This article is part of our ABA therapy techniques series where we explore the different techniques used by ABA therapists.
Autism spectrum disorder is characterized by communication impairments which can lead to challenging behaviors. In this article, we explain manding, beginner requesting, and functional communication training, techniques used in ABA therapy to help children with autism communicate more effectively.
A mand is a request for something a child wants or needs. It can be a single word, a statement, or a question. For example, a child may ask for a cookie in several different ways:
- “Cookie” (single word)
- “I want a cookie” (statement)
- “Can I have a cookie?” (question)
The type and complexity of the mand used will depend on the child’s communication skills and development level.
Mands can take different forms:
- Vocal manding or talking
- Gestural manding, for example, pointing or reaching for the desired item or person
- Manding through signs
- Using Picture Exchange Communication System (PECS).
Types of mands
There are many different types of mands. Mands can be requests for:
- Items: toys, objects, food
- Actions: run, jump
- Ending an activity the child does not want to engage in: “no”, “stop, “all done”
- Getting attention: “look”, “come”
- Information using “wh questions”: what, where, who, which, how, and why.
How it is used in ABA therapy
Mands are among the first verbal behaviors taught in ABA therapy. Mand training starts with teaching a child to ask for a reinforcer by using a single word and then gradually building to more complex phrases, questions, and requests for actions, such as “Can I have…”.
In order to mand, a child must be motivated to gain access to an item or to get attention. It is essential that the therapist immediately provides the child with what they are asking for to reinforce the mand. This way, manding is more likely to occur again in the future.
Mand training in ABA therapy consists of the following steps:
- Identify highly preferred items that are exciting enough for a child to mand for them.
- Withhold the preferred item and prompt the mand. You should not give the item to the child unless they mand for it.
- Give the child access to the item as soon as they made an attempt or were successful in their mand.
Benefits of manding
Manding is a strong foundation for developing more advanced language skills in children with autism, such as labeling and identifying items. It is also a good starting point for improving social skills. Finally, children who can mand often have lower rates of challenging behavior because they are capable of communicating their needs in other, more acceptable, ways.
Beginner requesting refers to simple one-word mands and non-verbal communication used by very young children and children who have little or no language.
There are many types of beginner requesting and not all of them need to be verbal. Some of the ways the child can request an item include:
- Pointing to the object
- Giving the object to the therapist to get help operating it, for example, a bubble maker, a spinning top toy, or a busy board
- Requesting an item by guiding the therapist to it (pulling them by the hand)
- Using a Picture Exchange Communication System (PECS) to show the therapist a picture of the desired item and gain access to that item.
How it is used in ABA therapy
Teaching beginner requesting in ABA therapy starts by identifying the child’s preferences through a preference assessment. Children are always more motivated to make a request for preferred items than for neutral or non-preferred ones.
Additionally, the therapist must set up an environment that offers many opportunities for the child to communicate by requesting. For example, instead of having all the toys easily accessible to the child, some of them should be out of reach, encouraging the child to ask for them (communication temptation).
For beginner requesting, the child only needs to learn one-word labels for the item. The goal is to have the child request an item spontaneously and eventually transition to intermediate requesting that will strengthen their communication and social skills.
Functional communication training (FCT) is a differential reinforcement method that consists of finding effective replacements for undesired behaviors. Such behaviors include non-compliance, aggression, destruction, and self-harm. The replacement behavior is more appropriate, but serves the same purpose and allows the child to achieve the same goals as the challenging one.
Through functional communication, children with autism spectrum disorder learn how to use different forms of verbal and non-verbal communication including:
- Sign language
The type of FCT depends on the child’s communication abilities. Nonverbal and nonvocal children can also benefit from a functional communication treatment as they can learn to express themselves in other ways than using spoken language.
How it is used in ABA therapy
Functional communication training is often the first step in ABA therapy for children diagnosed with autism. It is typically used within a comprehensive ABA program in combination with other therapies.
Functional communication training consists of the following steps:
- Determine the targeted behavior, for example, a tendency to self-injury when presented with a challenging task.
- Determine the function of the target behavior, that is, identify its reason and purpose. This is done by completing a functional assessment through observation and data collection.
- Decide what communication system works best for the child. This could be either spoken language, sign language, PECS, or a speech-generating device.
- Choose an alternative, functionally equivalent phrase that the child could use. For example, the therapist can teach the child to say “I don’t want to” verbally or using pictures and signs instead of displaying aggressive behaviors.
- Practice and reinforce functional communication. Each time the child uses the phrases given by the therapist instead of engaging in the unwanted behavior, they should be reinforced. At the same time, problem behaviors are systematically ignored.
- Prompt or remind the child to use the newly acquired skill whenever appropriate.
- Once the child can use simple phrases independently and spontaneously, the therapist can start working on more advanced communication skills.
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