Maximizing Stimulus Control:  Teaching Receptive Language

Receptive language in ABA therapy, also known as listener responding, is the ability of an individual to respond to the verbal behavior and language of others. It is defined by the American Psychological Association as acting “based on an auditory stimulus.”  Receptive language is an important foundation block of early intensive behavior intervention (EIBI), a treatment based on ABA therapy. 

Receptive language can also be described as “responding appropriately to another person’s spoken language.” The keyword in this definition is “appropriately.”

The goal of EIBI and ABA therapy is to help children with autism address problem behaviors and develop new skills that help them communicate, socialize, behave, and interact within the world. The development of stimulus control and receptive language skills give these children the tools they need to respond appropriately to another person during verbal communication, instruction, engagement, etc. 

Effective and efficient teaching strategies are non-negotiable in the world of ABA receptive language. Even slight differentiation in programs can translate into a substantial change in patient progress. It is the responsibility of the provider to make sure they are using strategies that create optimal conditions for learning and skill development. 

This is important because practice of any type does not make perfect. In this setting, practice must be perfect for a child with autism to make positive progress. When errors are woven into practice, they are learned and cemented in the brain and prevent progress from happening until those errors are undone. 

Under the umbrella of stimulus control, providers are the agent of change, and the learner’s progress functions as the indicator of teacher effectiveness. Data teaches providers about the progress of the patient, but that progress is ultimately impacted by the effectiveness of their learning environment, not the child themselves. 

Optimal teaching procedures lead to: 

  1. Independent and accurate responding
  2. Rapid acquisition rate
  3. High probability of reinforcement
  4. Minimal problem behavior 

Ineffective teaching procedures lead to: 

  1. High error rate
  2. Prompt dependence/passivity
  3. Low rate of reinforcement
  4. Increased problem behavior

Stimulus Control and Autism

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Stimulus control is the extent to which a behavior is influenced by different stimulus conditions. This is one of the very first things that behavior analysts learn about in their training. It readily evokes or alters some dimension of behavior. 

Unfortunately, failed (or faulty) stimulus control has become the norm in the industry. This refers to learner responses that are brought about by irrelevant or restricted antecedent stimuli. It occurs under the assumption that if teaching procedures are not optimally designed, faulty stimulus control will absolutely take place. 

A psychologist by the name of Spradlin theorized that the primary or “root” reason that there are problematic or disruptive behaviors occurring more frequently in children with autism is that there was, at some point in their life, a failure to establish stimulus control or that stimulus control was put in place for the wrong things. 

The job of the provider is to manipulate antecedent stimuli to establish positive stimulus control. Stimuli that accompany or precede responses that are reinforced can come to influence those responses in important ways. For this reason, providers need to learn and understand the best practices for teaching receptive language. 

Receptive Language and Stimulus Control 

If the goal of a behavior analyst is to establish positive stimulus control, where the child’s behavior is impacted by a number of purposeful stimuli, the behavior they are addressing involves the child’s receptive language. Stimulus control and receptive language occur at the same time as the child responds to verbal stimuli from their provider and reacts to that stimulus in a specific, or learned way. 

If when a child responds to a verbal stimulus, they behave negatively, then faulty stimulus control was established at some point in their history. As ABA providers, optimal teaching procedures matter if we hope to transition a child’s receptive language skills to help them respond to verbal stimuli in a constructive way and establish positive stimulus control.

Discriminations and Receptive Language

Applied Behavior Analysts should be familiar with discrimination training. It is the process of reinforcing specific behaviors in the presence of specific stimuli. Ultimately, it is the program that a provider implements to help clients progress past guessing what it is a person wants them to do and instead recognize objects, instructions, conversations, and more and be able to respond accordingly. The verbal component of discrimination therapy involves teaching receptive language. The question that receptive language therapy in ABA addresses is whether or not the child responds appropriately to another person’s instructions.

The instructions that any single person responds to on an average day are not always rules, commands, or things that have to be followed. In an ABA setting, instructions are meant to determine a client’s level of understanding, enhance that understanding, and help them develop new skills. 

For example, If a provider were to present a prompt to their client involving three pictures and asks them to point at the picture with the car on it, would the child know what the word “car” meant?  If not, then they will try to guess which picture their provider wants them to point at. This is not the appropriate response to the verbal instruction, meaning the child cannot discriminate between the images and needs work strengthening their receptive language skills. 

In an ideal situation, a child with strong receptive language skills would hear the prompt, look for the car, and point at the correct picture. This means they were able to use receptive language to understand what was being asked of them and use that knowledge to discriminate between stimuli. This is an example where stimulus control was effectively established. 

Types of Discrimination

There are two types of discrimination in ABA therapy. It is important to understand the distinctions between these types as if they are taught at the same time, optimal teaching will not happen, leading to faulty stimulus control. The types of discrimination include the following. 

Simple Discriminations

Simple discriminations are a three-term contingency. They include a discriminative stimulus, a behavior, and a reinforcer. Examples of this include oral naming, instruction following, and imitation. 

Example: Seeing a car and being able to say the word “car.”

Conditional Discriminations

Conditional discrimination has matching as a basis for its response and therefore requires multiple simple discriminations to occur at the same time as well as conditionality. Receptive language is a type of conditional discrimination.

Example: Provider prompts three images and instructs the child to identify a car, the child is able to choose from the images and correctly identify the car, they then say the word “car.” 

Conditional discriminations are much more complicated than simple discrimination.

Take Away

Interested in learning best practices for teaching receptive language within client sessions? Check out our next article, or download our white paper below.

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  1. Applied Behavior Analysis EDU. (2019). What is Meant by Differential Reinforcement in the Context of Applied Behavior Analysis?

  2. Green, G. (n.d.). Behavior analytic instruction for learners with autism: Advances in stimulus control technology. Focus on Autism and Other Developmental Disorders, 16(7), 72-85.

  3. Grow, L., & LeBlanc, L. (2013). Teaching Receptive Language Skills. Behavior Analysis in Practice, 6(1), 56-75.

  4. Pelios, L. V., & Sucharzewski, A. (2004). Teaching Receptive Language to Children with Autism: A Selective Overview. ABA PsychNet.
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This post is for informational purposes only and is not meant to be used in lieu of practitioners’ own due diligence, state and federal regulations, and funders’ policies. 

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