How is Functional Communication Training Used in Applied Behavior Analysis?

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Functional communication training (FCT) is the process of teaching meaningful and functional communication in a natural way to children with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) and other developmental disorders.

Functional communication training is largely used to help ABA practitioners teach children with ASD replace difficult behaviors with suitable communication that’s socially acceptable. Often referred to as a positive behavior support intervention, FCT is a highly practical therapy that teaches children to communicate properly when asking for the things they need in their daily lives.

Difficult behavior may include any number of undesirable behaviors, including aggression, destruction, self-harm, escape, non-compliance, etc. ABA practitioners may use FCT with non-verbal children or children with limited vocabularies.

FCT may not necessarily mean learning words; instead, it means teaching a child with ASD to communicate in any type of suitable way. Just some of the interventions used in FCT include gestures, sign language, or the use of pictures or icons, such as a picture exchange communication system (PECS).

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What is the Purpose of Functional Communication Training?

Often times, frustration and anxiety due to an inability to communicate needs and desires results in inappropriate behavior among children with ASD. FCT is used alone or alongside other behavioral interventions to give children with ASD the ability to communicate in alternative ways, thereby alleviating much of the frustration that accompanies an inability to communicate.

The goal of FCT is to provide the child with a different way to communicate so that the negative behaviors that come with being frustrated due to an inability to communicate are naturally eliminated.

How is Functional Communication Training Implemented?

An ABA practitioner completes the following steps:

  • Conducts an assessment of the difficult behavior
  • Decides which form of alternate communication is appropriate for the child
  • Systematically teaches the child the new communication skill
  • Reinforces the child’s behavior whenever the child uses the desired communication
  • Reminds the child to use the preferred form of communication
  • Ignores the child’s difficult behavior whenever it happens

FCT is not a rapid solution for replacing difficult behavior. In fact, the process of teaching the new communication skill and teaching the child to use it in favor of the troubling behavior can take weeks or even months. However, when taught correctly, it can dramatically decrease difficult behavior, both in the short- and long-term.

A good example of FCT would be a non-verbal child with ASD who would bang her head off the table every time she wanted more juice. While the act of banging her head was effective, as her mother would refill her cup when she banged her head, it was clear that a more effective, safer method of letting her mother know she needed more juice was needed.

The ABA practitioner began teaching another form of communication to replace the head banging – tapping her cup on the table. The ABA practitioner would practice with the child’s mother by tapping the cup on the table, and the child’s mother would respond by saying, “Oh, you would like another cup of juice!” and then refilling the cup. The process would then transition to encouraging the child to tap her cup when she wanted juice and her mother only responding to her request when she used the proper communication method. All other forms of communication would be ignored.