as a guideline for selecting target skills and for teaching guidelines. Use of the ABLLS (Partington & Sundberg, 1998) as the scope and sequence guide. Use of Sundberg & Partington's 1998 book as a teaching guide.

Use of massed trials to establish a behavior; expanded trials to help the learner discriminate; and programmed generalization to help the learner use established skills in his daily environment. Use of dispersed trials to provide a learner with opportunities to practice emerging skills and frequent opportunities to practice acquired skills. Learning opportunities are structured, from the beginning, within natural environmental contexts. Emphasis on the three term contingency SD à R à Consequences Use of the three term contingency in combination with establishing operations (EO) to maintain a learner's motivation to engage in learning task.

Use of a "No-No-Prompt" error correction protocol. Use of an Errorless Learning error correction protocol.

Separation of work and play Integration of work and play

Emphasis on speech Emphasis on communication

Use of trial-by-trial data collection Use of probe data

Use of percentage performance criteria Use of a fluency performance criteria

The issues summarized in the above chart are described in more detail below. When reviewing this description, please keep in mind that this is a comparison between AVB and traditional discrete trial teaching programs (e.g., Lovaas, 1982). These differences may not distinguish AVB programs from other contemporary ABA protocols. Individuals who are certified in ABA (e.g., BCBA) are bound by ABA's (1989) "Position Statement on the Client's Rights to Effective Behavioral Treatment." Among the items in this position statement is the client's "right to the most effective treatment procedures available." Therefore, all behavior analysts (including AVB specialists) are required to maintain contact with current research and to adjust service delivery accordingly. It has been noted that "even Lovaas doesn't do Lovaas any more." Moreover, each learner is unique, and requires a unique application of behavior change procedures. Therefore, the differences between AVB and other contemporary ABA programs may be more in the marketing than in practice. For example, many behavior analysts (as well as SLPs) use the ABLLS and Skinner's model of verbal behavior even though they don't define themselves as AVB specialists. Similarly, AVB specialists (in resonding to a learner's unique needs) may utilize behavior change procedures that are not specifically described by Sundberg and Partington (1998). That having been said, here is a description of the differences between AVB and traditional discrete trial teaching:

As indicated above, the term "Verbal Behavior" was first used by BF Skinner to describe language in behavioral terms. Skinner viewed language as a behavior that is subject to the same principles of learning that apply to other behaviors. He categorized language according to the functions that it serves (pragmatics). Many years later, Partington and Sundberg developed a "scope and sequence" type of assessment tool called The Assessment of Basic Language and Learning Skills (ABLLS). Skinner's model of "verbal operants" serves as the basis for the language skills portion of the ABLLS, which (based on the developmental sequences reflected on its subscales) is also used as a curriculum guide. Partington and Sundberg also wrote a teaching manual called Teaching Language to Children with Autism and Other Developmental Disorders to guide parents and professionals in teaching children to communicate.

AVB programs may look quite different from traditional discrete trial instruction programs due to an emphasis on "establishing operations"(EOs) or motivation in learning. Situations are captured and/or contrived to create motivation to learn. Related to this, the first "verbal operant" or function of language taught is the "mand" (request) rather than the more traditional "receptive" then "expressive" targets chosen in other programs.

In the VB model, words are not the targets themselves but the use of the words in specific situations or contexts is the target of instruction. For example, a child learns to say, "swing" when he wants to swing (mand), when he comes in contact with a swing (tact), as well as when he is given a feature, function or class of the swing and there is no swing present (intraverbal). Even within each verbal operant, the child is taught to respond under a variety of conditions. For example, within "manding" the child is taught to request the desired item when it is present, when it is not present, when someone asks, "What do you want?" and when no one has asked him what he wants. An effort is made to examine all of the different stimulus conditions that might cause a person to say, "swing" and teach those conditions.

Another difference is the emphasis on teaching language in the "natural environment" with natural reinforcers. A child says, "swing" and is reinforced by getting to swing instead of saying, "swing" when shown a picture and getting some candy as a reward. In most VB programs there is an emphasis on teaching a child to communicate in all of the contexts in which you want that communication to occur in the future rather than in artificial environments such as sitting at a table.

A third difference relates to the use of "errorless teaching". In errorless teaching, the child is provided with the minimal prompting necessary to insure a correct response then these prompts are gradually faded away. The emphasis is on making sure the child doesn't "practice mistakes". Specific correction procedures are used when the child responds incorrectly but "informational no" is not used.

Data collection protocols may also differ when AVB programs are compared with traditional discrete trial teaching protocols. While all involved in behavioral interventions recognize the importance of making program decisions based on data analysis, most proponents of the VB model use probe data to determine if skills are mastered. Rather than taking data on every single response, a probe of the current targets is taken at the beginning of the teaching session to determine those that require additional teaching. The rest of the session is devoted to teaching with no "breaks" needed for recording data. The idea is that if the response is "mastered" the child will respond quickly and clearly on the first opportunity. Criterion for mastery is based on the learning history of the child but is typically 2 to 4 independent responses on daily probes.

