The Clumsy Echoic

Updated: Mar 17


For children with autism who are involved in early intensive intervention, a verbal behavior paradigm informs the practice of many. As such, standard echoic training (SET) is regularly employed. Its utility for establishing early vocal imitative responding is evident. However, its use does not, and cannot clarify for children which part of more complex verbal antecedents they are to imitate and often this leads to children producing unintended and incoherent echoic responses. Moreover, its use may exacerbate echolalia. The use of conditional instructions such as “say” has been discouraged because of tendencies in children to imitate “say” as well. However, there are effective strategies that can be employed so that children can learn when and what to say when instructed to do so. ​ As clinicians, it is incumbent on us to use the best tools available for the kinds of problems we are tasked to solve. Similarly, it is our responsibility to recognize the limitations of those tools. The focus of this discussion will be on the use of a common tool, standard echoic training (SET), in autism intervention for children with language delays, its benefits and limitations. SET is most closely associated with what is commonly referred to the Applied Verbal Behavior (AVB) or Verbal Behavior (VB). (Burke, C., 2011, Carbone,V., 2001). Concerning SET, Shane (2016) writes, ​ “Standard echoic or vocal imitation training involves presenting a vocal model, and providing access to reinforcers if the participant imitates that model within an established amount of time. This is a relatively simply procedure that is easy to implement.” It looks like this: ​ Teacher says “Ah”… Child emits “ah” and the child’s emitted response is reinforced.The benefits and limitations of SET ​ Our experience has shown that employing SET can be useful in establishing early verbal imitative responding. SET is generally used to establish other verbal operants as well. In ‘tact training’, it works when there is word to world correspondence such that the ‘echoic’ response is ‘transferred’ to the presence of a real world stimulus. However, when attempting to teach other 'things' purported to be 'tactable' , such as pronouns, things quickly get confusing. (Btw, pronouns are not objects, properties or events or properties of events or objects and therefore, by definition are not 'tactable'.) SET is also employed in 'intra-verbal training’. Our experience has also shown that the benefits of SET diminish as one moves from teaching simple naming (of things in the world). For example, when teaching 'intraverbals' a teacher says, "Do you want a cookie?" and followed by an echoic prompt "Yes". Thus, the child hears,“Do you want a cookie yes”. In practice, it is hoped that by using SET, combined with various stimulus fading procedures and prompt fading procedures, youngsters will eventually say,"Yes”, in the presence of the truncated antecedent, “Do you want a cookie?”. Unfortunately, getting to the desired response is not always easy. Let’s explore this a bit. ​ When considering the procedure, the first question one might ask might be “How can a child know to echo only ‘yes’, “Why wouldn’t the child echo the entire phrase? “Why not the last two words?” In fact, children can’t possibly know and thus we often see what we call, ‘hanging echoes’. Therefore, when we say, “Do you want a cookie yes?” very often children say, “Cookie yes” or “Want cookie yes” or even the entire uttered statement.


This should not surprise us since there is nothing in what we say that differentiates the intended “prompt” from the intended ‘question’. There is no demarcation i.e., this part is the question you are to answer, and this part is the appropriate answer you are to provide. The verbal antecedent is fused as one continuous, undifferentiated stream of sounds. Any user of English could not make sense of what was said. It is not English. It’s VeeBee-ese. ​ Given this problem, the next question might likely be, “Why not simply teach a youngster to respond to the instruction “say”, so that children will know what to say and when to say it. Good question…and one that is frequently asked. The common response to this question is that telling a child to ‘say X’ often results in children echoing the word “say” in addition to the intended target for imitation. Therefore, the usual prescription is to not use a “say” instruction. A second reason for the use of SET is that, from the perspective of ‘verbal behaviorists’, the procedure leads to some success in establishing primary verbal operants, i.e., mands , tacts, intraverbals and echoics, so stick with what sometimes works. And for the purists, it's behavioral so it must be good. While using SET may result in the accumulation verbal operants, it confounds efforts at teaching language ​ But, it must be pointed out, acquiring desired verbal operants using SET can be hit or miss. Moreover, having verbal operants is not the same as having language.

You see, “verbal behavior” it is not about language. (You don't have to take my word for it, just ask Skinner, 1957, p.2). It’s to account for 'controlling relations'. Language on the other hand is the practice a verbal community, which Skinner (1957, p.2) says, “has become remote from the behavior of the speaker.” Verbal behavior’, in contrast to language, is concerned with the behavior of speakers. Primary operants, as Skinner lays them out, describe specific behavior-environment relations; nothing more. It's taxonomic.


