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The Benefits of Functional Communication Training for Autism

September 14, 2023

Sarah’s son Max was nonverbal and often struggled to express himself. One day, she decided to take him to therapy, and it was the first time she ever heard about Functional Communication Training. “What is it?” she wondered, “and how can it help my son on the autism spectrum?”

In the world of autism management, Functional Communication Training (FCT) proved to be a game-changer when it comes to enhancing communication skills among children on the spectrum. We’ll learn all the benefits, strategies, and real-life impact of this incredible practice, which offers a beacon of hope to all caregivers looking for ways to help their little ones.

The Benefits of Functional Communication Training for Autism

What is Functional Communication Training (FCT)

Functional Communication Training (FCT) is based on teaching individuals alternative and meaningful ways to communicate their needs, wants, and feelings. It’s built on the understanding that challenging behaviors result from communication deficits.

FCT was introduced by Carr and Durand in 1985 as a treatment for problematic behavior in children with developmental disabilities. In this study, the authors hypothesized that certain behavioral problems in children may be seen as nonverbal communication.

Therefore, problematic behavior and verbal communicative acts could be equivalent in function. With experiments, the authors proved that by strengthening communication, problem behavior could be lessened.

Functional communication includes the most basic communication, a manner to express (spontaneously and independently) needs and wants and socialize. Although such communication may not be complex, its function cannot be overstated.

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One can imagine that difficulty in this area may lead to frustration, especially in children who have limited tools of expression at their disposal. A child who struggles to communicate basic needs (for example, a nonverbal or nonvocal child) will benefit from a treatment like FCT to address this skill deficit.

Suppose a child has difficulty with functional communication. In that case, they may find an alternative way to communicate their wants and needs — problematic behavior may register as the only way to get the attention of those who can fulfill such needs.

FCT is a Differential Reinforcement methodology that aims to teach and establish replacement behaviors for problematic ones. The replacement behavior should serve the same purpose or achieve the same goals — just in a more appropriate way.

By equipping children with the means to express themselves, FCT helps children on the spectrum reduce frustration and opens a whole new world of effective interaction.

The Lack of Functional Communication Skills in Children with Autism

A study titled “Communication Development and Aberrant Behavior in Children with Developmental Disabilities” suggests that deficits in communication development may lead to the emergence of problematic behavior in young children with developmental disabilities (including children with autism).

Neurotypical society often views children on the spectrum as difficult because of challenging behaviors. If one takes research like the above into consideration, such behavior may be their way of communicating.

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.

Difficulties with transitions cause much distress in children with autism, according to a 2015 study. Due to communication deficits, an autistic child may be unable to communicate the distress experienced when a parent wants him or her to move on to another activity. The child may bang their head to avoid the transit and accompanying distress.

If, in this scenario, the parent relents — for instance, allowing the child more time with their special interest rather than taking a bath — the child may feel their behavior expresses their distress effectively. Because of that, they may resort to such behavior in the future. In the child’s mind, they communicated, and they were heard!

The Benefits of Functional Communication Training for Autism

Of course, parents would not want their children to communicate emotions or needs in such a negative and harmful way. Severe behavior problems could result if a child feels the only way to communicate wants (or emotions) is through extreme behavior.

FCT may be a successful strategy (used within a comprehensive Applied Behavior Analysis or ABA program) to find positive replacement behaviors for problematic ones like head banging mentioned above.

Other problematic or difficult behaviors that can be addressed by FCT include:

A 2006 review of FCT in children with autism found the treatment consistently reduces challenging or problematic behavior and increases communication.

Components of Functional Communication Training

FCT usually involves a three-step process, according to a 2010 study: functional communication assessment, identification of a communication response, and ignoring difficult behavior but rewarding positive replacement behavior.

Functional Communication Assessment

Functional Communication Assessment includes identifying the function of the child’s problematic or difficult behavior. The child may use tantrums to get out of an activity that causes distress, or the difficult behavior may be geared toward getting attention. It can also be a way to demand access to something the child wants.

Communication Modes and Modalities

The second step of Functional Communication Training involves identifying a communication response and, therefore, determining a more desirable way of communication to replace the challenging behavior.

