Intraverbal- A verbal operant first defined by BF Skinner in his book “Verbal Behavior”. An intraverbal is a type of language that involves explaining, discussing, or describing an item or situation that is not present, or not currently happening. Examples include: Answering the question “How old are you”, filling in the missing words “At the zoo last month, we saw some _____, _______, and a ______”, or singing songs “Sing the alphabet song”.
Intraverbals can often be the most challenging and time consuming programs to teach during ABA therapy. Even for therapists or parents who don’t know the verbal operants and aren’t sure what an “intraverbal” is, they usually want their child/client to perform a variety of intraverbal skills.
Common questions/complaints I get when a child lacks an intraverbal repertoire include:
“She only uses language to ask for things, she isn’t conversational”
“He can greet his teacher by name every morning when I take him to school, but if I just randomly ask him: What’s your teachers name? he won’t say anything”
“She is almost 8 years old and she still can’t answer the question: How old are you”
“He can sing the entire Barney song (“I love you”) while watching the videos, but if I ask him to sing it during bath time he just looks at me”
“She doesn’t participate when we play The Question Game during dinner. We all take turns answering questions like “Name a pink animal”, “Sing your favorite song”, and “What should we have for dessert”. I know she’s verbal, why does she refuse to answer these questions?”
Teaching a child to mand (request) is extremely important, particularly when beginning an ABA program, because manding is how the child can communicate wants and needs to the outside world. If a child can’t communicate to me that they are hungry, how will I know?
Unfortunately, in some ABA programs a child can get stuck at only using language to mand or tact (label). This would look like a child who only communicates with others to request (I want popcorn please) or to label (That car is red). The child might spend their entire day manding and tacting, and to the parents and therapists there is no problem! The child is talking and communicating…clearly the ABA was effective. Eventually someone notices that when asked direct questions, the child won’t respond. Or when placed with peers, the child wanders away or just stares blankly at them. At that point, either the staff and family begin to think the ABA “isn’t working”, or the child is blamed for being difficult or stubborn and just choosing not to talk.
An ABA program should teach all components of language, not just the ability to request or label. If a child is not currently working on intraverbals in their ABA program (or will be, after meeting some prerequisites first) then that is a problem. You definitely don’t want to skip over teaching intraverbals. The reason why is simple: if I removed all intraverbals from my speech, I wouldn’t have very much to say. I would sound exactly like some of my clients. I would ask for things, or label what I see…..and that’s it. Most conversation consists of a variety of intraverbals, and if you want your child/client to move past talking and really begin communicating, then intraverbals are the way to teach that.
So how and when do you teach intraverbals?
- Firstly, intraverbals (as the name somewhat indicates) are a verbal skill. It would be inappropriate to add intraverbal programs to the curriculum of a nonverbal child. If you are able to teach the child language, then first work on building mands and tacts before introducing intraverbals.
- Strong receptive skills can also help a child learn intraverbals, because you can begin teaching by having the child receptively describe an item (Give me the one that is a utensil), and then you can remove the tangible item and present the demand as an intraverbal (Name a utensil). Similarly, you can also transfer as mand or tact to an intraverbal response by first teaching the target response as a mand or tact with the item present, and then removing the item and teaching the target response as an intraverbal. You can bring the tangible item back out as a prompt, but you would then need to fade that prompt in order for the target response to be a true intraverbal. I tell this to therapists all the time: If you are holding up a card or object, you are not teaching an intraverbal.
- Be sure to minimize student error. I would suggest using Errorless Teaching, where the child is not allowed to practice making errors. The therapist is quick to provide full prompts, and then fade out those prompts systematically. Especially with intraverbal programs, it isn’t uncommon to see all sorts of lovely escape behaviors (including aggression) to get the therapist to back off. This can happen even with the most calm, sweet, “peace and love” type of client. Intraverbals are hard. Rote responding, studying the room, or looking at the therapists face will not reveal the answer to an intraverbal question. Understand the difficulty of intraverbal questions before you begin teaching them, and be prepared that you may need to use new and varied reinforcers, and provide lots of prompts to help the child contact success and stay motivated.
- Here are a few do nots: Do not begin teaching intraverbals too early (may confuse or frustrate the child). Do not completely avoid teaching intraverbals (remember, intraverbals are the building blocks of conversation). Do not begin teaching intraverbals until echolalia is under control. Otherwise, the child will just repeat your question or statement, and become frustrated when that isn’t the right answer. Do not teach intraverbals out of order (child only has a few mands, and 10 tacts….it's way too soon to teach intraverbals). Do not reinforce escape behaviors that pop up during intraverbal programs.
- The simplest types of intraverbals are usually songs, or fill- ins. This would include things like that: “Ready, set, (go)”, “1, 2, (3)”, “Old MacDonald had a (farm)”, “A cow says (moo)”, “I love (you)”. You may be saying to yourself: Oh, my child already exhibits some of these fill -ins or my child can sing songs. That must mean they’re ready for intraverbal programs! Not necessarily. With Autism, it is common that skills can present in a splintered fashion (the child can count up to 100, but can’t touch their nose). So this is why careful assessment of the child as well as looking closely at their programs is necessary before jumping into teaching intraverbals. If after careful review, the child does have a solid repertoire of mands and tacts then try adding in a few simple intraverbal programs such as animal fill-ins or singing songs. Don’t be in such a hurry to teach the more complex intraverbals, until the child has demonstrated success with simple intraverbals.
- Lastly, I highly recommend seeking the services of a qualified BCBA for teaching intraverbal skills. There are so many unintentional mistakes that can be made with intraverbals, and this is such an important skill, that it’s best to consult with a professional.
Here is a list of some of the more complex intraverbal program goals. Depending on the needs of your child/client, some, all, or none of these programs could be added into your current ABA program (start with the simple, build up to the complex):
Meow says a ____/Ribbit says a _______ (Reverse fill-ins)
Tell me something that flies in the sky, it’s an animal, and it says “chirp” or “tweet” (Intraverbal Feature Function Class)
Socks and ________/Knife, spoon and ______ (Associations)
You use a towel to _______ (Functions)
Where do you bake cookies?/What can you kick? (WH questions)
Can you name a color? (Class)
Is a banana a vegetable? (Yes-No questions)
Name something that does NOT have a tail. (Negation)