Defining Verbal Behavior: A Key Concept in Applied Behavior Analysis

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Behavior therapist conducts learning projects with her child client.

In years past, parents of children with autism were often told that if their child hadn’t started to speak by age 4, they might never learn to develop language skills. Yet new research has shown that nonverbal children can be taught to develop language skills in grade school and adolescence. An article at Autism Speaks reported that researchers at the Center for Autism and Related Disorders evaluated information on 535 children ages 8 to 17, all of whom had been diagnosed with autism and experienced severe language delays at age 4. “The researchers found that, in fact, most of these children did go on to acquire language skills. Nearly half (47 percent) became fluent speakers,” the article said. “Over two-thirds (70 percent) could speak in simple phrases.”

Teaching nonverbal children and adolescents to speak isn’t impossible. However, professionals who are interested in helping autistic patients develop language skills need to understand that whereas traditional teaching methods often fail, verbal behavior therapy tends to have higher success rates.

Verbal Behavior Defined

B.F. Skinner, an American behavioral psychologist, coined the term “verbal behavior” as an application of applied behavior analysis (ABA). Skinner’s approach encourages people to learn language in ways that connect words with their purposes.

To elaborate on this point, Autism Speaks explains that “verbal behavior therapy begins by teaching mands (requests) as the most basic type of language. For example, the individual with autism learns that saying ‘cookie’ can produce a cookie. As soon as the student makes a request, the therapist repeats the word and presents the requested item.”

Since the action of asking for a cookie is met with positive reinforcement (being handed a cookie), can begin to understand that verbal requests can evoke a response.

Verbal Behavior and Applied Behavior Analysis

Verbal behavior is part of ABA and uses the same principles of science, focusing specifically on the science of behavior and learning. The verbal behavior methodology teaches people how to label things and to associate words and things with their purposes.

Skills Applied Behavior Analysts Need to Be Successful

Professionals who are interested in pursuing an ABA career will need to develop the following skills:

Active listening. Applied behavior analysts need to listen to their clients’ verbal and nonverbal communication. Therapists must also maintain eye contact and use positive body language, such as smiling and nodding to let their clients know they’re being heard and understood. Active listening often helps clients feel more at ease, which in turn can help therapists use the verbal behavior teaching methods with their clients.

Approachability. The most successful applied behavior analysts are able to develop rapport with their clients. Developing certain personality traits, such as being kind, nice, and compassionate, can help therapists connect with their clients.

Empathy. Clients need to have a sense that their applied behavior analyst understand how they feel. Empathetic therapists are able to sense their clients’ emotions and imagine how their clients might be feeling.

Job Growth Projections for Applied Behavior Analysts

The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics projects that overall employment of psychologists, including applied behavior analysts, will grow by 14% between 2016 and 2026, which is faster than the forecast growth trajectory for all other occupations. It should further be noted that due to the uptick in the prevalence of autism spectrum disorders, the Behavior Analyst Certification Board projects that demand for board certified behavior analysts increased by approximately 800% between 2010 and 2017.

Although compensation levels may vary based on several factors, including the size of the organization and the city and state of employment, PayScale indicates that as of July 30, 2019, the median annual salary for professionals who have completed a Master of Science (MS) in Applied Behavior Analysis was recorded at $57,000.

Learn More

Pursuing an advanced degree, such as Regis College’s online Master of Science in Applied Behavior Analysis can help aspiring applied behavior analysts learn more about behavior assessment techniques, treatment evaluation techniques, and ethical practices they’ll need to be successful in that role. The program was designed to teach students who come from a wide variety of health science backgrounds, such as psychology and music therapy, who are interested in advancing their careers and helping patients.

Recommended Reading

How Behavioral Scientists Treat Children with Autism Spectrum Disorder Using Applied Behavior Analysis

A Rewarding Career: Opportunities for the Behavioral Therapist What Is Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA), and Why Is It Important?


Association for Science in Autism Treatment, Verbal Behavior/Applied Verbal Behavior

Autism Speaks, Many Nonverbal Children with Autism Overcome Severe Language Delays Autism Speaks, Seven Ways to Help Your Nonverbal Child Speak

Autism Speaks, Verbal Behavior Therapy Behavior Analyst Certification Board, U.S. Employment Demand for Behavior Analysts: 2010-2017 PayScale, Master of Science (MS) Applied Behavior Analysis Degree

Pediatrics, “Predictors of Phrase and Fluent Speech in Children with Autism and Severe  Language Delay”

Psychology Today, Applied Behavior Analysis Special Learning, Inc., What Is Verbal Behavior?

U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, Psychologists