Teaching Kids with Autism to Reply to Questions with Yes and No

Many kids with autism need to be taught to answer yes and no, and very few professionals know how to teach this skill. So today, it’s all about yes and no.

Hi, I’m doctor Mary Barbera. Autism mom, board certified behavior analyst, and best-selling author. When my son, Lucas, was two years old, before he was diagnosed with autism, he went to weekly speech therapy, and at the time, I knew nothing about how to try to help him speak more. He always had a few words, but I never really knew how to get more out of him. So we’d go to speech therapy, and I was observing each time, and I would go in there, and the speech therapist would start out with things like bubbles, and having him request more bubbles, and say bubbles.

So everything was fine during that part of speech therapy. In fact, she was doing a little pairing, which I didn’t know what that was. But then he was two, and she would get out a stack of cards, and half of them would be apples, and half of them would be other things, like a bed, and a ball, and whatever, and she would go through the cards, and she’d say, “Is this an apple?” And she’d want him to say yes or no. He had no idea. He was making constant errors. I didn’t know that what she was actually doing was yes no tacts, which he was two, and I think he acquired yes no tacts when he was 12.

So she was working on things that were way too hard, and I didn’t know anything about it, so the ability to say yes and no, to respond yes and no, to any question, is a very complex skill involving different operants. So when I say an operant, I mean a mand, a tact, an intraverbal, those are verbal operants. They were coined by B.F. Skinner in his classic book in 1957, called Verbal Behavior. So when we look at the skill of yes no, we need to look at it in terms of the operants. It’s been my experience that a child needs to master yes no mands, answering yes and no to a question such as, “Do you want a cookie?” With the cookie in sight, they need to learn to mand yes no appropriately before you should attempt to introduce yes no tacts such as “Is this an apple?” Or “Is this a bed?” which the speech therapist was doing when Lucas was two. And you should really need to wait to even think about teaching yes no intraverbals, which intraverbals are no pictures present, so those are questions such as, “Does a cow say ‘quack?'” Or “Does a boy wear a dress?”

So we have yes no mands, for items a child may want, like a cookie. We have yes no tacts for “Is this a pen? Is this a bed?” That’s a lot more difficult than yes no mands, and then yes no intraverbals are even trickier because that’s a higher skill. So assessing yes and no within each operant is a great place to start, and I’ve done a lot of work with teaching yes and no mands to Lucas, as well as many other children. Teaching a child to say no, or to respond with a head shake no, can be taught early, to replace problem behaviors such as crying, or pushing away items the child doesn’t want, but teaching a child to say yes should not be done until important prerequisites are in place. I recommend not teaching yes mands until the child is spontaneously manding or requesting dozens of items, both in sight and out of sight, and also the child should be manding for several actions, such as come, or push, or those sorts of actions.

I’ve seen many children who have defective mands because someone taught them too early to answer yes. So it’s very common, even for adults with severe autism, to answer yes when you ask them any question that they don’t know what the answer is. So I had a client once who was in his early 20s, and someone at his day program said, “Have you ever been on a boat?” And he said, “Yes,” and I looked at her, I said, “Do you know if he ever has been on a boat?” She’s like, “I have no idea,” and this young man would say yes to pretty much anything.

The main issue is that when children or adults say yes when someone offers them something, do you want candy, or do you want a tickle, and they’re just saying yes, they don’t ever mand for the actual item spontaneously, by using the item name, such as candy or tickle. That yes can become a generalized mand, similar to the way manding for more gets you into trouble, because a child may be saying more, having problem behaviors, or they may be saying yes, and having problem behaviors, or you don’t know what they need. So they’re saying yes, and you’re looking at them like, “What do you want?” And they’re not spontaneously manding with the item name.

That’s the main problem with teaching yes too early. It really affects spontaneous manding, which is so important to a child’s development. Now yes no tacting, answering “Is this an apple?” Or “Is this a pen?” Or even, “Is this blue?” Or “Am I standing?” Is a much a harder skill than yes no mands, and should not be introduced until a child can indicate yes or no, and mand for items out of sight. For yes no intraverbals, it’s important that the instructor know the answer to the question they’re asking. For example, that scenario I gave you where, “Have you ever been on a boat?” If you don’t know the answer to the question, it’s not a good question for a child who’s weak with yes no without any visuals.

So there are many children and adults with autism who over answer yes because they don’t understand complex language. It’s not their fault. For this reason, I usually don’t focus on teaching any intraverbal yes no responses, but a lot of times I do have to directly teach yes no mands and yes no tacts. And let the intraverbal yes no without any visuals develop more gradually and only teach basic functional and important yes no intraverbals.

So I know this was kind of complex and usually my vlogs are a little bit more basic, but it is really important, when you think about yes no, to think about is it a yes no mand with the item in sight, such as “Do you want this cookie?” or is it a yes no mand for an item out of sight, like “Do you want ketchup on your hamburger?” Yes no tacts are much harder than yes no mands, and that’s “Is this a car? Is this a bed? Is this an apple?” And yes no intraverbals should be really put on the back burner, and that’s asking a child questions that you don’t know the answer to, the questions are probably way too complex, and it’s just not going to be functional to teach those complex skills at least if you’re working with an intermediate learner.

I go over all these techniques, and many more like this, in my online courses, and to get started learning more about my approach, you can sign up for my new three step guide and join me on my mission at marybarbera.com/join. And I’ll see you next week.