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What is Functional Communication Training?

January 15, 2024

Autism Spectrum Disorders (ASD) often involve communication challenges leading to difficult behaviors. In this context, Functional Communication Training (FCT) emerges as a valuable strategy, empowering autistic children to express needs effectively and reduce challenging behaviors.

As a part of ABA, FCT focuses on teaching alternative and functional communication skills to replace challenging or problematic behaviors. Let’s delve into the essence of this approach and learn more about its role in fostering communication.

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What is Functional Communication Training (FCT) in ABA?

Functional Communication Training (FCT) in ABA is about teaching children better ways to communicate their needs, wants, and feelings. It recognizes that challenging behaviors often stem from difficulties in communication.

Introduced in 1985 by Carr and Durand, FCT suggests that behavioral problems can be a form of nonverbal communication. By strengthening communication through experiments, the authors demonstrated reduced problem behavior.

Functional communication involves basic, independent expression of needs and socializing. For children, especially those with limited expressive tools, challenges in this area can lead to frustration.

When functional communication is challenging, a child might resort to problematic behavior to get attention. FCT, a form of differential reinforcement, teaches different behaviors that serve the same purpose but in a more appropriate way.

By providing children with effective means of expression, FCT aims to reduce frustration and enhance interaction for children on the autism spectrum.

Functional Communication Challenges in Autistic Children

Society often perceives children on the autism spectrum as difficult due to challenging behaviors, which may actually be their way of communicating, research suggests.

An autistic child struggling to express needs may resort to previously successful behaviors. For example, changes can be distressing for autistic children, and due to communication deficits, they may express distress through behaviors like head-banging.

If a parent gives in to avoid the distress, the child may perceive their behavior as effective communication, leading to future repetition. Luckily, FCT, within an Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA) program, proved successful in replacing problematic behaviors.

FCT addresses various challenging behaviors in children with autism, such as:




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Steps 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.

Step 1: 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.

Step 2: Communication Modes and Modalities

The second step of Functional Communication Training involves identifying a communication response and 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,
  • pictures.

Step 3: Ignoring Negative and Rewarding Positive Behaviors

In the last step, an FCT treatment plan is devised. This may include ignoring difficult behavior and rewarding or acknowledging the positive replacement behaviors 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.

A mom and a young boy high-five each other.
https://www.autismparentingmagazine.com/functional-communication-training/

An Example of Functional Communication Training

Let’s consider an example of Functional Communication Training (FCT) for a child with autism who engages in head-banging behavior to communicate distress during transitions.

You’d start by identifying the problematic behavior. For example, a child may engage in head-banging when asked to transition from one activity to another, such as moving from playing with toys to taking a bath.

Ask yourself – why is your child engaging in this behavior? In this case, the head-banging serves as a way for the child to express distress or discomfort during transitions.

When you identify the function of the behavior, you should teach your child an alternative way to communicate distress. This could involve visual or verbal communication, using social stories, and more.

When the child successfully uses the new communication method, it’s important to provide positive reinforcement. This could include:

  • praise, 
  • a preferred item or activity,
  • other rewards that motivate the child.

How to Implement 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
  • high-tech devices used for communication.

Visual Supports

Visual supports provide children on the spectrum with clear cues for communication. They often include:

  • schedules,
  • social prompts, 
  • choice boards, 

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.

An example of a social story.
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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?

Parents can seek guidance from a behavioral psychologist trained in ABA or a speech and language pathologist to assess the suitability of FCT. Experts caution that this method may not show quick results, and it takes time to replace challenging behaviors with positive communication acts.

When addressing difficult behavior in a child, the instinct is to eliminate the behavior. However, the behavior might signal an underlying issue – a lack of functional communication skills to express basic wants and needs.

Introducing positive communication methods, such as gestures, pictures, nonverbal communication, or sign language, eliminates the need for challenging behavior as a means of expression.

FAQs

Q: What is an example of FCT in ABA?

A: An example of FCT in ABA could involve teaching a child to use a specific gesture, like pointing or tapping, to indicate that they need a break or are feeling overwhelmed instead of engaging in disruptive behaviors to express distress or frustration.

Q: How does FCT work?

A: FCT by teaching individuals alternative ways to express their needs and wants, reducing challenging behaviors. It focuses on replacing problematic behaviors with effective communication methods, promoting positive interactions, and addressing communication deficits.

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.

References:

Sevin, J.A., Rieske, R.D. & Matson, J.L. A Review of Behavioral Strategies and Support Considerations for Assisting Persons with Difficulties Transitioning from Activity to Activity. Rev J Autism Dev Disord 2, 329–342 (2015). https://doi.org/10.1007/s40489-015-0056-7

Carr EG, Durand VM. Reducing behavior problems through functional communication training. J Appl Behav Anal. 1985 Summer;18(2):111-26. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC1307999/

Mancil, Richmond. (2006). Functional communication training: A review of the literature related to children with autism. Education and Training in Developmental Disabilities. 41. 213-224.
https://www.researchgate.net/publication/288293080_Functional_communication_training_A_review_of_the_literature_related_to_children_with_autism

G. Richmond Mancil [email protected] & Marty Boman (2010) Functional Communication Training in the Classroom: A Guide for Success, Preventing School Failure: Alternative Education for Children and Youth, 54:4, 238-246, DOI: 10.1080/10459881003745195

Hartley, L.L. (1990). Assessment of Functional Communication. In: Tupper, D.E., Cicerone, K.D. (eds) The Neuropsychology of Everyday Life: Assessment and Basic Competencies. Foundations of Neuropsychology, vol 2. Springer, Boston, MA. https://doi.org/10.1007/978-1-4613-1503-2_6 

Steps for Implementation: Functional Communication Training
https://autismpdc.fpg.unc.edu/sites/autismpdc.fpg.unc.edu/files/FCT_Steps_0.pdf

A Guide to Functional Communication Training and Autism
https://ideaexchange.uakron.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1520&context=honors_research_projects

Effectiveness of functional communication training using augmentative and alternative communication on the challenging behaviour of children with autism
https://www.uwo.ca/fhs/lwm/teaching/EBP/2011_12/Rutherford.pdf

Carr EG, Durand VM. Reducing behavior problems through functional communication training. J Appl Behav Anal. 1985 Summer;18(2):111-26.
https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/2410400/

Tiger JH, Hanley GP, Bruzek J. Functional communication training: a review and practical guide. Behav Anal Pract. 2008 Spring;1(1):16-23.
https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2846575/

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