Teaching “Non-verbal” Children Communication Skills

Contributed by Cassy Davis, MAT

Many children who have been diagnosed with Autism Spectrum Disorder have deficits related to language and functional communication. Children with Autism often have difficulty using expressive language to tell others their wants and needs. When they are unable to express what they want or need it can lead to the child becoming frustrated or engaging in tantrum behavior. Some non-verbal children may cry, scream, yell or hit in an attempt to express their wants and needs to their parent or caretaker.

In the 1957 book, Verbal Behavior, written by BF Skinner, he explains the human behavior of linguistics. In his book, Skinner looks at language in respect to function of the response versus the traditional view on language which focuses on the structure of language. Skinner defines verbal behavior as “behavior that is reinforced through the mediation of another person’s behavior” (pg 528) Verbal behavior is any oral or non-oral form of communication that helps people get what they want. Forms of verbal behavior include speaking, signing, pointing, writing, gesturing and touching.


In order to determine a child’s deficits related to communication an assessment, such as the VBMAPP, must be conducted. Once the assessment done and the child’s language deficits have been identifie,d a behavior analyst should begin obtaining information about a child’s mand repertoire. Skinner defines a mand as a verbal operant in which the speaker makes a command or demand for something. In basic terms, a mand is a command, demand or request for something. According to Cooper “Mands are very important for the early development of language. Mands are the first verbal operant acquired by a human child.” (pg 530) Mands are a strong form of verbal communication because of the specific reinforcement that the speaker receives. As a child’s mand reportiere increase mands become more “complex and play a critical role in social interaction, conversation, academic behavior, employment and virtually every aspect of human behavior.” (pg. 530)

When working with children with language deficits the goal should be to broaden their expressive language ability.  “According to study by Boston University, about 30% of people diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder never learn to speak more than a few words.”