Teaching Language.

Without communication skills, we would find it very difficult to make our needs met, to tell people how we feel, to make friends, and to participate in any meaningful way in the social world we live in. Unfortunately, for those affected by developmental delays such as Autism, it is primarily a lack of communication skills which causes ‘problem’ behaviour. More often than not, ‘problem’ behaviours serve the same function for an autistic learner as language does for the non-autistic learner. By teaching these functional communication skills to its learners, there is a reduction in the occurrence of these problem behaviours.

B.F. Skinner, the author of “Verbal Behavior” breaks the areas of expressive and receptive language down into a number of sub-categories of language that he called “Verbal Operants”. In doing so, Skinner teaches us that communication is about more than simply being able to say words, make signs, or exchange pictures. Communication describes the way that we use language in different contexts. For example, we can use the word “Drink” in the context of a request (“Can I have a drink?”), or as a comment (“That man is having a drink”), or as a conversational response to someone’s question (Question; “What did you do last night?”  Response; “I went for a drink”). There are other ways in which it can be used that require an non-verbal response, and therefore an understanding of the word (example; you fetch someone a drink when they have asked “Please get me a drink”).  So the same word serves various functions, depending on when and how it is used.

By breaking communication down into these functional categories (“Verbal-” and “Non-Verbal Operants”), Skinner also describes the route through which an individual learns to use language, from basic to advanced communicator, and both as a speaker and a listener. Underpinning our use of communication is the ability to get our needs met. This is typically the first “operant” that we learn to use ( a new-born will scream when hungry), and it is from this that we come to understand the need to communicate appropriately - communication gets you what you want. Skinner calls this type of language the Mand. A typical child will use hundreds of “mands” a day and as conversational adults, 50-60% of our communication is made up of “mands”.

The major attraction to building a programme around a child’s ability to “mand” is that the materials and activities which are used in the teaching process are all things that the child wants and enjoys. Simply put, we do not ask for what we do not want. For children who do not appear to have a great deal of things that they want or like, simple procedures are incorporated into the programme to expand on the range of interests and preferences that the child has. This process is known as pairing (or “conditioning”). Not only will building a wider range of  preferences increase a child’s range of functional vocabulary, but it will also give that child an opportunity to learn play-skills to use with other children. The ability to push a car, kick a ball, or paint a picture does not require any language but it can be instrumental in forming a relationship with a typical peer.