Functional communication aims to replace taxing behaviors with new forms of communication that achieve the same results. These communication skills are taught in the classroom and at home.

Below, we discuss how functional communication works and how it can help children with autism.

What is Functional Communication?

Functional communication refers to effective communication behaviors that express feelings, wants, preferences, and needs verbally or non-verbally. Functional communication forms part of basic development skills. It helps children understand how to present their requests or thoughts to receive an instant response.

In most cases, functional communication isn’t limited to verbal speech. It also includes gestures, sign language, and non-verbal cues. Sometimes, assistive devices may also be used.

Most children learn how to communicate effectively at the age of one. Their communication skills improve and expand with age. Children with autism experience a delay in learning functional communication skills and often learn how to communicate much later.

Functional Communication and Autism

Children on the autism spectrum struggle with verbal communication. It is estimated that in children with autism, communication is 90% non-verbal. These children also find it hard to make and maintain eye contact. This behavior causes them to miss non-verbal cues and facial expressions.

Children with autism also experience social and educational challenges because of a lack of functional communication. You may have noticed your child becoming increasingly frustrated or overwhelmed when they cannot express themselves.

Their frustration may result in undesirable behaviors such as yelling, hitting, and screeching.

How Can ABA Help Functional Communication

ABA (applied behavior analysis) therapy aims to help children increase helpful behavior and decrease challenging behavior.

The ABA strategy incorporates positive reinforcement and bases the therapy on three steps known as the ABCs:

  • Antecedent: An antecedent is what happens before, and a consequence is what happens after.
  • Behavior: The resulting behavior of an antecedent is the response or lack thereof to a verbal request.
  • Consequence: This is what happens directly after the behavior. Consequences come in the form of praise for good behavior or no response for inappropriate behavior.

If your child struggles to communicate functionally, you may want to approach an ABA therapist for help.

ABA therapy leans on the science of learning and behavioral skills. ABA therapy is also considered best practice by the American Psychological Association and the US Surgeon General.

Is Functional Communication Evidence-Based?

Functional communication and ABA training methods rely on science-backed principles. Functional communication training (FCT) meets the criteria of evidence-based practice.

This means that ABA and FCT methods promote appropriate behavior and effective communication skills. ABA is also evidence-based and has passed several scientific tests proving its success in improving behaviors.

How Can Communication Affect Behaviors

Children with autism face several communication challenges. They often cannot put words and sentences together in a way that others can understand. You may have noticed that your child uses the same sentence to start a conversation. They may even repeat something you say or use robotic speech.

If you have tried to teach your child how to read, you may have perceived that their language skills are uneven. They may also have difficulty spelling and sounding out words. You may also have observed that your child becomes frustrated when they cannot communicate with you effectively. They may also act out and display disturbing behaviors.

But perhaps the worst part is the lack of patience others may have with your child. They may even experience bullying if they are in school.

ABA therapy can be exceptionally effective in helping your child improve their communication skills by using trusted FCT steps.

Functional Communication Training Steps

When you’ve decided on an ABA therapist, you can expect the FCT steps to look like the following:

1. FBA

The therapist will conduct a functional behavior assessment. This means they will assess and define your child’s behavior and the function of each behavior. The therapist will also ask you to explain the behavior you have observed.

2. Replace Behaviors

Once your child’s problematic behaviors become apparent, the therapist will suggest replacement behaviors. The therapist will teach your child how to adopt the replacement behaviors.

These behaviors must be:

  •  Easy to learn and perform compared to the existing behaviors.
  • Something that your child can grasp and remember for future use.
  • Something that the rest of your family can understand and respond to.

The therapist will help your child appropriately communicate their needs and requests.

3. Practice Replacing The Behavior

An ABA therapist will also teach your child to use the replacement behavior to get a favorable response.

For instance, your child may throw tantrums because you won’t allow them to play with a toy when they should be eating or learning. The therapist will guide your child to use replacement behavior to access the toy at the appropriate time.

Your child will also discover that the new behavior gets a response while the old behavior doesn’t. Positive reinforcement will then be used to reward your child for using replacement behavior instead of challenging behavior.

4. New Opportunities

You may want to use the new behavior tactic to help your child practice replacement behaviors outside of therapy.

For example, if your child wants to play with a new toy but is displaying old behavior when asking for it, you can use it as an opportunity to enforce the new behavior. You can use positive reinforcement to encourage your child to display only the new behavior when communicating or requesting something.

This reinforcement can be a small reward that eventually leads to the extinction of inappropriate behavior.

5. Maintain The Behavior

You must help your child maintain the new behavior. Once your child is no longer displaying problematic behaviors and is using the new behavior to ask for something, you should slowly decrease the reward reinforcement.

It must happen at a gradual pace; otherwise, you may observe a recurrence of the problem behavior.


Children with autism need constant guidance and support to develop functional communication skills. Communication is essential to your child’s development and will help them learn acceptable behaviors. Functional communication also helps with learning and socializing skills.

FCT will help your child learn new ways to communicate functionally in ways that are less stressful and help them replace destructive or disruptive behaviors with acceptable ones.

Ultimately, this training will also help you better understand your child’s communication challenges and needs.



If you are ready to work with the best ABA therapy provider in New York, New Jersey or Indiana, give us a call at (732) 402-0297. Our dedicated team is ready to help and we will treat you like family.

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