Language is something different. ​ 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, 2013). It is to learn to do things with words such as asking, telling, naming, directing, promising, describing, explaining, cajoling, negotiating, refuting, refusing, agreeing, directing, correcting, teasing, comparing, contrasting, tattling, inviting, etc. To learn a language is to be able to manipulate symbols according to the rules for their use; to learn their meanings. Therefore, we need to also ask, “Shouldn’t the approach driving ‘language intervention’ be consistent with a language based conceptual system? More specifically, an 'ordinary language-based' system? ​ Tools for teaching language need to be 'at home' in a language-based conceptual scheme ​ To be able to make moves in language is not to have fixed responses determined by controlling antecedent stimuli. To understand a move in language is not to 'account for controlling relations', but to understand how what is said is consistent and appropriate within a practice. For example, to answer a “why”question is to give a reason. There are an indefinite number reasons one could give to a ‘why ‘question. Answering a "where" question is bound up with place. Given this, it is inconceivable to imagine ‘generalized responses’ or ‘histories of reinforcement’ which would account for an infinite number of reasons or places situated in an infinite number of situations, circumstances or transactions bound up with a query. ​ Thus, the goals related to language learning for children with autism need to reflect these considerations. Such goals require the use of tools for instruction that are 'at home' within the conceptual scheme of that which one is trying to teach... which for most of us working with children with ASD, is to teach a language. To use tools for language instruction that have a place within other conceptual schemes will likely clog up the works.


This is the case with using SET. It goes without saying, the tools one uses should not interfere in achieving your goals. The tools need to be sure in purpose and accuracy. With these requirements in mind…how does the use of SET hold up as a tool for language instruction? ​ Not well. First, encouraging (reinforcing) echoing in persons who may already manifest pathological echoing (echolalia), may result in increased echolalia. Second, the use of SET actually confounds efforts at teaching a language as its use runs counter to conventions of use in ordinary language. It confuses as it violates the rules and renders efforts within a language scheme incoherent . SET does not clarify, ‘when to echo/imitate (and when not to) or precisely what to echo/imitate’ as would a common instruction, “say”. SET can’t provide the kinds of therapeutic accuracy needed to tackle complex language goals. Examples of the imprecision of SET as are shown below: ​ 1. Teaching greetings: ​ In this example (Figure I) , a teacher (Mel) attempts teach a child, Al, to greet him. Figure I ​ ​

​ When viewing this sequence, one is left to consider whether, 1) These people live in a parallel universe where everything is said in opposites 2) This is a perfectly acceptable method for teaching someone to offer greetings since it results in the establishment of an echoic relation and comports with “the science”. 3) This is a very peculiar way of teaching someone to offer greetings. The youngster is Al, the instructor is Mel. Using this strategy for teaching greetings violates conventions of ordinary language in which there is an agreed use of symbols used to refer. But since establishing verbal operants is the primary concern in an AVB based approach, using SET is fine, since its use satisfies the requirement of establishing verbal operants. Since some children do learn to produce the desired response/s, there would be no concern about its use. However, for those who do not benefit, ascription of difficulty in learning will most likely be assigned to the child... not to the method. Eventually, for most children, this strategy is bound to end up getting in the way, as language targets get muddled in the mix. ​ Now imagine if the teacher, Mel, had decided to attempt to teach reciprocal greetings. Mel would have said something like, “Hi Al Hi Mel”. This is common practice and, while it may work for some children it’s a very confused and a confusing way of instructing children in the basic rules for greetings. There is nothing in this effort that clarifies for the child what they are to do, nor does it resemble anything we say in English. Wouldn’t it be much simpler and clearer to simply instruct a student using a “say” instruction? The sequence would look like this. Teacher: “Hi Al, say “Hi Mel” and all conventions and the need for clarity are satisfied…and the rules of English are maintained. ​ 2. Teaching “Asking questions”: ​ In Figure II, the instructor wants to teach a youngster to ask a question. But, within an echoic training paradigm, the teacher is actually asking a question… even though what he says is intended as a echoic prompt. ​ Figure II ​ ​ ​

​ ​ Now, assume, that in this case, the ‘ecohic prompt’, “What are you eating” is a question that a child has learned to answer, in which case the child is likely to answer the question. But in the case above, Mel is no match for Albert and Albert just sees how silly this is. Naturally, the child (except for Al) can’t know that the ‘question’ is actually an echoic prompt. Confusing, right? ​ The same problem exists when we want to teach children to give directions rather than follow them. For example, if I want a child to learn to tell me how to build a block structure, using SET I would say “Put the red block on the green block”. How could the child possibly know whether what I say is a ‘prompt’ to imitate what I say or a direction that they are to follow. There is no way. But eventually, children will need to learn how to direct others to do things and we will need to help them learn to do this. ​ 3. Pronouns/ giving directions Figure III ​ ​

