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What is Functional Communication Training (FCT)?

April 9, 2020

Mom guiding her daughter how to eat properly

Functional Communication Training is a teaching process commonly used in ABA therapy that focuses on decreasing a challenging behavior and replacing it with a functional form of communication.

But what does that actually mean?

Think about your daily life… maybe you use an app on your phone to order your coffee, at work you use words to request an extension on a report, and on your drive home you use a turn signal to change lanes. All of these actions are functional communication. You have learned that when you do these specific things you get what you want whether that is a coffee the way you like it, an extension on your report, or another driver allowing you room to change lanes.

Now try to imagine not being able to express yourself to the people around you. What might happen if you were given a drink when you really wanted a snack or even what it would be like to need to use the restroom and not be able to tell those around you. Many individuals with autism struggle with the use of functional communication and therefore may resort to behaviors such as tantrums, yelling, crying, property destruction, aggression, or elopement to get what they want.

This is where functional communication training comes in. The first step is to discuss a problem behavior that your child is engaging in with your ABA practitioner. They will use a system of questions about the behavior, observation, and data collection to determine why that behavior is occurring this is also called the “function” of the behavior.

Most typically these assessments show that behaviors occur to get something (such as a toy, attention, or food) or to get away from something (such as homework or chores). They will then work with your family to determine a more appropriate communication response specific to your child that serves the same function as the problem behavior.

It is important to note that there are a variety of communication responses that may be taught. While the most common form of communication is spoken language there are a variety of other ways individuals can communicate including but not limited to gestures (pointing, thumbs up, etc.), sign language, picture exchange communication systems (PECS), or a speech generating device.

The next step of functional communication training is to ensure that the problem behavior no longer gets the desired outcome, but instead the functional communication response does. What might this look like?

  • A child throws their cup every time it is empty. When the child throws the cup, mom fills it with juice to get him to stop throwing the cup. The child has now learned that throwing the cup results in getting more juice. With FCT we teach the child to instead bring the parent a picture of “juice” to get more juice instead of throwing the cup.
  • A teenager yells every time he is told to put away his video game console. Mom tells him that if he stops yelling, he can keep playing. The teenager has now learned that yelling will result in getting additional game time. With FCT we teach the teenager that to get additional game time, he must ask using a calm voice. Now when he asks appropriately, he is given an additional five minutes of gaming but if he engages in yelling the console is removed.

In these examples the learner now has a way to communicate their needs that is easier, more appropriate, and effective so there is no need to engage in the problem behavior.

The final step of functional communication training is to ensure that this new skill is being taught in all the learner’s environments and with all the individuals they interact with. For example, the child who throws his cup is taught to bring the juice picture to request a refill with his grandparents or at daycare and the teenager who engages in yelling is taught to use the same request for more time with the babysitter.

Functional communication training is a powerful tool that is individualized to each learner’s abilities and environment. It can be used not only to decrease problem behaviors but more importantly to increase an individual’s abilities to independently express their own wants and needs.