Therapies & Interventions

Does Your Child Have Words but no Functional Language? Know this!

Having words is different than being able to use words effectively, and for a child on the autism spectrum to develop functional language, the intervention plan needs more than just tabletop ABA therapy.

Many people seek SLPs (Speech and Language Pathologists, aka Speech Therapists) at this stage, like I did, but technically SLPs cannot really help with functional language. The functional language requires more of ABA using a verbal behavior approach, i.e. you should speak with your child’s BCBA to create a plan for functional language development. And, if the plan is already there, make sure it is based on a verbal behavior approach.

Here I would like to quote a relevant explanation from the book, “The Verbal Behavior Approach”, by Dr. Mary Barbera.

A four years old child can be described as having an expressive age equivalent to a 2.2-year-old, and receptive language skills of a 3.4-year-old.

It’s just not enough information to accurately assess a child’s skill level. As a behaviour analyst I need a lot more information about the function of a child’s language.

  • How does he use these words?
  • When does he use these words?
  • How often does he use these words?

Instead of looking at expressive language as a whole, VB practitioners break it down into smaller units, including manding, tacting, echoic, intraverbal, and spontaneous language. You’ll need to assess each of these skills to plan your VB program.

So, when you speak to the BCBA, make sure your conversation focuses on the following area.

1- Mand: How does your child let you know when he wants or needs something.

2- Tact: A tact is labeling something that you see, hear, smell, taste, or touch, i.e. how many label repertoire your child has and how quickly and frequently he can label items.

3- Echoic: How much, how often, and how frequent the child echos. Can he echo one syllable, two syllables or multi syllables or not, etc.

4- Intraverbal: What questions can he answer, sing a song, fill in the blanks etc.

5- Receptive language: Receptive language does not require speaking and is basically your child’s ability to understand what is being said, so he can follow directions or comply with requests etc.

6- Imitation skills: Your child’s ability to copy actions from any source, i.e copying mum, dad,sibling or something from TV/videos.

7- Visual performance skills: How well a child can process visual information, i.e. matching identical and non identical items on table top activities as well as in real life environment. Visual performance greatly determines a child’s ability to generalize things, which ultimately helps in functional speech.

The Bottom Line:

Developing functional language in an autistic child is quite a complex process and the best way is to have a BCBA or a BCaBA onboard with you, but just in case, the affordability is an issue, you can always read more and equip yourself to work it out. The book I mentioned above can be a great help in learning more about the development of functional language!