Autism Therapy Terms You Need to Know

Learn about Terms Like Mand, Reinforcer, and Echo

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ABA (Applied Behavior Analysis) is, by any measure, the most popular and widely used autism therapy. ABA can be used to teach appropriate behaviors or skills, and it's often provided to autistic children through no-cost early intervention and school programs.

How Does ABA Work?

ABA is built around traditional behaviorism. Behaviorism assumes that both animals and people learn to behave appropriately because they are responding to potential rewards or consequences.

On the simplest level, dogs do tricks because they are expecting a treat, and they avoid pulling on a leash because they don't like the feeling of a collar choking them. On a much more sophisticated level, employees work harder when they expect a bonus for their extra effort, and they avoid stealing from their employer because they don't like the idea of going to jail.

ABA is a therapy which uses behavioral theory to teach people with autism how to respond appropriately, make requests, and behave as typically as possible. Over the years, ABA researchers have discovered that consequences for non-compliance are not only ethically questionable, but are also unnecessary. Thus, in the vast majority of situations, ABA therapists do not use consequences or punishment; instead, if a child fails to comply, he or she does not receive a reward.

The most basic form of ABA therapy is actually quite simple:

  1. You start by determining, through conversation or experimentation, what reward is most interesting to the child. While some children respond best to a smile and praise, others are more likely to respond to a treat such as a favorite food or an opportunity to do something they enjoy.
  2. Next, you ask the child for a desired behavior. That behavior can be something as simple as "pick up the spoon", "repeat this word", "name this object," or as complex as "have an appropriate conversation with a classmate."
  1. If the child responds as desired, he or she receives a reward. If not, there is no reward. In some cases, the request is repeated until the child complies.

It's important to know that the very simple form of ABA described above, called "discrete trials," is by no mean the only available form of ABA. In fact, there are a wide range of newer ABA techniques with names like "pivotal response" and "natural environment teaching" which are much less regimented. All ABA techniques, however, are based in behaviorism and use rewards to reinforce positive behaviors.

What Are the Terms Used By ABA Therapists to Describe the Therapy?

ABA itself is not terribly complicated.  But as in many technical fields, behavioral therapists use special terms (jargon) to describe what they're doing. Here are just a few of the terms you're likely to hear from your child's ABA therapist:

  • The treat or reward offered for a job well done is called a reinforcer.
  • The request for a desired behavior is called a mand.
  • An imitated sound or word (the therapist says "say spoon" and the child says "spoon") is called an echo.
  • A verbal label (the therapist says "what is this?" and the child responds "spoon") is called a tact.
  • A correct conversational response (the therapist says "what do you want?" and the child replies "a cookie") is called an intraverbal.

    How Different Is ABA From Ordinary Parenting or Teaching?

    So what's the difference between a mand and a request, or a reinforcer and a prize? For example, if you say "Janey, if you say spoon I'll give you a cookie," are you doing exactly the same thing as an ABA therapist would do?

    The difference, according to Amanda Reed, BAppSc, MA, is fairly small. "A mand is essentially a request, but it's all about what comes before and after the request. Prior to the mand comes some kind of deprivation or aversive."

    For example, a therapist, knowing that a child particularly likes Oreo cookies, might hold an Oreo in her hand and show it to the client.

    This is the deprivation or aversive. When the client correctly uses a mand by requesting the cookie using words, picture cards, signs, etc., the therapist responds by handing over the cookie. If the client simply grabs, the therapist withholds the cookie and instructs the client to use the appropriate mand.


    Hagopian, Louis et al. Applied behavior analysis. Kennedy Krieger. Web. 2017.

    Interview with Amanda Reed, BAppSc, MA, Director of Development at Pyramid Group Management Services Corporation. September, 2010.

    Slocum, Timothy A. et al. The evidence-based practice of applied behavior analysis.” The Behavior Analyst 37.1 (2014): 41–56. PMC. Web. 24 Aug. 2017.