Another difference relates to "stimulus control". In some behaviorally based programs, children are taught to respond under very strict "stimulus control". For example, they learn to point to pictures when they here "touch " in a very specific intonation pattern. Instead, most VB programs stress the importance of "training loosely" so that the child can respond by pointing when he hears "Where's the...?" Do you see...? Touch the... find the... get the... etc.

An additional difference lies in use of "mass trailing" vs. "mixing and varying". In some traditional ABA based programs, the same stimulus is presented over and over and a percent accuracy is measured. In VB models, new skills are taught mixed in with a variety of previously mastered skills. The emphasis is on keeping a ratio of mastered skills high in comparison to new skills. For example, 80% of tasks presented may be mastered while only 20% percent may be new targets in order to keep the child successful and allow the child to frequently contact reinforcement. Rather than working on one specific skill at a time, imitation, receptive labels, tacting, echoic and intraverbal skills are taught in a varied manner and are interspersed with the opportunity to mand.

While reinforcement schedules are an important consideration in any behaviorally based program, VB programs tend to emphasize the use of variable schedules of reinforcement and indiscriminable contingencies rather than using other reinforcement schedules.

A final major difference can be found in the use of "transfer procedures" in VB programs. Basically, this refers to figuring out a way the child can successfully give the response you want then transferring it to a new skill. For example, if a child can say "juice" when he wants it, we can transfer this skill into being able to say "juice" when we ask, "What's something we drink?"

As stated earlier, there may be other differences depending on the person running the program. In addition, there may be differences among programs described as VB based on the history and experience of those running the program, their experience with other treatment models as well as their personal preferences of the relative importance of various aspects of VB. In addition, some people may use the "model" of VB combined with other techniques from different program models as needed to teach individual children.

3.  How is VB different from other programs such as the "DIR" model or the TEACCH model?

The main difference may be found in the way people talk about what they are doing. Historically, cognitive psychologists as well as other disciplines such as speech/language pathology have attempted to explain language based on theoretical models of internal workings of the brain, the sensory system, or emotions. As human beings, it is natural for us to attempt to explain our world and this author believes it is beneficial in some aspects to do so. Without these types of theories, there are many medical advances that may not have occurred. However, the more we learn about the workings of the brain, the more we realize we don't know.

So, when attempting to explain why a child is having difficulty learning, a cognitive psychologist may talk about "Theory of Mind" or "Visual Learners" linking the difficulty to something that is internally "wrong" within the child. Behaviorists, on the other hand, would describe the learning difficulty according to behavioral principles such as discrimination training, stimulus control, reinforcement, etc. The factors involved are in the environment rather than within the child. Some behaviorists use the term "teaching challenges" in place of "learning disabilities." Their rationale is that if the problem in learning is placed within the child, the "ownership" of addressing the disability is removed from the teacher. While there may be educators who do not take responsibility for their teaching, the author has found that most teachers understand their responsibility and have the desire to teach in a way that the child will be successful.

In reality, there are probably few if any professionals who believe the factors involved in learning are either purely within the child or purely within the environment. Most recognize that both individual differences within children as well as environmental conditions affect learning. In fact, this understanding may be critical to effective programming for learners with autism. For example, it would be difficult to argue that children with Autism do not respond to the environment any differently than other people. The fact that the cognitive psychologist might describe this as a "sensory processing disorder" and the behaviorist as "responses to environmental stimuli" does not change the fact that the differences exist and affect the learner's ability to acquire the necessary adaptive skills.

Behaviorists might argue that labels such as "theory of mind", "auditory processing disorders" and "Apraxia" should not be used because they are based on theoretical constructs that cannot be proven and do not tell us anything about how to correct the problem. On the other hand, SLP professionals might argue that these terms are important from a diagnostic standpoint because specific therapeutic techniques have been shown to be successful for people within certain diagnostic groupings. For example, the teaching techniques shown to be successful with children with Apraxia are quite different from those used for those with a phonological disorder. In addition these diagnostic labels are often the only way that children can qualify to receive the services they need. Rather than determining teaching strategies based on diagnostic labels, the behaviorist would determine the effectiveness of teaching strategies based on the responses of each individual child with changes occurring in programming as a result of data analysis.

Based on differences in theoretical orientation, professionals often describe similar issues with different terminology. For example, the DIR model may describe the goal of a particular stage of treatment as "engagement." A behavior analyst may describe a similar circumstances as "pairing with reinforcement". SLP professionals might talk about "building a motor plan" while the ABA professionals describes the same procedure as backward chaining. TEACCH professionals may talk about visual supports while the ABA professionals would describe these same procedures as visual prompts.

