Helping Children with Autism Learn to Communicate

For children with autism spectrum disorder (ASD), communication can be a major challenge. Children whose language skills do not develop typically often have difficulty conveying their wants and needs effectively, which leads to frustration. This puts these children at risk of potentially harmful and misunderstood behaviors like tantrums, aggression, or self-injury. That’s why it’s vital to focus on working with children with ASD to help them develop communication skills.  

One effective way of doing this is with functional communication training (FCT). Rather than teaching kids to label an item, FCT focuses on using language to get something needed or desired. This information is conveyed with language, signs, and pictures, to help individuals achieve a desired result. The object may be obtaining something like a toy or food, expressing the desire to participate in an activity, or stating a need for something like a trip to the bathroom or a break from something. Using positive reinforcement, FCT helps teach children about language and communication, in order to increase their ability to have their needs met by interacting effectively with others. By rewarding appropriate methods of communication, whether verbal or nonverbal, we’re able to empower children with ASD to advocate for their own wants and needs.  

  • How does FCT work? The first step in the process is to identify something that highly motivates the child. It could be a favorite television show, a toy, a favorite snack or an activity. The child is taught a sign or given a picture that represents that thing. Using errorless learning, the therapist guides the child to use that sign or picture in order to get the reward. Repeating this process, with the presentation of the picture or sign always bringing the earned reward, helps children become familiar with the process and more independent in communicating. As signs, words, or pictures are being consistently used correctly, new ones can be added gradually, to increase the child’s vocabulary.  
  • What are the goals of FCT? The goals vary between children, depending on the child’s level of communication. For children with complex needs or significant language impairment, it may be challenging to build a small repertoire of functional communication. Children with a higher level of function and less complex needs may be able to gain as much language as their typically developing peers, by using FCT. Using assistive tech, some children may be able to speak in full sentences. Others may only be able to use single words. It’s important to tailor the goals and the treatment to each unique child. That’s why functional communication training is typically taught one-on-one by a clinician with a speech or language pathology background, or by a behavioral psychologist trained in applied behavior analysis (ABA). A major factor in the success of FCT is reinforcement of the training by parents and teachers. It’s important for children to learn that the appropriate sign, word, or picture must be presented in order to obtain the desired reward.  
  • How does FCT help with behavioral issues? The development of functional communication training originated as a way to reduce troubling behaviors exhibited by children with ASD. By assessing the function of the inappropriate behaviors, we can determine the reason the child is behaving that way. If it’s because of a lack of communication, then teaching a child to communicate reliably and effectively should extinguish the behavior. For example, a child might engage in self-injurious behavior to get attention, access something he or she wants, escape something undesired, or serve a sensory need. When this succeeds, it’s accidentally reinforced, but with FCT, these unhealthy behavioral patterns can be broken. When a child learns to self-advocate using a word, sign, or picture and discovers that the reward is given quickly and efficiently, he or she is likely to choose the easier path of appropriate behavior.  
  • Does the age of the person with ASD matter in FCT? Functional communication training can work with every age, and some adults who have been introduced to FCT have been known to gain skills quickly. However, the earlier the intervention can happen, the better, because the younger the child is when the communication repertoire is built, the better off he or she will be.  

If your child has been diagnosed with Autism Spectrum Disorder, STAR of CA is here to offer support. Founded in 2006, we provide behavioral and psychological services to people with ASD and related disorders in a nurturing environment that offers support for the entire family. We love what we do, and are devoted to improving lives through focused, caring services. You can contact us through our website or by calling 805.588.8896. 

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