Mary Barbera, PhD, RN, BCBA-D presents her book “The Verbal Behavior Approach” at a Paris Workshop

Dr. Mary Barbera and Alix Strickland

Dr. Mary Barbera and Alix Strickland

« Mand, tact, intraverbal ! » Participants of Dr. Barbera’s Verbal Behavior workshop at the Le Chemin ABA VB Learning Center in Paris, France last week called out the different verbal operants. They were watching a video of a young, non-verbal, boy with autism learning to speak using the Verbal Behavior Approach. This group of parents and professionals was learning to identify which verbal operant, or category of verbal behavior, was being exhibited.

During her workshops, Dr. Barbera provides a common term for each of the verbal operants to help participants understand and remember them. A « mand » is a request, a « tact » is a label, an « intraverbal » is a conversation, answering a label or when someone else talks, an « echoic » is repeating what someone else says and « listener responding » is following directions. In a Verbal Behavior (VB) program for a child with autism, each verbal operant is carefully taught in a fun and engaging way.

In her book “The Verbal Behavior Approach” Dr. Barbera defines Verbal Behavior as « any communication involving a listener including speaking, signing, exchanging pictures, pointing, writing, typing, gesturing, etc. » She goes on to explain that VB « includes crying or displaying other problem behaviors in an attempt to obtain attention or tangibles, or to escape unwanted activities ». She believes that language is a behavior that can be taught like any other behavior.

Applied Behavior Analysis, more commonly known as ABA  is the science of changing behavior. Dr. Barbera explains that « ABA is the umbrella and VB is a subset ». The VB Approach was developed based on B.F. Skinner’s work analyzing verbal behavior. It is particularly effective for children who are non-verbal or have limited or incomprehensible speech but can be used with all learners.

The goal of Dr. Barbera’s workshop is to teach parents and professionals to use ABA/VB strategies to improve autism programming across the spectrum. Dr. Barbera is a Board Certified Behavior Analyst. Her son, Lucas, was diagnosed with autism one day before his third birthday. Lucas’ diagnosis led Dr. Barbera to become trained as an ABA/VB professional, resulting in her work with the Pennsylvania Verbal Behavior Project and hundreds of families with children on the autism spectrum. She understands the stress families are under to find quality intervention for their children. She helps guide families to create home programs themselves.

During her workshop in Paris, Dr. Barbera was teaching what she calls « fluency » in the verbal operants. In order for someone to be considered « fluent » in identifying the verbal operants, he or she must successfully identify them at a rate of 20 correct responses per minute. She also discussed reducing problem behavior and increasing functional behavior in learners with autism. Many children with autism are using words but are not conversational. She taught participants strategies for teaching conversation and shared videos of her son and others on the autism spectrum learning.

ABA/VB is not as widely known and used with children on the autism spectrum in Europe as it is in the US. Participants traveled from other parts of Europe to attend the workshop. Julia Buchenau, BCBA, and head of the ABA/VB department of the Autism Centre of Cologne/Bonn in Germany, exclaimed:

« This workshop was very special to me. It combined  an easy-to-understand presentation of scientifically validated methods of ABA and Verbal Behavior with an attitude of  respect and warmth toward clients and their parents. I admire Dr. Barbera’s ability to create an atmosphere of hope without denying the difficulties that parents with a child on the autism spectrum are facing. »

For more information about the Verbal Behavior Approach visit Dr. Barbera’s website at

Dr. Barbera and this contributor recommend that all families and professionals consult a certified ABA professional to oversee any programming involving difficult and/or dangerous behaviors.