Expanding Length of Utterance: A Note on Autoclitics and the Mand

A frequent concern of parents and teachers is that the student learns to talk but only uses one or a few words at a time. This concern often results in attempts to expand the number of words a child uses each time they speak. While it has been shown that the average length of words used per utterance provides a fairly good estimate of a child’s ability to use complex language, working to extend the complexity of language too soon may result in the child’s language sounding odd.

Often the first consideration given to expanding length of utterance is related to what are termed “carrier phrases.” Carrier phrases extend an utterance without necessarily altering the function of the utterance. In other words if a child wants an apple and says “apple” they get the apple. If the child says “I want an apple” they also get an apple. The functional relations are not necessarily changed. However, different carrier phrases can have different effects on a listener. Saying “give me an apple” versus “I want an apple” might alter the effects on a listener. Saying “give me an apple” is likely a stronger request and may lead to the listener responding quicker but perhaps, less kindly. Students do need to learn when it is appropriate to make a stronger request and when a request should be softened in order to more effectively get the listener to respond to the mand. If a student is only taught the carrier phrase “ I want a…” to expand their length of utterance without regard for teaching other phrases that are responsive to the situations in which the mand is posed, the child’s language may appear to be quite odd. The carrier phrase in such circumstances may sounds parroted, rote, and mechanical. Strongly reinforcing a student for use of such carrier phases may lead to problems wherein the student responds when asked “what is it?” with the name of the item and the carrier phrase for a mand “I want a…”

B. F. Skinner described certain forms of verbal behavior as serving the purpose of describing other verbal behavior to the listener. These responses are referred to in the book Verbal Behavior as being autoclitic behavior. Autoclitic behavior is verbal behavior about verbal behavior. In the case of the student who has learned to say “give me an apple” at times when a strong response may be effective, the “give me an…” cannot stand alone. Rather the phrase is about the mand for an apple and suggests that the speaker is issuing a strong demand and that he or she should be reinforced immediately. The student who says “I want an apple” also emits a behavior that results in getting the apple, but once again the phrase, “I want an...” cannot stand alone. The phrase suggests to the listener that the word apple is uttered as a request.

At this point many instructional programs have been developed to teach students to use carrier phrases. Such programs often teach students to discriminatively use carrier phrases such as “I want a….” and “I see a…”. Given the cautions listed here, we would suggest avoiding training carrier phrases as the first step in expanding length of utterance. It may be that as students develop a broad repertoire of manding behavior (in other words they can ask for a large number of items and actions) and the mand begins to come under control of motivative operations only (pure mands), children will likely begin to use autoclitic control with very little direct training. Children will sound more natural using an appropriate single word mand for a specific item than they will if they use a multiple word carrier phrase that is not consistent with the controlling variables (i.e., how badly they want the item, communicating that the statement is truly a mand, etc.).

Although we are suggesting that it is probably not necessary to directly teach carrier phrases in the mand frame, there are situations in which it is appropriate to teach a slightly expanded length of utterance. Those times will be when the expanded utterance is critical in controlling specific aspects of the reinforcer specified in the mand. In the situation where the child has the option of asking for one of several balls to play with, there will, in some circumstances, be considerable value in emitting mands that list particular characteristics of the specific ball that the student wants. In such circumstances the word “ball” can serve a central part of the mand but will need to be modified by descriptive characteristics, usually adjectives, which describe the ball. The student can be taught to ask for the “red ball” or the “big ball” or the “baseball” or “football.” The procedures for teaching such “pivot word mands” will be covered in the protocol section below under the section on teaching multiple component mands.