Say what you mean, mean what you say (Autoclitic Verbal Operants)

Carmen Drier, MS | Board Certified Behavior Analyst
May 7, 2024

What are autoclitic tacts?

Simply put, autoclitic tacts indicate something about the strength of the response and the certainty, or not, of the speaker. This complex verbal operant was originally defined by BF Skinner in 1957. In technical terms, “the autoclitic tact informs the listener of some nonverbal aspect of the primary verbal operant and is therefore controlled by nonverbal stimuli” (Cooper, Heron, and Heward, 2012. Past studies have included neurotypical children. Owen & Rodriguez (2023) were the first to conduct research focused on teaching autistic children.

What are some examples of autoclitic tacts?

Applied behavior analysis (ABA) typically breaks down behavior into the ABCs. The antecedent (A) meaning precedes the behavior (B) and the consequence (C) follows. In these examples, the behavior is a language response in the form of an autoclitic tact. In each example, the tact, i.e., label is italicized and the autoclitic is in bold.

Example 1: A) Speaker (child) sees mommy. B): Child says “I see mommy.” C): Listener says “you said ‘I see mommy’ and there she is!”

Example 2: A) Child hears a dog barking. B) Child says “I don’t think I hear a cat.” C) Listener says “You’re right, it’s not a cat. It’s a dog.”

Example 3: A) Child smells popcorn. B) Child says “I know I smell popcorn.” C) Listener says “Yes, it’s popcorn” and gives the child a high five.

Why is this important?

In the Owen & Rodriguez (2023) study, correct responses were reinforced and incorrect responses resulted in a neutral response, then quick presentation of the next card. The children’s autoclitic tact repertoire increased. Multiple examples, pictures and distorted pictures in this case, were utilized. When untaught sets, or novel, pictures were presented, the children demonstrated generalization of their skills by emitting correct responses. The authors note potential use in teaching autistic children to tact private events, e.g., emotions, personal affects, sensations that are otherwise inaccessible to the listener. 

While defining and understanding autoclitic tacts is complex, teaching can be fun. Games such as Guess Who, Headbands, Sort it Out, and Guess in 10 can be a great way to promote language. Games such as Hide-and-Seek or Hot/Cold lend themselves nicely to use of statements like “I think you are here, I doubt you are here, I guess you are over there. I know you are here.”

Sources Cited: Cooper, J. O., Heron, T. E., Heward, W. L. (2012). Applied Behavior Analysis, 2/e Vitalsource for Capella University. [[VitalSource Bookshelf version]].  Retrieved from vbk://9781256844884; Owen, T. M., & Rodriguez, N. M. (2023). Toward establishing a qualifying autoclitic repertoire in children with autism spectrum disorder. Journal of Applied Behavior Analysis.; Skinner, B.F. (1957), Verbal Behavior Extended Version (2020), Cambridge, MA, Xanedu Publications.

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