Communication skills can be difficult and having functional communication goals for autism spectrum disorder is a good step in the right direction for growth. These goals can help with communication difficulties, particularly for those autistic children that are nonverbal or have limited verbal skills.
This article is going to introduce and outline:
- what functional communication skills are
- how functional communication skills affect autistic children
- ways to set functional communication goals for your child with autism spectrum disorder (ASD)
- how functional communication goals and Individualized Education Programs (IEP) work together and ways to bring that up at your child’s next IEP meeting
- what functional communication training is and how it can be beneficial
The statements made in this article are a starting point and it is recommended that parents and caregivers talk to their child’s doctor and therapists to discuss the possible benefits of any program. Autism Parenting Magazine is not endorsing or recommending any product or service.
What are functional communication skills?
In short, functional communication skills are the skills that are necessary for individuals to communicate their needs to others. When individuals have a hard time with these skills, they can exhibit behaviors to get their point across.
For instance, if your child is trying to tell you that they don’t want to wear their jeans because they are scratchy, what do they do? If a child’s ability is limited and they are non verbal, it can be difficult to get their point across short of knowing sign language.
If the child and parent or caregiver don’t know sign language and the child is still unable to reiterate that they don’t want to wear their jeans, challenging behaviour can happen. They may throw their pants or refuse to put them on.
Whereas if the parent had been able to understand the desired objects, being the jogging pants, that could have helped move the day forward a little quicker and everyone would have started the day on a positive note.
It is important to note and state that behaviour is communication. It can be seen throughout the example above and when people use both verbal and non verbal communication to have a need met or make a need known.
Functional communication and autistic children
In the article, What is Functional Communication Training (FCT)?, they state that challenging behaviour can happen in children with ASD that experience:
- language delay
- other communication difficulties
- difficulty with transitions
These difficulties are only a few of the examples but can act as a starting place to understand behaviour and what can cause different reactions. The article says,
“Communication challenges are a key symptom of ASD, a child who struggles to express their needs may feel the only way to get what they want is to revert to behavior that proved successful in the past.”
“Severe behavior problems could result if a child feels their only way to communicate wants (or emotion) is through extreme behavior.”
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Setting functional communication goals for children with autism would be a step towards growth. Discussing and setting up these goals with your child’s doctor or Board Certified Behaviour Analyst (BCBA) would need to happen before a program was put together and made a part of their Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA) program.
Behaviors like aggression, wandering, hitting, biting, as well as injuries to themselves and others can be acknowledged and appropriate behaviors taught to replace them. They can also help the child learn to respond appropriately and communicate their needs and/or what they are trying to say.
Early intervention is imperative. When it comes to any intervention, the earlier a child can receive services and have a program that can help them build on skills the better.
A challenging behaviour can show up at any time and at any age. Having the ability to express alternative communication, such as sign language, can be beneficial and is easier to learn when children are younger.
How functional communication goals and Individualized Education Programs (IEP) work together
When there are autistic children in the classroom, there can be challenging behaviour exhibited because of communication difficulties from the child with autism spectrum disorder and their classmates. This can disrupt not only the social interaction part of the school day, but also how the child with autism does in the school setting period.
A first step, when developing a child’s IEP goals, the parent and student’s teacher usually meet with a group of other people, like a speech language pathologist, and BCBA that would help figure out the child’s needs and skills and what support can be put into place to help the student succeed.
Functional communication training (FCT) can be added to IEP goals, especially if and when communication difficulties are present for the student. The parents, caregivers, and other practitioners that work with the student can make sure that any difficulties in the classroom are addressed and strategies added to the overall plan.
FCT is a program that can encourage and teach behaviors that replace challenging behaviour with an alternative behaviour. The challenging behaviour is usually put in extinction, which means that the response to the challenging behaviour is no longer a reaction to previous attempts.
There are so many benefits for the autistic child who needs to further develop communication and social skills to be able to let people know what they want and need. Skills learned and built in FCT can help in the classroom and everyday life.
Basic needs, feelings, and other thoughts and feelings that the child needs to express can be taught by a speech language pathologist, a BCBA, and parents. A plan that includes others that meet with parents and caregivers to come up with a plan that the school, providers, parents, and caregivers can implement.
This brings to mind the African Proverb:
“It takes a village to raise a child.”
That truth reigns true for most parents, and I dare say that parents that have autistic children or children with other needs tend to live this truth. Between doctor’s visits, running between appointments to ABA therapy, speech therapy, occupational therapy, or any combination of services that are available for that child, a village can seem very tangible and access to help and support can be a phone call away.
Overall, there are resources with support available to most parents for their children with autism. If you, as a parent, are having a hard time finding the resources your child’s doctor can always be a great first step to contact.
They generally have resources available or are able to connect and refer parents to the next steps for their children. Social media and finding other parents that have children with autism through community support groups, local events, school groups, etc. can also help when a parent needs support or has questions about their child.
It is important to note that behaviour is communication and if your child has been exhibiting new and challenging behaviour to discuss them with their doctor and/or other practitioners that can help figure out what the child needs and what they are trying to communicate. Help and support are not a bad thing and can actually be quite beneficial, helping the child move forward and grow in new and amazing ways.
James Clear has an excellent quote that can help tie everything together, as well as be an important reminder,
“Rome wasn’t built in a day, but they were laying bricks every hour. You don’t have to build everything you want today, just lay a brick.”
Bruzek, J., Hanley, G., Tiger, J. (2008). Functional Communication Training: A Review and Practical Guide. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2846575/#:~:text=Functional%20communication%20training%20(FCT)%20is%20a%20differential%20reinforcement%20(DR,identified%20as%20maintaining%20problem%20behavior.
Loftus, Y. (2022). What is Functional Communication Training (FCT)? https://www.autismparentingmagazine.com/functional-communication-training/