To learn a language is to learn the activities, practices, actions and reactions within characteristic contexts in which the rule governed use of words are integrated (Hacker, 2003). Words are integrated into activities and practices such as asking, telling, naming, directing, promising, describing, explaining, cajoling, negotiating, refuting, refusing, agreeing, correcting, teasing, tattling, inviting, etc. To learn a language is to learn to manipulate symbols (words, gesture) according to the conventions for their use; to learn their meaning. Having a language grants many benefits: to be able to reason, deliberate, to talk about our pasts and futures, hopes, wishes, disappoints and joys...etc. It only makes sense that the goals within a language-based program be those things we do in language. This is a fundamentally different conceptual framework than the current popular Stimulus-Response/ Verbal Behavior approach. At Nexus, we teach language.

At Nexus, children learn language according to their capacities. Children are taught systematically within an Early Intensive Behavior Intervention framework and are taught with the benefit of behavioral tools, strategies and techniques which, when applied expertly and appropriately, lead to effective and efficient learning. At Nexus, mastery of a language occurs outside the constraints of popular conceptual approaches.

Learning a language is not reducible to science

The bedrock of science is prediction and control. It's silly to think that language can be reduced to such terms; control and prediction. Language scoffs at such efforts and such efforts lead to an inevitable and incomprehensible muddle (the VB approach). A descriptive accounting of language frees us from this fly bottle. An 'ordinary language' framework requires that we simply survey what we do as a language users and teach what is in front of our noses.

 

The conceptual system for teaching children a language, whether children with autism or not, is not found in theories. Our mothers, fathers, sisters, brothers, aunts and uncles etc. showed us, guided us - indoctrinated us in a cultural practice. They taught us how to do all kinds of things with words... to make promises, to ask, to describe, to provide directions, to tell, to invite, warn, assert, proclaim, negotiate, confirm, disagree, offer, refuse, etc.....not to tact, mand or intra-verbal. They helped us learn the rules for the use of words that are used to express the many concepts that are a part of our language such as "what", "where", "when", "how", "why", "car", "ball", "carry, "climb", "red", "three", etc..

 

This is what we, as children, learned in our indoctrination in the practice. Guides in this practice don't need to have mastered a theory of language or possess a masters degree in order to guide well...it requires only their own mastery of the practice. Our job, as interventionists, is similar. Except in our case, rather than wait for situations or conditions to occur naturally so that we might guide children in what they might do/say under particular circumstances, we first need to contrive situations which allow for pointed practice and guidance around particular circumstances in which appropriate linguistic forms and accompanying words can be used... whose uses are determined by convention, not theory or science. Within those circumstances, there are no 'fixed responses' (i.e., responses "controlled" by antecedent stimuli)  but rather, appropriate ones - those appropriate within the practice. Therefore, the situation in which someone greets someone by saying "Hi", does not predict or control "Hello" in return. Any number of appropriate responses can be imagined such as "Where've you been?", "How's your Mother?", "I like your hair" etc. What constitutes a 'correct' response is determined by context (circumstances), history, activity and the practices of the verbal community.

 

It takes a great deal of time, training and careful engineering for a child to begin to master a linguistic practice. There are constituents which need to be first acquired and elements need to be learned even before training in the practice can begin. Just like when learning to play chess...first one learns the names of the pieces, then basic moves and eventually, to consider any number of possible moves. So too in learning a language. And,  the game of chess can't be reduced to science any more than the 'games' in language. To work outside of this framework is to only scratch at language.

It takes a great deal of time, training, practice and study for a practitioner to artfully construct an intervention program that will bring this all together for young persons with ASD; for those persons who can't manage to do it without extraordinary assistance.

What we mean by language

Language and Skinner's Verbal Behavior:

They are not the same

Skinner's analysis of verbal behavior is very popular. It is a conceptual system which, by its theoretical underpinnings, is deterministic...and which sets out to achieve 'prediction and control'. Verbal responses are said to be determined by controlling relations. Thus, verbal responses are 'emitted' in the presence of stimuli to which they've been reinforced. During intervention, hefty lists of "verbal responses" (according to response class) are accumulated and graphed. Graphs with upward trends allow for the conclusion, "Children are learning". This is unequivocal. Children can learn to emit verbal responses controlled by specific antecedent stimuli - behavior said to be accounted for by various controlling relations so we may say that "learners" (i.e., children) have responses". Parrots learn to emit verbal responses in this way too. They too "have responses" under stimulus control. This is all fine except for one thing. Verbal behavior, within a Operant/Skinnerian paradigm is not language. (You are urged to read Skinner, who on p.2 in Verbal Behavior distinguishes language from 'verbal behavior'). Nonetheless, proponents of 'verbal behavior' conflate it with language...ubiquitously.

This is misleading and mis-guides. AVB intervention is directed toward "having responses". But "having responses" is to do nothing...to do nothing with words...is to not make moves in the language games within a practice.  "Having responses", whether 10 or 10,000 has no relationship to ability. Someone may 'have' all of their chess pieces, but "having" them has nothing to do with one's ability to use them in a game of chess...has nothing to do with their understanding of how to play chess. "Having verbal responses" means nothing about being able to use them in language-to make moves in language. Just as science can't tell us anything about the game of chess, neither can it reveal anything about the rule bound games we learn as we learn moves in language. And verbal behavior has nothing to do with language despite the confused proclamations of AVB advocates who somehow ignore Skinner's own designations. Moreover, rote responding within this paradigm is inescapable and is part and parcel of a stimulus-control explanatory system.

Language refuses to exist under such S-R constraints; even when arguing for 'generalized verbal responses'. This accounting is wholly insufficient when one considers what we actually do in language. Consider the verbal antecedent, "Why?". What could a generalized response possibly be?  The possible responses are indefinite e.g., "I like it", "My boss told me to", "I forgot", "To get ice cream" . To try to concoct how these possibilities might conform to what is considered 'response generalization' as defined within ABA leaves one in a muddle since the concept itself is so elusive - except in a few very particular cases (colors for example). Nonetheless, this is the 'fall back' position of  behavior analysts. The possible responses to the verbal antecedent "why" are indeterminate and not amenable to antecedent control, prediction or causal explanation. The "stimulus/response generalization" accounting is confusing and shows to be disingenuous in the face of how language actually works. If we only pay attention, the feebleness of this 'stimulus/response generalization' accounting is revealed in everyday use.

There is much to consider if we hope to teach children a language. We already know how to teach children to emit rote responses; to teach 'verbal behavior'. That is not difficult.  However, to teach a language to children with ASD is difficult. It requires a conceptual framework detached from theory and jargon. To do otherwise, is to deny children the possibility of achieving the full benefits of language. Our book offers considerations for building a language-based curriculum.

Learning Language while Solving Problems 

With all of this in mind... there are a number of platforms we use to help get a language into place. An example of one platform we employ is our active learning platform. In an active learning platform, situations are contrived so that children learn to solve practical problems. This platform allows for teaching many things within the context of solving a ‘problem’... So that children also learn the names of things, the properties of the things , how precisely to use things, where to get the things they need should the problem come up again, to learn to ask for help as problems arise, to describe the problem, explain things, and to consider alternate solutions. Examples of how we do this are found in the ASAT article and our book.

Nexus Autism Intervention Services

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