What Is Functional Communication Training for Autism?

Medically Reviewed by Poonam Sachdev on August 25, 2022

Also known as FCT, functional communication training is a therapy method available to autistic children. It can also be used for children who have other developmental disorders. 

FCT can be a valuable tool for nonverbal children by helping them to replace challenging behaviors with an alternative means of communicating. FCT therapy may focus on verbal communication, but it can also focus on singing, pictures, and speech-generating devices.

As part of Positive Behavior Support, FCT is commonly used in combination with other behavioral therapies. 

The History of Functional Communication Training

Kids with autism spectrum disorder, or ASD, often have difficulty communicating what they want or need. Functional communication training for children with autism aims to help those children by teaching them methods of communication. FCT allows autistic children to communicate effectively with all parties involved. 

Functional communication training was first researched in the 1980s in the United States. Other therapies at the time often resulted in the patients returning to old habits after their therapy had ended, so FCT was created as a way to help instill longer-term changes in behavior. 

FCT is based on the learning theory and principles of the Applied Behavior Analysis, or ABA. Learning theory suggests people behave in certain situations depending on their previous experiences in similar scenarios. The main idea behind FCT is that all behavior, whether good or bad, is a means of communication.

An important part of FCT is helping children learn new and safer ways to communicate when challenging behavior is present. If a child learns to communicate in a new way, the challenging behavior is no longer needed. 

What Is Involved in Functional Communication Training?

FCT is all about teaching children signs, pictures, or words relating to the things they want and need the most. This could include food, a favorite toy, or attention. This is especially important for nonverbal kids who need an effective way of communicating their wants and needs. As an example, a child who wants their favorite stuffed toy and is driven by their want will learn the sign for it quicker than other signs. 

As your child learns to sign their wants and needs, you can then begin teaching them other important signs for other things that they might want. Eventually, the hope is that they will learn to ask for whatever it is they need, whether it’s a favorite toy, a snack, or a bathroom trip. 

When FCT is first being taught to a child, a therapist will guide them in using a sign or picture to get what they want. As this pattern repeats, children slowly pick up on using signs and pictures on their own to get what they want or need. Some kids may learn many signs, while others may only learn a few of the most important ones to signal their most important needs. 

Reducing behavior problems through functional communication training is the main focus of this type of therapy. It helps those with ASD to stop acting out in ways that could hurt themselves or others. Acting out, throwing fits, and attempting to hurt themselves are all ways of trying to get your attention and let you know what they want. 

With FCT, therapists can attempt to figure out what a child is trying to say when they act out. Once they’ve figured out the meanings behind a child’s behavior, the therapist can then help the child to learn signs to communicate effectively with others about what they want or need. 

How Functional Communication Training Is Implemented 

 An FCT ABA practitioner conducts certain steps to implement FCT effectively. An effective user of functional communication training:

  • Assesses the difficult behavior 
  • Chooses an alternate form of communication based on what is appropriate for the child 
  • Teaches the child about the new communication skill thoroughly 
  • Offers positive reinforcement when the child uses the appropriate communication 
  • Gives reminders to the child to use the correct form of communication 
  • Ignores any difficult behavior that the child displays 

FCT is not a quick fix. Instead, this method can take weeks and sometimes months to teach. Still, it is a great method to teach new communication skills, and when done so correctly, it can offer both short-term and long-term support, decreasing difficult behaviors. 

Examples of Functional Communication Training

Imagine an autistic child who is nonverbal starts banging their head on the table. The child behaves like this because they want more juice. This method of communication can be harmful to the child and cause injury. It can also cause panic in the parent or guardian. While the parent or guardian may fill the cup, giving the child what they wanted, there are more effective and safer communication methods that could get the child the same result.

Now imagine an ABA practitioner teaching this child an alternative form of communication. Instead of letting the child bang their head on the table, the practitioner teaches the child to tap their cup on the table. When this happens, the practitioner or the parent will fulfill the child’s request by pouring them more juice. 

This method would continue, with the child being encouraged to tap their cup on the table when they wanted more juice. The mother responds when the child used this method correctly, ignoring any other form of communication, including destructive behaviors. 

Another example of how FCT would be applied would be a child who throws a tantrum when they can’t reach their favorite toy. An ABA practitioner will, again, teach the child a different form of communication. This could be in the form of tugging on their parent’s sleeves and then pointing to the toy that they want. 

The practitioner teaches the child how to tug on the sleeve of their parent to get their attention and then teaches them to point. Then, the practitioner or parent asks the child if they want their favorite toy and get it for them. 

Like the other example, this method is encouraged until the child fully grasps the concept and is able to replace their bad behavior with this alternative communication method. Again, the mother responds to the child’s wants when the child uses appropriate communication and ignores the child when they use bad behavior.

Show Sources

SOURCES: “How is Functional Communication Training Used in Applied Behavior Analysis?”

Child Mind Institute: “Helping Kids With Autism Build Communication Skills.” “Functional Communication Training (FCT).”

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