On pedagogical grounds, there are some good reasons to focus on observable behaviors rather than theoretical constructs. For example, there is no magical "cure" for the internal differences within the children. Educators (regardless of professional background) do not manipulate the brain directly. What they can do is to control a learner's environment. Behavioral terminology often leads more directly to the identification of effective teaching procedures. For example, if visual supports are recognized as prompts and if prompts are used systematically, behavioral repertoires can be established through most-to-least prompting and maintained independently through prompt fading. Similarly, if "Theory of Mind" is addressed within the framework of stimulus control, learners can be taught to discriminate the environmental stimuli that differ across communication partners.

DIR and AVB both emphasize the need for training in natural environments and providing consistent, intensive, and pleasurable interaction with other human beings. The terms used to describe the teaching procedures are quite different but the treatments often look quite similar. The major differences involve the use of specific prompting and prompt fading procedures, the use of error correction procedures, and the use of specific, measurable objectives in AVB programs. DIR models typically describe more general goals that are more difficult to measure (e.g., closing circles of communication). Data collection is not emphasized in the DIR model. Therefore, success or "mastery" within the different programs will be described very differently.

The TEACCH model emphasizes structured teaching and environmental modifications to compensate for challenges of learners with Autism. Learners are taught structured work systems to be performed independently. PECS is the primary augmentative communication system recommended for non-verbal children. However, the model includes behavior change procedures consistent with ABA during direct 1-1 instruction.

The primary difference between AVB and the TEACCH model is an emphasis on interactive instruction with another human being vs. independent learning at work stations. The goal in many TEACCH programs is to increase independent functioning and reduce dependence on adults. The use of language is not emphasized in TEACCH models. Instead, visual schedules and other "visual supports" are used in place of verbal interactions. TEACCH strategies are often used successfully in classrooms where it is not possible to have intensive 1-1 instruction. When children learn to practice skills independently, groups of learners can be taught together. The use of work stations and independent learning can also be used successfully in home environments where it is not possible for children to have constant 1-1 interaction. While it may be desirable for learners to interact with people as much as possible, parents are often not able to provide this interaction without outside help. Some learners lack the skills to enjoy independent play with toys. They prefer, instead, to engage in self-stimulating behaviors when left unsupervised. In these cases, engagement in an independent work activity may be preferable over engagement in self-stimulating or self- abusive behaviors while parents are cooking dinner or attending to other children.

4.  Is it true that ABA approaches rely on punishment to control behavior?

No. Behavior analysts approach challenging behaviors by using a system of "positive behavioral support" (PBS). This system involves several steps. First, it is necessary to determine the function of a challenging behavior through systematic functional assessment. Once functions are identified, a variety of antecedent and consequence behavior change procedures can be employed. Antecedent procedures may include such things as 1) reducing the stimulus conditions that invite the inappropriate behavior and teaching acceptable replacement behaviors that enable a learner to meet his needs. Consequences may include planned ignoring of the challenging behavior and differential reinforcement of the replacement behavior. Punishment is only recommended in situations where the behavior is extremely dangerous and other methods have not been successful in controlling the behavior. Additionally, punishment may only be used under the supervision of a certified behavior analyst with informed consent by the learner's family.

5.  Is it true that children can be cured of Autism through ABA/VB?

Many children make significant gains through effective programs initiated when the child is very young. A substantial minority of learners with autism develop the ability to function independently in typical classrooms after participating in intensive programming of various sorts. The goal of ABA programs is to use the most effective and efficient behavior change procedures to teach the skills needed to function independently. There is no empirical basis for any professional to suggest that a child will be "cured" by participating in any particular program. However, research does indicate that learners with autism progress more rapidly if they receive intensive early intervention with a high density of reinforcing (pleasurable) 1:1 interaction.

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6.  Is ABA/AVB expensive?

Providing direct 1-1 instruction is often very expensive. Proponents of AVB suggest that parents learn the teaching techniques so they can provide language "instruction" throughout their daily interactions with their child. When parents are not available to do the majority of this work, they may hire behavioral consultants and therapy assistants (TA) to help them. It is also necessary to have motivating toys and other materials, and this can be an added expense.

Moreover, monetary expenses are not the only concern. Parents who run home programs often report that it is very stressful to constantly have people in and out of their home. They struggle with finding the appropriate teaching assistants, training them, and keeping them once they are trained. Their privacy is minimal and marriages are often reported to be strained by a lack of privacy and financial burdens.

Private schools can solve some of these problems but they are even more expensive than home programs. In addition to paying for instructors and consultants, the family is paying for a facility and administrative support. This is difficult if not impossible for many families to consider.

These concerns are very real and should be considered whenever a family is in the process of selecting an intensive program. All factors of family life should be factored in when determining the treatment models or combination of models to use.

On the brighter side, many parents report a decrease in stress when once they learn the techniques to use to address the negative behaviors of their child as well as the techniques used to teach their child in a fun and interactive manner. They report an increase in feeling "connected" to their child as they learn the ways to reinforce and communicate with him or her. They often also begin to feel more hopeful about the future as they see their child progress.

T. Vail 5/02


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