This does not have to mean verbal communication. Other forms of communication, like sign language, are appropriate as a replacement for the difficult behavior. The child may use any readily available (appropriate) communication method, including gestures, nonverbal communication, or pictures.

Ignoring Negative and Rewarding Positive Behaviors

In the last step, an FCT treatment plan is devised. This may include ignoring difficult behavior and rewarding, reinforcing, or acknowledging the positive replacement behaviors (or appropriate communication) identified in step two.

In the future, attempts by the child to communicate through the past problematic behavior will need to be ignored — the child should realize that communicating in the appropriate way will get attention, reinforcement, and/or rewards.

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Strategies for Implementing FCT

Implementing Functional Communication Training can be highly effective in improving communication skills for individuals with autism. However, it’s crucial to learn what are some strategies for implementing FCT successfully first.

Augmentative and Alternative Communication (AAC)

Augmentative and Alternative Communication (AAC) involves using tools and methods beyond spoken language. This often includes using charts, symbols, and high-tech devices to communicate. ACC not only empowers children but also enables them to participate in social and educational settings actively.

Visual Supports

Visual supports, such as schedules, social prompts, and choice boards, provide children on the spectrum with clear cues for communication. These aids are especially effective in enhancing predictability and reducing feelings of anxiety and stress.

Social Stories

Social stories are used as simple narratives that help children with ASD understand and navigate social situations. By presenting different scenarios in a structured manner, social stories help children communicate expectations and appropriate responses.

Benefits of Functional Communication Training

Functional Communication Training offers many benefits for individuals with autism, their families, and their communities. Some of them include:

  • Improved quality of life: FCT empowers individuals to express themselves, which reduces frustration and enhances their overall well-being.
  • Enhanced social interaction: With enhanced communication skills, individuals can confidently engage in social interactions and build meaningful relationships.
  • Reduced challenging behaviors: By addressing the root causes, this training method can decrease problematic behavior that may have previously been used for communication.
  • Increased independence: Effectively communicating enables children on the spectrum to advocate their needs and feelings and make their choices independently.
  • Positive impact on caregivers: Parents and caregivers experience less anxiety and stress and form stronger connections with their loved ones when communication improves.

Is FCT the Right Method for My Child?

A behavioral psychologist trained in ABA or a speech and language pathologist could provide guidance to parents about the appropriateness of FCT. Some experts caution that parents expect results too quickly, and it may take a while for FCT to replace challenging behaviors with positive communication acts.

It may be worth investing the time when research indicates that FCT is an empirically supported practice for children with autism. This means it meets evidence-based practice criteria and has effectively instilled positive behavior and communication skills in autistic adolescents and children.

When we notice difficult behavior in a child, our natural instinct is to try to eliminate the behavior. The behavior, however, may only manifest the real problem — in this case, a lack of functional communication skills to express basic wants and needs.

By providing a positive way to communicate (gestures, pictures, nonverbal communication, or sign language), the child will no longer need the difficult behavior to express themselves.


Functional Communication Training holds promise for children with autism, their caregivers, and communities. By fostering effective communication skills, FCT opens the door to a whole new world of enhanced interactions, reduced challenges, and improved quality of life. Don’t forget: every step toward better communication is a step toward a brighter future.


Q: Can FCT be effective for nonverbal individuals?

A: Absolutely. FCT is adaptable to an individual’s abilities and needs, making it suitable for nonverbal children, as well.

Q: Is FCT only for children with autism?

A: FCT can benefit individuals of all ages on the autism spectrum. It’s never too late to improve one’s communication skills.

Q: How long does it take to see results with FCT? 

A: The timeline varies based on the individual. Consistent implementation of FCT can lead to noticeable improvements over time.

Q: Can I implement FCT at home, or do I need a professional?

A: While guidance from a trained professional can be beneficial, with proper resources and support, FCT strategies can also be successfully implemented at home.

Q: Are there any risks associated with FCT?

A: FCT is a safe and evidence-based approach. However, it’s advisable to work with professionals who can guide you through the process.

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