Perkins School for the Blind Transition Center

YAI Helps Adults on the Spectrum Develop Language

An innovative pilot program using a technique that develops language acquisition in children on the autism spectrum is proving effective with a group of young adults with limited or no verbal/vocal communication.

A decade ago, I began training staff at the New York League for Early Learning (NYL), a member of the YAI/NIPD Network that provides Early Intervention to infants and children with special needs in the Verbal Behavior approach. This particular approach is a part of the overall scientific methodology of Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA) and utilizes B.F. Skinner’s analysis of Verbal Behavior. It promotes language development in children through the use of motivation and reinforcers, such as toys, snacks, or other incentives. Since staff at NYL began using this model, it has helped to enhance the communication skills of many students. Now, the same technique is having a similar effect on five adults with developmental disabilities at YAI’s Kew Gardens Day Services program.

“We’ve developed, adapted, and modified procedures and techniques based upon the principles of ABA. The main objective of this program is to help individuals communicate their wants and needs, not just with the staff who work directly with them, but with everyone,” said Jimmy O’Brien, a Board Certified Assistant Behavior Analyst (BCaBA) and longtime consultant for YAI/NIPD’s Education and Training Department.

When Robert joined the program in the fall of 2007, he was unable to effectively communicate his desires and needs, and often became frustrated. As a result, Robert displayed challenging behaviors which limited his ability to go out into the community. The Verbal Behavior approach, combined with Robert interacting with his peers every day and staff who constantly reinforce his positive behaviors, helped decrease his frustration and reduced many of his inappropriate behaviors.

“Now, when Robert is acting appropriately and asks if he can go to the grocery store or book store, we provide him with those opportunities,” said Scott Callahan, lead Community Training Specialist at YAI/NIPD’s Kew Gardens Day Services program. “He’s feeling more independent because he has more control over his activities. He’s more motivated, he smiles and seems happier.”

Joel, who also attends YAI’s Kew Gardens Day Services program, has made great progress as well thanks to the Verbal Behavior approach. Previously, he would sit and wait for an adult to ask, “What do you want?”

“Now, when he’s thirsty, he asks for a drink of water,” said Natali Peralta, Community Training Specialist. Joel also recently went home, expressed to his mother that he wasn’t feeling well, and asked her for Tylenol – an unprecedented communication breakthrough.

Wesley is another individual to benefit from this innovative new program. Prior to attending, he tended to simply echo what someone asked him. Now, thanks to the hard work of the YAI staff, he recently said “Oreo,” appropriately referring to a cookie. Then, while paging through a magazine, he said “Quaker Oats” when he came upon an advertisement for the product.

“I was so proud of him,” said Licha Leonce, a Community Training Specialist/Model Mentor. “I’m proud of everyone. All of the individuals have progressed greatly and we’re taking steps to see more progress.”

”It’s incredible to see Wesley and the others begin to advocate for themselves; even if it’s asking for an M&M,” said Joy Schumacher, Senior Supervisor of Program Resources at YAI/NIPD. Schumacher also recalls planning meetings with the team and talking to parents before the pilot program began. “They wanted their children to initiate communication more and to be able to accurately ask for whatever they wanted, and that’s exactly what’s happening as a result of this program.”

Today, three of the five participants are enjoying volunteering throughout the community.

“The ultimate goal of our program is to integrate our participants into the community and to teach them the skills that enable them to engage in the numerous opportunities Queens has to offer,” said Corinne Romanotto, Ph.D., Senior Coordinator of YAI/NIPD’s Queens Day Service programs.

“I knew the approach would work because of the ongoing commitment of the entire team and the participants’ motivation to learn,” said Joe Alfonso, BCaBA, Behaviorist at the program.


Because of the success at Kew Gardens, YAI’s Education and Training Department is expanding this project to several other day programs and to Project A.S.S.I.S.T., an in-home rehabilitation program.

Last spring, the staff at Kew Gardens, Jimmy and I presented our pilot project at the YAI/NIPD Network’s annual International Conference, when we had a very special visitor: Dr. Mark L. Sunberg, an expert in utilizing Skinner’s analysis of Verbal Behavior, who was also presenting at the conference.

“I thoroughly enjoyed the presentation given by the YAI staff regarding teaching verbal behavior to adults with developmental disabilities,” Dr. Sunberg said. “They clearly demonstrated that people can learn language at any age, and it is extremely important to not give up on a person’s potential to learn how to communicate.”


Carol Stein-Schulman, MS Ed., BCaBA, is the Assistant Director of YAI’s Education and Training Department.

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