Words You'll Hear from Your Child's ABA Therapist (and Nowhere Else)

Learn about Mand, Reinforcer, and Echo

ABA Therapy Session
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ABA (Applied Behavior Analysis) is a therapy which uses behavioral theory to teach people with autism how to respond appropriately, make requests, and behave as typically as possible. ABA therapy is actually quite simple:

  1. You start by determining -- through conversation with parents or through 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.
  1. 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 "respond appropriately to my question."
  2. If the child responds as desired, he or she receives a reward. If not, there is no reward -- and the request is repeated.

None of this is terribly complicated.  But as in many technical fields, behavioral therapists use special terms -- or jargon -- to describe what they're doing.  So...

  • 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.

    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, Director of Development at Pyramid Group Management Services Corporation (the creators of PECS picture cards), 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.


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

    "Autism Teaching Methods: Applied Behavior Analysis and Verbal Behavior" AutismWeb. 2015.

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