​ ​ ​ ​ In Figure III, the instructor wants a child to say, “Throw me the ball”, and says, “Throw me the ball” intending to prompt the child to say the same thing. In this case, one sees immediately that basic deixic relations are disregarded. “Me” always refers to the speaker. And, when the speaker says, “Throw me the ball”, the instructor is telling the child to throw the instructor the ball. It can’t be any other way. This is how our language works. These words have a place in language (a la Wittgenstein) and mean things. Use outside of their agreed upon place is just incoherent. It seems only natural that as instructors of a language, our teaching conform to the practices within that language…that if we intend children to learn a language/ that our language models correspond to the practices within that language. Can it be any other way? Would you try to teach chess expressed in the rules for checkers? ​ And to drive the point home, pronoun use is a fundamental feature of English (Or any language). Learning to use them is complicated. Part of the challenge in learning to use pronouns is that they are contextually determined. There are many moving parts and learning to use them requires vigilant tracking across shifting speakers (you, they, he, she, Ralph, etc.) and listeners (I, We, they, she, he, Ralph, etc.) and requires ongoing changes in responses. We need to be as precise as possible when instructing children in how they work. At a minimum, a child needs instruction that doesn’t confuse and which operates within the rules of the language one is trying to teach. Using a SET fails in this effort. ​ The use of SET has its place within a ‘verbal behavior’ approach and has very limited utility in a language based instructional scheme. I need to emphasize, Skinner’s “Verbal Behavior” and derived applications are not about language. Language and VB are very different conceptual schemes and should not be confused, although they are, ubiquitously. Using SET, beyond establishing the rudiments of vocal imitation just confuses. Children need to learn when to say what we ask them to say by teaching them to say what they are told to: to say “x” only when instructed to say“x” by using the instruction, “say”. ​ ​ There are a few strategies to consider in order that child learn what the instruction “say” means: ​ 1) Whispering the instruction “say” and punching the words to be said is one way. 2) Whisper the instruction “say” and slightly delaying the words to be said is something else to try. 3) Present nonsense words either preceded by the instruction, “say” or without. For example, “PLOOKY PLOOKLY” vs. SAY “PLOOKY PLOOKY”. 4. From the previous exercise, we will move to a “say vs “do” program. In this case, an instruction to ‘clap’ is interspersed with an instruction to say “clap .” i.e, say the word only if you hear the word “say”, otherwise perform the corresponding action. ​ These strategies are not mutually exclusive and can be combined…but require meticulous teaching procedures. See what works. If a child learns how to follow this basic and essential instruction, teaching other kinds of practice forms such as teaching children to ask questions, to give directions, to tell others things etc., is in reach. ​ Summary and Conclusions: ​ Our experience has shown that using SET is a useful tool for establishing early verbal imitative behavior. It is also commonly used for establishing tacts, mands and intraverbals. But its use beyond establishing early verbal imitation is clumsy and is a poor choice for language instruction. First, it may increase pathological echoing in children who already demonstrate such tendencies. Second, as a tool for teaching a language, its use violates conventions of use, confuses rather than clarifies what is required of children for when and what to say. Such problems significantly hamper our ability for teaching basic' linguistic abilities and certainly more advanced abilities (asking questions, pronoun use, giving directions etc.). ​ By establishing a conditional instruction, 'say what I tell you to say' (using the instruction “say”) will allow language-based instruction efforts to precede and succeed for more children. We have found that by careful and creative contingency and prompting arrangements (Say vs. do) it is easily possible to establish “say” as a conditional instruction. Establishing its use clarifies for children when to say and when not to say what someone else says. The ultimate question is whether clinicians should be satisfied with establishing only verbal operants. If so, then using SET is fine, since it is consistent within a VB paradigm despite its significant limitations and resulting confusion. On the other hand, if clinicians hope that children learn a language, SET needs to be put aside early on and replaced with a ‘say’ instruction if children are to be given a better chance at learning a language. References ​ Hacker, P.M.S. (2013). The intellectual powers. A study of human nature. Wiley. Lund, S. K., & Schnee, A. (2018). Early intervention for children with ASD: Considerations. Infinity. Skinner, B.F. (1957). Verbal Behavior. Copley Publishing Group. Shane, Joseph, "Increasing Vocal Behavior and Establishing Echoic Stimulus Control in Children with Autism" (2016). Dissertations. 1400. https://scholarworks.wmich.edu/dissertations/1400