Teaching Verbs to Children with Autism

Child playing with blocks

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Children with apraxia or autism spectrum disorders (or both) often have difficulty learning to communicate. Verbal Behavior Analysis (VBA) based on the work of B.F. Skinner, identifies three basic verbal behaviors: Manding, Tacting, and Intraverbals. Manding is requesting a desired item or activity. Tacting is naming items. Intraverbals are the language behaviors we start using at about two, where we interact with parents and older siblings.

Students with disabilities, especially autism spectrum disorders, have difficulty understanding language. Students with autism often develop Echoics, the practice of repeating what they have heard. Students with autism also often become scripters, memorizing things they have heard, especially on television.

Scripters can sometimes become great talkers—it becomes a platform for them to build language. I find that visual prompts are often powerful ways to help students with autism spectrum disorders organize their language in their heads. The recommended method gives an example of scaffolding to build understanding, increase intraverbals and help the student generalize the verbs across environments. 

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Action Verbs Support Expanding Language

Girl playing hopscotch
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Before you create the cards needed for this game, you need to decide what verbs you will choose to work with. Children who have added manding to their repertoire should be familiar with "want," "get," "can," "need," and "have." Hopefully, parents, teachers, and therapists have helped them build communication skills by demanding that the children use complete phrases with a verb. I, for one, don't see anything wrong with asking for a "please" as well, though I know conformity or politeness are not the purposes of manding (it's communication!) but it can't hurt, while your teaching language, to help them be more socially appropriate by teaching them how to be polite. 

Action verbs are a prime target for teaching verbs. They can easily be paired with the action so the child is clearly linking the word to the action. It can be fun! If you play a game and pick a card from the deck for "jump" and jump, you will more likely remember how to use the word "jump." The fancy term is "multi-sensory," but children with autism are very, very sensory.

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Use Discrete Trials to Teach the Verbs

Scissors and laminated flashcards
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First, you want to build an understanding of the words. Teaching and learning the words is really a two-part process:

Pair the words with the pictures and words. Do it. Teach "jump" by showing the picture, modeling the action and then have the child repeat the word (if able) and imitate the motion. Obviously, you want to be sure the child is able to imitate before you do this program. 

Evaluate the child's progress by doing discrete trials with the picture cards across fields of two or three. "Touch jump, Johnny!" 

IEP Goals for Action Verbs

  • When presented with three pictures of actions (jump, run, hop, etc.) Johnny will receptively identify the actions by pointing to the word when asked across a field of three as implemented by the teacher and teaching staff with 80 percent accuracy across four consecutive probes. 
  • When presented with three pictures of actions (jump, run, hop, etc.) Johnny will expressively identify the actions by verbally naming the item when asked across a field of three as implemented by the teacher and teaching staff with 80 percent accuracy across four consecutive probes (vital for students who are echoic—this moves them to initiate the interaction). 
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Expand and Generalize with Games

Demonstration of matching cards game
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Children with low function, especially on the Autism Spectrum, may come to see discrete trials as work and therefore aversive. Games, however, are a different thing! You will want to keep your discrete trials in the background as assessment, to provide data to provide evidence of the student's or students' progress.  

Ideas for Games

Memory: Run two copies of the action verb cards (or create your own). Flip them over, mix them up and play memory, matching the cards. Don't let a student keep the matches unless they can name the action.

Simon Says: This adapts the game to include the participation of higher functioning students. I always start leading Simon Says and only using Simon Says. Kids love it, even though the purpose (to support attention and listening) is not the purpose for our playing. You can expand by having the higher functioning students lead Simon Says—you might even join them and add to the excitement.