Photo source: www.autismsparks.com, www.pbs.org
**Recommended Post: Teaching Communication to Non Verbal Children
When teaching or providing intervention to young children with Autism, communication impairments are often pretty high on the list of priorities. This can include issues such as echolalia, poor articulation, syntax difficulties, or the child may be nonverbal (remember, nonverbal does not mean “no talking”. That would be “non vocal”. Nonverbal would indicate a lack of a consistent means to communicate).
A highly effective method for teaching a child with communication deficits to communicate is: Mand Training. If you read my Verbal Behavior post then you know that “mand” just means request.
Notice I said Mand Training is about teaching an individual to communicate, not “talk”. Communication is far more than being able to speak. I have clients who can talk, but aren’t communicators. I also have clients who communicate all the time, but do not talk. Some of my previous clients never reached a point of producing vocalizations (talking), and that does not mean treatment failed. They made amazing gains, they just developed other means of communicating.
Since Mand Training is far more than just talking, this means that communicating can be taught via sign language, picture communication (photos or iPad), use of an assistive device, etc. While many parents often want to target vocalizations, manding does not have to be vocal.
So WHY teach manding? What is so important about being able to communicate with others?
-A child who cannot request wants and needs, is (very often) a child who will use problem behavior to communicate: aggression, tantrums, property destruction, etc.
-A child who cannot request wants and needs is a child who will bewilder and frustrate caregivers on a regular basis: “What do you want? Are you sick? Are you hungry? Are you tired? Does something hurt?”. I work with many parents who often have to guess if their child is hungry, guess what their child wants to eat, guess when their child is full, etc. It’s a very difficult and challenging way to live. Not just for the parent of course, but for the child as well.
-A child who cannot request wants and needs is a child who may struggle with social interaction. How will the child let other children know they want to play? How will the child let other children know they are tired of playing? For a nonverbal child this can often happen through exhibiting problem behavior (such as pushing a peer down who stands too close, or snatching an interesting looking toy from a peer).
Before learning more about Mand Training my biggest tip would be NOT to read this post and then try to implement a mand training procedure on your own. It’s important to work with a BCBA to accurately design and implement a manding intervention. This is one of those skill areas where you definitely want the assistance of a qualified professional.
Okay, so here is a basic outline of how Mand Training occurs. At the end of the post I will include a clip of some actual mand training (taken from an episode of Supernanny) because I think seeing how the procedures are implemented could really be helpful.
- Mand Training kicks off with a good amount of highly preferred items/reinforcers. You need to know what the learner is MOST interested in, because those are the mands you will want to teach first. You teach reinforcers first -- before general nouns (“school”), before generalized mands (“more”), and before manners (“please”) --- because motivation is key. If I love my talking Elmo doll more than anything in the world, I will be ridiculously motivated to mand for my talking Elmo doll.
- Next, you will start requiring a mand in order to access the highly preferred items. No mand= No access. I suggest watching the video clip below to see examples of what this looks like, and what often happens at this part. If you’re a professional you probably already know what I am hinting at: Behavior City. From the perspective of the learner, they are used to getting what they want, when they want it, without having to mand. So once you start to require communication, expect to get some pushback.
- Be knowledgeable about vocal shaping, if you are targeting vocalizations. When the learner begins to vocally communicate the speech may be unclear, garbled, or otherwise fractured. It is important to work with a professional who understands shaping procedures and how to accept closer and closer approximations to clear speech. This means that initially, “BUH” may be acceptable to request “Bubbles”.
- Consistency will lead to success. Mand training can take literally hundreds of trials per target, or per item. In a typical therapy session, I can incorporate mand training into nearly every few minutes of work. This repetition can be extremely necessary for some children with Autism. Be prepared to work on mands all throughout the day, across environments, and across caregivers.
- Mand training gets increasingly more complex. I may start out with a client by having them mand for a reinforcer that is present, and accept any vocalization as a correct response. From there, the item may be hidden from view, the learner may have to accurately state the name of the item, the learner may have to request using a full sentence, etc. Skipping over this step can lead to learners who can only speak in short phrases (“want chips”), can only mand for a few items, or mands for categories and not items (can say "eat", but no one knows what they want to eat). Once the learner can successfully mand for something, increase the response requirement.
*More information about Mand Training: