Behavioral Banter 2

A Behaviorist’s Blog
Richard Couch, PhD, BCBA-D
CLASS Director of Research and Staff Development

Welcome to another posting of Behavioral Banter, a periodic blog written to educate, entertain, and encourage those who care about services for individuals with special needs and their families.  In subsequent postings you will find a Behaviorist’s view of various topics ranging from the philosophical to the legislative, and from in-home programs to life after public education.  This blog will address concerns affecting all of us who care about the application of behavioral principals (Applied Behavior Analysis) as we strive to improve the human condition for all.

Today’s topic:  The importance of a verbal community for language development.

That some form of language impairment is associated with Autistic Spectrum Disorder (ASD) is all too often commonly expected is tragically ubiquitous.  Indeed, in the American Psychiatric Association’s Diagnostic and Statistical Manual, Fifth Edition (DSM-5) the standardized criteria to help diagnose ASD include persistent deficits in social communication and social interaction across multiple contexts.  Specifically:

Deficits in nonverbal communicative behaviors used for social interaction, ranging, for example, from poorly integrated verbal and nonverbal communication; to abnormalities in eye contact and body language or deficits in understanding and use of gestures; to a total lack of facial expressions and nonverbal communication.

Similarly, the International Classification of Diseases (ICD-9-CM) delineates:

A disorder characterized by marked impairments in social interaction and communication accompanied by a pattern of repetitive, stereotyped behaviors and activities.

Since Behavior Analysts focus on environmental conditions in a client’s life to provide therapy, it comes as no surprise that we are interested in the “verbal community” in which a client resides.  This is true for all children whether they have been diagnosed with ASD or are neurologically typical youngsters.  Regardless of diagnosis — or the absence of one — Behavior Analysts strive to increase the opportunities for learners to hear and use as many words as possible.  The greater the opportunities, the greater the number of times a child can use (or attempt) words, and the greater the number of (hopefully positive) consequences that follow.

By way of example, look at the basketball skill of shooting free throws.  A coach wanting to develop better free throw shooting in a team’s players could have them read books on the topic, or watch videos of other players making free throws, or lecture them on the best way to perform the skill.   None of these tactics however, would be nearly as effective as simply having players stand on the free throw line and practice, practice, practice; practice alone with no distractions, practice with team mates encouragement and cheers, practice in a hostile environment with abundant distractions, practice rested, and practice exhausted.  You get the idea.

Returning to language development, in the 1980s Betty Hart and Todd Risley from the University of Kansas analyzed massive amounts of longitudinal data from observations in the homes of a variety of families in the Kansas City, Kansas area.  Without going into the details of the enormous undertaking, the research team made some profound discoveries.  To wit:

The mean number of words heard each day by 11 – 18 month-old children was 325, but the range was 56 to 793!  This discrepancy was consistent throughout the children’s formative years.  Indeed, from 29 to 36 months the range was from 34 to 783 – practically the same as the prior years.

Now extrapolating this finding to the bigger picture:  In a 14 hour waking day, 50 words per hour equals 700 per day.  Conversely, a child who hears 750 words per hour would experience about 10,000 words per day.  Now multiply this by 365 days in a year and the difference becomes 250,000 versus 4,000,000!  Returning briefly to the free throw shooter, who would you want taking the game winning free throw shot?  The player who practiced some, or the player who practice some 16 times more?

The choice is obvious.  Engaging children in a rich verbal community by speaking to, and eliciting from them as much language (or attempts) as possible is essential to the therapeutic process.  The difference is crucial.

Let’s make a difference where we can — that’s one behaviorist’s opinion.