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

Tuesday, January 26, 2010

New Blog: HBO film entitled "Temple Grandin"

A new HBO film entitled "Temple Grandin," will premier on February 6th. This movie details the life of animal researcher and autism advocate, Temple Grandin. Here is a blog about the movie which includes an interview with Temple written by a friend of mine, Chantal Sicile-Kira:

I have always found Temple to be incredibly inspirational. For the past few years I have been working with Jodi Goren-Rode and Keystone Pictures to support Jodi’s effort in making a documentary about Temple Grandin. Here is a 5-minute video clip Jodi put together a few years ago available on YouTube: This YouTube clip, which gives an overview of the documentary Jodi is producing, has been viewed over 24,000 times and gives a brief synopsis of the life and work of Temple. As I say in the clip, Temple is probably the most recognized person with autism in the world and has done many great things for the autism community.

I had the privilege of having lunch with Temple a year before I wrote my book. After I told her a little about myself (that I had a son with autism and became a BCBA to help others), she said “You should write a book!” It was an amazing experience to have lunch with Temple and she provided me with much hope and inspiration.

I also met Temple’s mother, Eustacia Cutler a few years later and, after reading my book (The Verbal Behavior Approach), Eustacia wrote the following endorsement which is available on my web site under book endorsements ( :

“Written with style, warmth and real know-how, Mary Barbera has managed to combine valuable therapeutic advice with her own eloquent story.”

Eustacia Cutler, Author
A Thorn in My Pocket: Temple Grandin's Mother Tells the Family Story

I am excited to see the HBO movie premiering Feb 6th! I’m sure as I watch the movie, I will learn much more about Temple’s life and work.

Saturday, January 16, 2010

Getting Children with Autism to Respond to Their Names

I recently conducted a full day assessment on a child I will call Dennis, a 4-year-old with a diagnosis of autism. One the concerns of Dennis' parents was their inability to get his attention by calling his name. As I conducted a VB-MAPP assessment, this was a deficiency in the Listener Responding area and was also an IEP goal not mastered for over a year.

Not responding to name when called can be one of the first hallmark signs of autism.   This is considered a “red flag” on the Modified Checklist for Autism in Toddlers (M-CHAT) and a diagnostic indicator on the Autism Diagnostic Observation Schedule (ADOS). Since many children and adults with autism have difficulty in this area, I thought I would address it in this week’s blog.

I created and have used the following procedure to address this issue with dozens of children with autism and found it to be very successful. The key is to pair the child’s name with improving conditions (reinforcement) since any behavior that is reinforced will maintain or increase. The following is an excerpt from page 106 of my book (The Verbal Behavior Approach).

First, tell everyone in the environment to stop using, or limit the use of the child’s name throughout the day. Most importantly, do not link the child’s name to demands (e.g.: “Dennis, go get your shoes”, “Dennis come here”, etc.) .  Limiting the use of the child’s name will actually help him to learn to respond when his name is called, because he won’t tune it out as part of a long list of demands.

Next gather several of Dennis’ strongest consumable or controllable reinforcers (chips and bubbles, for instance) and go behind him when he’s engaged in another activity. Call his name while standing behind him and then immediately touch his shoulder and hand him a chip or blow bubbles.   Gradually fade your prompts by standing a foot or two further away and by delaying the touching of his shoulder by a second or two. By using this procedure, Dennis will learn that when he hears his name, good things happen.

For the best results, I recommend using this procedure in both home and school environments and also recommend taking data every trial (10 or 20 trials per day) so that your distance and the reinforcement can be systematically faded out as the child becomes successful with responding to his name.

For more information, read my book and/or past blogs available at:

Saturday, January 9, 2010

The Importance of Conducting a VB Assessment When Completing an FBA

I completed a Functional Behavior Assessment (FBA) recently on 9-year-old boy I’ll call Sam. His mother decided to home school Sam because she was worried that the public school her son attended might call the police if his behaviors continued to escalate.

Sam was diagnosed with high-functioning autism just after the age of three. He was included in general education classes since his IQ was in the normal range. Sam spoke in full sentences and could reportedly read at grade level. Sam’s outbursts, however, were very disturbing to the teachers and other students. While at school, Sam was sent to the principal’s office on multiple occasions and was suspended once when he knocked over a desk.

While an FBA is conducted to analyze the function of problem behaviors, I believe that a big part of an FBA should be dedicated to examining the child’s language and academic skills.   In Sam’s case, his language deficits were very apparent to me as I completed a VB-MAPP assessment, even though he was a puzzle to school district personnel.

Sam displayed defective mands throughout the assessment since almost all of his requests revolved around escaping work. He asked his mom “Can we be done?” and “Is it almost time for a break?” 30 times during a 20-minute work session. During the full day evaluation, Sam also only asked a few general questions starting with words such as “what,” “can” and “does.” I didn’t hear any complex mands for information with “why,” “how,” or “which” questions.

While Sam’s tacts were relatively strong, things fell apart for Sam when he was asked questions and needed to respond intraverbally. When I asked Sam to tell me some animals, foods, colors, and pieces of clothing or asked him simple “what” and “where” type questions, he was fairly accurate. However, when I asked him to tell me some things that are usually red, he looked around the room (looking for something to tact). I then asked him to close his eyes and tell me some things that are usually red and he demonstrated problem behavior. He screamed “Don’t tell me to close my eyes!” Similar problem behaviors were seen when how and why questions were asked.

The VB-MAPP assessment showed major skill deficits in manding for information and in the intraverbal repertoires. Sam’s problem behavior was primarily related to a history of escape from work involving high intraverbal demands. A few of the interventions recommended included the introduction of a token economy system, teaching Sam how to mand for information and using tact to intraverbal transfers to teach him to more effectively answer complex “wh” questions. An SRA program called Language for Thinking as well as a BCBA for six hours per month to oversee programming were also recommended and implemented.

If a student is displaying problem behaviors that are disruptive to his learning or the learning of others, the “problem behavior” box should be checked off on one of the first pages of the IEP. If this box is checked, a FBA needs to be conducted, preferably by a Board Certified Behavior Analyst (BCBA). A Behavior Intervention Plan should also be written and, once staff are trained on the plan (by the person who wrote it), it should be followed closely.  Ongoing analysis and support for staff is also needed.

I believe that assessing the verbal and non-verbal operants as well as all academic areas should be a part of every FBA.  Professionals who conduct FBA’s, as well as other professionals and parents who are working with students with significant problem behaviors need to understand the difference between mands, tacts, and intraverbals and the importance of assessing the verbal and non-verbal operants. A focus on the skill strengths and deficits (and not just on the problem behavior) will help each student with autism reach their full potential.

For more information, read my book (The Verbal Behavior Approach: How to Teach Children with Autism and Related Disorders) and/or check my web site ( for downloadable information at no cost.