The Clumsy Echoic

Updated: Oct 16


For children with autism who are involved in early intensive behavioral 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 is useful in establishing early verbal imitative responding. SET is generally used to establish other verbal operants as well. For ‘tact training’, it is useful 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 tacts, such as of 'things' purported to be 'tactable', such as pronouns, things quickly get confusing.This procedure 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 actually in the world). For example, when a teacher asks the question, "Do you want a cookie?" and wishes to prompt an echoic "Yes", the instructor will say, “Do you want a cookie yes”. It is hoped that by using SET, combined with various stimulus fading procedures and prompt fading procedures, a youngster 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 words. 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 saying ‘say’ 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 practicing ‘verbal behaviorists’, the procedure leads to some success in establishing primary verbal operants, i.e., mands , tacts, intraverbals and echoics. While using SET may result in the accumulation verbal operants, it confounds efforts at teaching language ​ But, it must be pointed out, even if there is some success is obtaining and accumulating verbal operants, 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 laid them out, describe specific behavior-environment relations; nothing more. Language is something different. 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? ​ 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 ru