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. 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. 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 ordinarily 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

An 'ordinary language' framework requires that we simply survey what we do as a language users;  The conceptual system for teaching children a language, whether children with autism or not, is not found in theories and cannot be reduced to science. 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, 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 and the words used to express the many concepts that are a part of our language such as "what", "where", "when", "how", "why", "car", "ball", "carry, "climb", 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 those circumstances, we need to contrive situations which allow for pointed practice and guidance around those circumstances in which appropriate linguistic forms and accompanying words can be used... whose uses are determined by convention, not theory or science. Within these circumstances, there are no 'fixed responses' (i.e., responses "controlled" by antecedent stimuli)  but rather, appropriate ones; one's appropriate in the practice. Therefore, the situation in which someone greets me by saying "Hi", does not predict "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), 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 drilled 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. 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 bring this all together for young persons with ASD 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 is,  by its theoretical underpinnings, deterministic. Verbal responses are determined by controlling relations; verbal responses are 'emitted' in the presence of stimuli to which they are be reinforced. During intervention, hefty lists of "verbal responses" (according to response class) are graphed. Graphs with upward trends allow for the conclusion, "Children are learning". This is unequivocal. Children are learning to emit verbal responses controlled by specific antecedent stimuli; verbal behavior is said to be accounted for by various controlling relations. This is all fine except for one thing. Verbal behavior, within a Skinnerian paradigm is not language.  (p.2 in Verbal Behavior). However, verbal behavior proponents conflate it with language...ubiquitously. This is misleading and mis-guides. Moreover, rote responding within this paradigm is inescapable. 

Language refuses to exist under such S-R constraints; even when you try to argue for 'generalized verbal responses'. Consider a generalized response to the verbal antecedent, "Why?" Can one exist? Of course not. Or for that matter "Hi?". Adding to the examples above,  if you say "Hi" to me, I could say, "How dare you, after what you did to me?", or "How was your vacation?", or, I'm sorry I didn't call you earlier". The possible responses are indeterminate and not amenable to antecedent control or causal explanation.  The "stimulus generalization" suggestion shows to be disingenuous in the face of how language actually works. If we only pay attention, the meagerness of this argument is revealed in everyday use.

There is much to consider if we hope to teach children 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. Otherwise, children are denied 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 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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