Verbal Behavior Approach: How to Teach Children with Autism and       Related Disorders [Mary Lynch Barbera]

Sunday, September 13, 2009

The Big Three Skills for Individuals with Autism

I’ve been consulting with children and a few adults with autism for seven years now and I had a revelation about two years ago soon after I published my book. I now believe that there are three main skills every child and adult with autism needs to be successful. These skills, I believe, are the most important skills regardless of the person’s age or level of functioning.

The Big Three are:
1) Problem behaviors at or near 0
2) The ability to request wants and needs
3) Independent toileting

Whether your child is 5, 15, or 50 years of age, I think without these three skills, he or she will have little opportunity for inclusion at school or in the community. In addition, without these three skills, parents often cannot access babysitters, respite providers, schools, or work opportunities for their children. They also have a difficult time taking their children to pools, restaurants, on planes and even to visit friends or relatives.

If you or other people are working on different skills (double digit math or reading for instance) but your child has not mastered “The Big Three,” think about suggesting some additions and/or changes to your child’s program.

For more information, check free resources on my web site: and read my book (The Verbal Behavior Approach) specifically chapter 2 (reducing problem behaviors); chapter 4-6 (pairing and manding) and chapter 11 (toilet training). You can also access radio shows on these three topics on my web site.


  1. Hi Mary,
    I attended your Intro to VB Workshop in San Diego in 2007, and loved it as well as your book. I am a BCaBA and I recommend your book to all my parents. I would add social skills to your list for sure, I have done social skills training with almost every client I have worked with. And also I would consider changing toileting skills to self help skills in general because the ability to prepare and make meals is important for adults on the spectrum as well as basic hygienic skills. I started a vb blog last year if you want to check it out:
    Jennica Orme

  2. It's nice of you to be the volunteer that you are Mary, (offering all that you do) for people who need volunteers to get started and/or further towards what they need, I mean, of ABA/VB, and whatever. That'd be getting it right from the "start" is my sense of it, if not all the way, of the other's independence I mean, though one would wonder how one could survive being mostly if not entirely a volunteer, in providing for ourselves? Perhaps communication makes us all volunteers in that respect, as much as we can be in that respect? Here's more than hoping so. You could say we're exceptional in that respect?!. (Where "Communication" is good enough for Us? .. .

    Charge ($) where that's the easier way to reach people? Some also like a "mix," I have gathered, for my self, where many just plain don't want charity (communication?) or help without paying something other than what communication would provide? I mean.. .

    I do things for free (for understanding more for my self actually) when it's my way of what I want to say (of the primary research?) When it's for what you want me to say or that you want to hear, (otherwise?) that "isn't" so intuitive to me, (of my interests?) well, that I tend to "charge" for, but I'm working mostly gratis, of saying what I Feel like saying, at the moment, (for all that's worth?) you understand.. (Where injustice/bad behavior/abuse may also be instrinsic to that situation? that I find ourselves in?) That's what I felt like telling you, for "free," and/or for what you tell me?!. Something like that (or justness even? for justness especially?

    I can't think of anything else a state would be suited for, and everything else, Thereof

    Best wishes in that respect of the more meaningful behavior, where this sort of thing won't even get posted most anywhere else. What would be the bad behavior in that picture? isn't so much a question for me.. .

    I Feel that has to be handled as a "justice" issue, by me, if justice is to be served I mean, Thereof

    I like "your" thinking, if it has anything to do with that? .. .)+

    It's a pleasure if not an honor to be your first, (second, it seems?) bloggersationalist? .. . Whatever?!.

    Mike Glavic

    On my interests? .. . I swear I have something "very meaningfully" going on with my special-needs son if not others in that respect.. . (Where it's "injustness" that I have my problems with in that respect of where I do run into problems? .. . I find ABA (Primary ABA?) deals with that where anything (anything other than Communication, Thereof?) does.. . I'm thinking Communication is entirely virtuous, (for Understanding More, for our selves?) or we're "not" communicating, or doing much else of any good either.. .

    "Individualizing" for things starting with justness? .. .

    Just my sense of It. Thanks for your time.

  3. I agree with your list. We are able to do so much more now that my son is potty-trained and has stopped tantrumming. His aggressive behaviors are also greatly reduced from where they were.
    I would put number 2 on top as the first priority, since being able to request needs and wants greatly reduces problem behaviors.
    For instance, my son used to violently throw himself down if he wanted something and couldn't ask for it. He would also have a tantrum when he needed help.
    Now that he can say "help me" or ask for other things he needs, he almost never has tantrums, and certainly never throws himself down.
    Now we're working on teaching him to mand "play" or "play with me" in hopes that he'll stop pushing other kids to get them to play.
    Love the blog and hope you'll be able to keep it active. There are so few places to talk about VB!

  4. i thought the posting was very insightful

  5. I would add one to the list as number one - the desire to communicate. I'm not talking verbal communication, but non-verbal communication, referencing, emotion sharing... once this is in place - just like a NT baby develops this early - then the rest fall into place with a little guidance. Once they are able to meaningfully take in and process information, then they have the opportunity to be truly succesful in an inclusive environment!

  6. If a person needs assistance with toileting, it increases the risk of abuse. All 3 of the areas you identified are so important!

  7. I have read your book, and I have reread your chapter on toileting several times. While I find your book easy to read and understand, I am saddened to report that we have encountered such resistance in the area of toileting. It hasn't been easy for one single second over the past five years, and we've experienced regression more times than I can count. I know of other families who bounce back from regression quicker each time, but that is not the case for us.

  8. Hello Schaeffer Family, gal? Is it only with toileting that you're experiencing regression if not worse regression, or with other things too? I'm figuring, any help is better than no help at all, where I might be able to help, where I usually rely on my intuition for as much, especially where all else fails. I like to feel I'm good for that.. .


    I figure this blog might also be about that? Here's more than hoping so, where more heads are better than one is my sense of It, (of the primary lesson?) of what we can do for each other.. .

  9. Dear Schaeffer's,

    I'm sorry that your son continues to struggle with toileting. You may want to listen to a radio show I have archived on the subject of toilet training. Here's the link:



    Mary Lynch Barbera, RN, MSN, BCBA

  10. I tried the radio link, but it didn't work. Could you try to make it a hyperlink? Thanks so much!

  11. Please try to go to my site: and then click the radio show button on top. Scroll down to program #11 on toilet training.


  12. We were finally able to potty train my 20yo when she was 6.5 years old after she went gluten/casein free. Later, we noticed a pattern: every time she ate the wrong food, she had an accident.

  13. Hi there. I so, so, so appreciate (and agree with) your comment : "If you or other people are working on different skills (double digit math or reading for instance) but your child has not mastered “The Big Three,” think about suggesting some additions and/or changes to your child’s program."

    I've been doing behavior therapy with kids with ASD for almost 6 years now, and have worked with multiple families who insist we focus on academics when the child has SO many other deficits that are not worked on.

    It's my biggest frustration in my job. I've attempted talking to the parents about my feelings and line of thought, but it doesn't get anywhere. They insist on doing math and spelling, etc. Do you have any other writings about this issue, or any advice on how to get through to unwilling parents?