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

Saturday, October 17, 2009

ABA and the Verbal Behavior Approach for Children with “High Functioning” Autism

I am often asked if ABA/VB is appropriate for children or adults with High Functioning Autism (HFA). Since my book is geared more towards helping adults learn how to teach early learners, many parents and professionals think that ABA and specifically the Verbal Behavior Approach is not appropriate for “higher functioning” children.

First I want to say that I really try to avoid using the terms “high functioning” and “low functioning” to describe learners with autism. I explain why I prefer not to use these terms in chapter 12 of my book but very simply it is the same reason I wouldn’t label a typical child or adult as “smart” or “stupid.” All of us are smart in some areas but not so smart in other areas. It is unfair for us to put children with autism in boxes and to try to classify kids as either high functioning or low functioning. Instead we need to assess the child’s strengths and weaknesses. An individualized ABA/VB program should capitalize on the child’s strengths while helping him or her overcome weaknesses.

I spend at least half of my consultation time with children that most people would consider to be “high functioning.” These children look pretty indistinguishable in the community and some of these kids are even able to hold decent conversations. But most if not all of the high language learners I work with still have language deficits and social skill weaknesses that are in need of serious ABA/VB programming. Many of these students also have dyslexia and other learning disabilities too and this often complicates programming. Because of these skill deficits, all of the students I work with on a regular basis need a fine balance between demands and reinforcement.

ABA is the science of changing socially significant behavior and, in my opinion, is often mistakenly overlooked for children and adults with “high-functioning autism.” Check out my book (The Verbal Behavior Approach) specifically chapters 2 and 12 for more information about using ABA/VB techniques to teach children with autism, regardless where they fall on the spectrum by visiting my web site:(


  1. I am the mother of three children that fall into the "category" of "high function autism" and speciic learning disabilities and I can honestly say that the only thing that has made a difference in our lives are the ABA/VB programs we have managed by a Board Certified Behavior Analyst. Thanks for sharing this information with others so they can understand the role Verbal Behavior can have in changing their children's lives. I know it has and continues to change the outcomes for my own children.

  2. Thanks for your post on HFA. I'm a mom to an almost 14 year old on the spectrum & I'm often asked if my child is HFA. I find it hard to answer this. While my son is verbal, he has plenty of deficits & I've seen many children on the spectrum, labelled non verbal with plenty of skills my son doesn't have yet.