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

Saturday, October 10, 2009

Teaching Non-Vocal and Minimally Vocal Children with Autism

For children who do not yet speak, I usually recommend teaching 3-5 signs at a time and to teach these signs as mands first. Many of these signed mands will need hundreds of practice trials before a child will be able to request an item using a sign without assistance. Careful prompting and prompt fading across many trials per day is usually needed.

To teach a child to mand using sign language, hold out a preferred item and make sure the child wants the item by giving a “freebie” and/or looking for a reach, eye gaze, or smile. If the child does not want the item, you should not proceed. If the child wants the item and has some ability to imitate, I would then recommend you model the sign.

If the child cannot yet imitate, check for the motivation (MO) and then take the child’s hands and help him or her perform the sign. After the child performs the correct sign (with an imitative or physical prompt), deliver the reinforcer. Each time you or the child signs the word and when you deliver the reinforcer, it is important to say the item name.

I would also focus on trying to increase vocalizations by using simple inset puzzles or two sets of identical first word flash cards you can buy at the Dollar Store. As you hand the child a pig puzzle piece or a picture of a pig to match with the pig picture on the table, say the word “pig” three times (pig, pig, pig) as you hand the child the pig and as the child puts the pig in the puzzle or matches the picture.  If the child says the word as he is matching, give lots of extra reinforcement but don’t worry if no words are heard during the activity. Bombarding your child with many single words a day is key so continue these activities daily.

My book (The Verbal Behavior Approach ) especially chapter six should be particularly helpful in learning more about teaching non-vocal and minimally vocal children. Check for more information and listen to a free radio show on this topic at:


  1. when 'nagging procedure' is used

  2. Thanks for your comment Amaka. When you say "nagging procedure" I think you are referring to the "keep demand on" procedure for escape related problem behavior. So if you tell the child to get his coat on and he refuses or diplays problem behavior you repeat the direction "get your coat on" until he complies.

    If you read my blogs and book you will realize that I prefer to spend a lot more time on antecedent manipulations and minimal time on reactive strategies such as keeping the demand on. For signed manding and increasing vocal ability, using a "nagging procedure" would not be recommended.