Relational Frame Theory: Implications for Early Childhood Development and Individuals with Autism Spectrum Disorder

Teresa Mulhern, University of Chester, UK

I am very pleased to introduce Dr. Teresa Mulhern, a lecturer in Psychology at the University of Chester, UK. Teresa is an applied behavior analyst (ABA) who both works and conducts research with children on the autism spectrum. In this blog, Teresa outlines and describes how Relational Frame Theory (RFT) has helped her conceptualize and train complex symbolic verbal behavior (i.e., language and cognition) in early childhood in ways that were difficult to account for with traditional behavior analytic or ABA principles and concepts alone. Her research on class inclusion reminds me of a most resistant conversation I had with my young niece many years ago, where she steadfastly refused to accept that her mother could possibly also be my sister and stated obstinately “she is not a sister, she’s a mother!!”. Teresa’s work has recently been published in a range of behavioral science journals such as the Journal of Applied Behavior Analysis, the Journal of Contextual Behavioral Science, and The Psychological Record. She is a warm, witty, and most engaging public speaker at behavioral conferences where she exudes passion for delivering better life outcomes and enhanced opportunities to contact life’s social and educational reinforcers for her ‘tiny humans’, all things ABA and RFT, and, of course, cats! – Ian Tyndall, University of Chichester, UK


The question of generative verbal and cognitive behavior is one that has plagued behavior analysts for decades and has become an ultimate goal for us as service providers. As a practitioner I would agonize over methods to facilitate a robust intraverbal repertoire or a generative mand and tact repertoire, but the task seemed overwhelming in the face of minimal resources and limited time. It was not until I came across Relational Frame Theory (RFT) in that unassuming purple book (i.e., Hayes, Barnes-Holmes, & Roche, 2001) that I realized that there was a potential solution to this long-held problem. I embarked on an RFT journey in 2013 during the course of my masters in ABA and subsequent PhD at the National University of Ireland, Galway (NUIG), and it is one that I continue to this day.

The first “true” RFT project I sunk my claws into was that of teaching class inclusion responding to young children (AKA “tiny humans”). My supervisor (and mentor), Dr Ian Stewart, and I postulated that this repertoire may have had its’ roots in comparative (i.e., “more than” and “less than”) and containment (i.e., “X contains Y”) relations, and that a successful intervention would focus on one or more of these aspects. We believed that this class inclusion ability would be based upon non-arbitrary comparison and arbitrary containment.

The terms “arbitrary” and “non-arbitrary” are ones that initially confused me upon entry to this tact-heavy world. Put simply, “non-arbitrary” is when there is a physical cue between the stimuli that denotes the relationship (e.g., that an elephant is bigger than a squirrel) – not unlike a stimulus prompt, while “arbitrary” refers to the ability to determine the relationship between abstract stimuli based upon specific contextual cues. For example, when lamenting the current financial market, you are told that £1 (i.e., 1 pound sterling in the UK) is worth more than €1 (1 euro in the European Union), even though these two coins look so much alike and are of a similar physical quantity and size, you would choose to take the £1 coin – because you are acting on the contextual cue of “more than”. Of course, to have an arbitrary repertoire, you must first have a strong non-arbitrary repertoire (see Mulhern, Stewart & McElwee, 2017) – meaning that you have to walk before you can run.

Within our first project, we began by assessing 3- and 4-year-old typically developing children for non-arbitrary comparative relations and non-arbitrary containment. Each of these three children demonstrated established responding in these domains but had poor class inclusion responding. We believed that by using this non-arbitrary understanding, we could help to establish arbitrary containment among these tiny humans. To do this, we used clear plastic containers (2 small and 1 large) within which to place the stimuli. The kids were told that the big box was the “animal category box”, while the smaller boxes were for the different types of animals. We hoped that by doing this – we could physically demonstrate the relationship between a category (e.g., animals) and its’ class members (e.g., dogs, cats, etc.). By outlining this relationship and providing feedback for responding, we successfully facilitated generalized class inclusion responding, which maintained at 1-month follow-up, within a handful of sessions.

It became clear that RFT may provide a cost-effective tool to establish complex repertoires, but the question remained as to whether such procedures would prove successful with individuals with additional educational and developmental needs. It was then that Dr. Siri Ming came on board and we piloted that training procedure with three boys with a diagnosis of Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD). Although we had some initial teething issues regarding generalization and maintenance (as outlined in our recent Journal of Applied Behavior Analysis publication; Ming, Mulhern, Stewart, Moran, & Bynum, 2018), these were ultimately ironed out in subsequent research conducted with Patrycja Zagrabska of NUIG.

Although this research is in its’ infancy, it definitely feels exciting, and it certainly feels that we are at the beginning of a new stage of behavior analysis. Of course, much more research needs to be done in streamlining the paradigms and protocols for children of different ages – but, as with relational framing, we must walk before we can run.