Years ago, I walked into a home to evaluate a 9-year-old girl with autism. She was what we would consider moderately autistic, with some ability to echo words, follow simple directions, and engage in isolated constructive play with building blocks.
The grandmother was part of the evaluation. The child had grandma’s phone and ever so gently, Grandma took the phone away and instructed the child to say hello to me. The child immediately began hitting her head. I can tell that this was not a new behavior as Grandma pleaded, “Stop that, please. Please, don’t hit yourself.” Although flustered, Grandma did not appear alarmed. She was clearly used to this behavior. The little girl continued to hit her head (thankfully, not forcefully) until grandma eventually handed her the phone.
I knew I had to teach the little girl how to request for the phone without self-aggression before I could leave that home. Although the child initially appeared non-vocal, I would have to teach her functional communication. We refer to this as “manding” in ABA, which is just a clinical way of saying “requesting.”
I sat next to the child and said, “I’m going to take your phone, okay?” The grandmother stood watching as I took the phone away. As expected, the little girl moved her hand to hit her head. I blocked her arm from reaching her head to prevent her from hitting herself and I said immediately, “Phone.” To my surprise, the little girl repeated with ease, “Phone” and I gave her the phone without delay.
The child had the ability to echo words without difficulty!
I repeated the process again, taking the phone away from the child and prompting for her to repeat “phone” before giving it to her. By the 3rd time, the little girl did not attempt to hit herself. When I took the phone away, she looked at my mouth, clearly waiting for me to say phone. I only made the initial sound ph— and she said, “Phone!”
By the time I finished the evaluation and got ready to leave, Grandma was standing in the living room with her granddaughter in front of her saying, “Phone, please!” (I added the please since she was clearly capable) and the Grandmother was overjoyed, handing the phone to her grandchild and clapping her hands.
The little girl had learned to mand or request for the phone without hitting her head.
Teaching a child to “mand” which is the same as teaching a child to communicate for what they want, is one of the basic skills we work on increasing in ABA. I’ve met caretakers over the years who assumed that because their child had language deficits, they could not communicate properly. This is often not the case. Communication differs from speech. There are kids who have language without the ability to communicate their wants, while there are many kids with no vocal language who are great at communicating what they want. They do this either by pointing, signing, or handing pictures of the items they desire. If they are unable to speak in complete sentences, they will “mand” for desired items using a word or two.
Manding simply works this way: First you have to request for what you want, be it through words or pointing or signing, and THEN you can get it after you’ve requested for it. Kids who develop mand skills are empowered to let those around them know their desires. Without that ability, caretakers are left to guess and the child is left frustrated—or worse, the child learns to get what they want by engaging in destructive behaviors.
Of course, this requires us to teach our kids HOW to request for their desired items, the way I did with that little girl who initially hit her head to access grandma’s phone. Until that day, she did not know that she could say “phone” instead of engaging in an aggressive behavior. Clearly, grandma did not know either that she could teach her granddaughter to echo the request before handing over her phone. So, it was a good manding day in that visit! Grandma learned how to teach her granddaughter how to mand properly, and the little girl learned to appropriately communicate for the phone without hitting her head.