How to Increase Language using Functional Communication Training

Contributed by Martine Flake, BCaBA

What is Functional Communication Training?

Functional Communication Training is essentially what it sounds like, it teaches individuals how to communicate functionally (using language) to access desired items or activities. Generally speaking, children with autism will use inappropriate behaviors (verbal or physical aggression, crying, etc.) in lieu of appropriate language because they do not know how to use functional language. If functional language is not taught, these inappropriate behaviors can continue to increase in frequency and intensity. However, once functional communication is taught, the inappropriate behaviors will fade, and appropriate language will take their place. It is very important to remember, functional communication needs to be taught effectively and consistently.

How to Use Functional Communication Training

Functional Communication Training is very easy to use. One of the best features about this teaching method is there is no question about what to give the individual to reinforce (or encourage) appropriate behaviors. Also, this teaching procedure is very customizable (this is further explained in the section ‘Important Things to Remember’). Nevertheless, a downside to this training is having to ignore the inappropriate behaviors, no matter how long they last.

When the individual shows an interest (grabbing, pointing, moving closer, etc.) in an item or activity, deny access (remove the item, block the individual from access, etc.), and tell the individual to say one word to request the item. For example, if the individual shows an interest in a book, hold the book in sight and tell the individual to say, “say book”. When the individual says “book” (or the best to the individual’s ability, if speech is a concern, simply saying the B sound could be acceptable), immediately give the book to the individual and say positive statements (i.e. Great job! Awesome! You’re so fantastic! That’s right! etc.). Inappropriate behaviors will more than likely occur, in this case, ignore all inappropriate behaviors. This includes looking away from the individual, not showing an interest in the behaviors, refraining from bargaining, etc.

It is VERY important to continue with the teaching once it is started. This is because inconsistent teaching will end up teaching the individual that sometimes they will need to ask but sometimes they wont. Or sometimes they will need to ask but sometimes if they present enough behaviors they will get access without having to ask. This can result in the inappropriate behaviors increasing dramatically.

Examples

Shaggy reaches for a hamburger. Shaggy’s father, Fred, grabs the hamburger before Shaggy can reach it. Fred holds the hamburger where Shaggy can see it, but not reach it. Fred says, “say ‘hamburger’” to Shaggy. Shaggy begins throwing a tantrum (falling to the floor, crying, screaming, hitting the floor, throwing other toys, etc.). Fred looks away from Shaggy and does not respond to any of Shaggy’s behaviors. When Shaggy is quiet for about 3 seconds, Fred tells Shaggy again, “say ‘hamburger’”. This process is repeated until Shaggy says “hamburger”, then Fred IMMEDIATELY gives Shaggy the hamburger, and says “Great job! You’re right!”

In this scenario, Michelle Tanner is wanting a cookie. Uncle Jesse takes the cookie before Michelle can reach it, and holds it in the air for Michelle to see, but not touch. Uncle Jesse says, “say ‘cookie’” and Michelle begins screaming and hitting. Uncle Jesse ignores Michelle and begins playing on his phone. When Michelle is quiet, Uncle Jesse says, “say ‘cookie’”, however, Michelle has speech difficulty and only says “cooey”. Because this is the best Michelle can do, due to her speech difficulty, this is acceptable and Uncle Jesse IMMEDIATELY gives the cookie to Michelle, says, “Awesome! I’m so proud of you!”, and gives her a high five.

Mike Wazowski wants to play with Celia, so his father, Sully, says, “say ‘play’”. Mike begins crying and screaming. Sully ignores all of Mike’s behaviors, until Mike is quiet, then repeats, “say ‘play’”, but Mike continues to scream and cry. Eventually, Mike is quiet, but does not say ‘play’ and ends up falling asleep. When he wakes up, he says ‘play’, and is IMMEDIATELY taken to Celia to play.

Examples of What Not to do

Nemo wants to play in the anemone. Marlin says, “say ‘play’”. Nemo responds “go”, and Marlin says, “OK go play”.

  • This is incorrect because now Nemo has learned that when his father asks him to say something, he just has to say “go” and he can still get what he wants. This is not functional for Nemo.

Woody wants to go swimming with Mr. Potato Head. Buzz tells Woody “say ‘swim’”. Woody begins crying and screaming and telling Buzz he is unfair and belongs in space. Buzz ignores Woody for a few minutes, but when Woody gets louder and begins hitting Buzz, Buzz tells Woody to stop hitting and he can go swimming. Woody stops hitting and is able to go swimming.

  • This is incorrect because Woody has learned that instead of saying what he needs to say, he can just start hitting Buzz. Then all Woody has to do is stop hitting and Woody can still get what he wants. Therefore, Woody is more likely to begin hitting, instead of crying, in the future when he is denied access to what he wants.

How to Fade Functional Communication Training

When an individual says “ball” the first time they are asked, a few times in a row (generally about 3 or 4 times per day, for about 3 days), then you can begin to fade your directions. For example, the next time the individual wants the ball, simply say “ba” instead of “ball”. This will require the individual to fill in part of the word on their own, and increase their independence with saying the word “ball”. Once the individual says “ball” after you say “ba” a few times (same requirements listed above), begin to fade the sound further to just saying the “B” sound”. Once that has been established, begin waiting a few seconds before saying anything. If you need to backtrack a little, that is fine, just wait a few seconds (about 10 to 15) before saying more of the word.

When the individual is saying the required word on their own, and not using any inappropriate behaviors, then changes to the required word can start to be made. If you would like to increase the words the individual uses, you can start requiring additional words. For example, instead of saying “car”, the requirement could be to say “purple car” or “round car”.

Important Things to Remember

Start the teaching procedure with preferred items

When customizing your teaching, decide what items you will require to be asked for, and when you will require it. Once those items are established, begin to introduce a larger variety of items that will require being asked for

If the individual stops presenting inappropriate behaviors but does not say what is required, then continue to deny access. Do not offer access just because the behaviors stop

If an individual says the required word or statement during inappropriate behaviors, you can still offer access, but only if it is said clearly and without aggression. For example, the individual can say “ball” while crying and earn access to the ball, but not while hitting or kicking.

Just because you start using this type of teaching, does not mean you HAVE to use it EVERY time the individual tries to access something. The more you can do it, the better, but do not be hard on yourself if you miss a few opportunities here and there

When increasing the number of words, try not to use “I want” or “give me”. Sometimes these statements can be a fall back and used without a full understanding of what they mean. When the language develops and words are being used more independently and frequently, these statements could be introduced.

A good rule of thumb for increasing words:

  • Once 50 different one-word statements can be done independently, then move to requiring 2 words
  • When 50 different two-word statements can be done independently, move to using a sentence
    • Ex: give me green ball, I want red apple, etc.

Closing Notes

An extensive amount of research has been done on functional communication training. There have been very high success rates with this teaching procedure on decreasing inappropriate behaviors, and increasing appropriate language. For additional information, the following resources can be helpful for gaining a further understanding of this procedure, and can be found at www.amazon.com :

  • Joe Reichle Ph. D. and David P. Wacker Ph. D., Functional Communication Training for Problem Behavior
  • V. Mark Durand Ph. D., Severe Behavior Problems: A Functional Communication Training Approach (Treatment Manuals for Practitioners
  • John O. Cooper, Timothy E. Heron, and William L. Heward, Applied Behavior Analysis