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Top Priorities for Teaching Language and Communication

Top Priorities for Teaching Language and Communication


It has often been said that the characteristic which distinguishes humans from all other animals is the capacity for language (Pinker 1994). It is essential to our species and contributes to its survival in various ways.


Simply stated, language may be defined either as the acquisition and use of complex systems of communication (Dell Publishing 1994), or to a specific example of one of these systems, such as English, French, or Portuguese. Communication consists of an exchange of ideas or information, which may be transmitted through various means (e.g., written, spoken, signed, etc.)


Language is a vital skill for everyone. For  individuals with Autism, language is frequently more difficult to acquire which may lead to frustration, lack of social interaction, and overall a lesser quality of life. By teaching language and communication to individuals with Autism, the more that individual is able to communicate their wants and needs, provides more tools to be able to advocate for themselves and ultimately, to live a life that makes them feel happy and independent.


From a behavioral perspective, language is learned behavior. A behavioral approach to language seeks to understand the function of language in order to teach it effectively. By using this methodology, language can be shaped overtime building the repertoire of communication for any individual.


First, let’s review ABA terminology relating to Language  


  1. Mand: This is essentially a request for something. For example, if your child wants to play with a ball and says, “ball,” then the word ball is a mand


  1. Tact: This is typically used to label, describe, or name something. For example, if your child is reading a book and sees a picture of a ball, they might say, “ball,” as a means of labeling what they see.


  1. Echoic: This is a repetition of what you heard. For example, if someone said the word “ball,” and your child repeats, “ball”


  1. Intraverbal: This is a conversational exchange, or a response to what someone says. For example, if you ask your child, “what can you bounce” and your child responds with, “ball,” the child using the word ball would be an intraverbal.


  1. Functional Communication: Functional communication uses communicative behavior to replace problem behavior that serves the same function as the problem behavior (For example, say an individual is hungry and wants to eat food. Without a way to communicate, the individual may resort to problematic behaviors to express their frustration or discomfort (hunger). Functional communication training aims to provide those communication tools to replace the need to resort to problematic behaviors, e.g., teaching someone to press iPad icons for specific food items like “sandwich” or “Banana” to replace screaming when hungry).



Now that you have the ABA lingo down, here are some tips on teaching language and communication:



  1. Choosing a mode of communication:
    • Individuals with autism communicate in many different ways. Some speak vocally, some use communication devices, some use picture exchange, and some use modified sign language.
    • Because everyone communicates differently, it is important to choose a communication method that works best for that individual.
    • Work with your child’s team to determine which mode of communication would be best based on their individual strengths.


  1. Tips when teaching a functional communication response
    • Identify the function of the problem behavior
    • Select an appropriate functional communication response. Make sure it is easier to engage in than the problem behavior (e.g. if the behavior is for escape, teach the request “I want a break.”)
    • Make sure the functional communication response produces the same type of reinforcement as the problem behavior
    • Teach the functional communication response by modeling when to use it and prompting what and when to communicate
    • Stop reinforcing the interfering behaviors and only reinforce the appropriate communication
    • Make sure to reinforce the functional communication response each time at first (e.g. if the individual asks for a break instead of screaming, make sure to provide a break)


  1. Using motivation/mand training
    • When starting to teach language, start with the basics, such as requesting! Requesting is often the easiest to start with because the child’s motivation is assessed and used to increase the desire to communicate.
    • Tips for mand training
      • Determine items and activities that the individual has strong preferences for
      • Arrange the environment so that those determined preferred items or activities are in sight but out of reach from the individual
      • Interact and play/engage with these items or activities to increase and build motivation for the individual to want to engage with those items. Make them fun and engaging!
      • Confirm that there is motivation for the item. This can look like making eye contact with the item, reaching for the item, walking toward the item, etc.
      • Once you see that the child is motivated for the item, you should say/model the item name (in their form of communication) and allow your child the opportunity to say the name of the item before giving it to them.


  1. Vocal imitation
    • Being able to imitate the language of others is essential to teaching language and communication.
    • To start off, identify one or two vocal approximations your child can sound out successfully and choose two or three that you want to teach. You want to choose words or sounds that your child will be using frequently throughout the day. For example, if your child loves bubbles, you can teach your child to say “buh” as an approximation to start.
    • Make sure to reinforce all language! Provide more reinforcement for better approximations of the end goal


  1. Shaping strategies
    • When teaching vocal productions, sometimes it’s best to start off small and work towards the end goal
    • For example, if you want to teach your child to say “bubbles,” you can break this word down by first starting to teach the approximation, “buh” reinforcing this vocalization until your child can say it successfully
    • Then you would teach the next approximation that is a little closer to the end goal “bub,” then “bubble”
    • Continue to shape these responses until you get to the ultimate goal or the full word with clear articulation.
    • It is important to remember, that once you move on to the next closer approximation, you no longer want to provide reinforcement for the lesser approximation. The reason for this is to make sure that you are always requiring the best responses, so that progress continues moving forward.





Andrea Delgado, M.S., BCBA, LBA-NY

Director of Staff Training and Development