ABA Jargon: Functional Communication Training


Okay, so today's jargon is Functional Communication Training. We talk about functional communication a lot on the show and about why it's so important that we get functional communication. So let's talk a little bit about what functional communication training is.

And I deliberately put a really too long definition in and quoted the source so that you guys could see how horrible it is if you were to just go and look up in a reasonable book what is functional communication training. What you'll get is this. Functional communication training (FCT) is a variant of DRA. Aren't you glad that we clarified that? In which appropriate communicative responses are shaped and maintained as an alternative to maladaptive behavior using the reinforcer that maintains maladaptive behavior, or functional reinforcers, rather than an arbitrary reinforcer.

And this comes to us from a long list of researchers and the direct quote was taken from the International Handbook of Autism and Pervasive Developmental Disorders edited by Johnny L. Matson and Peter Sturmey. Fabulous. Doesn't that just make it clear and we can go on because somebody out there understands this. But not me and probably a lot of you out there. Aren't we like, "Huh? What?"

All right, so let's move on to our working definition. This is the whole reason why we do jargon of the day. Functional communication training is rewarding appropriate methods of communicating wants, needs and concerns to another. The communication can be verbal or non verbal.

Okay, so if we have this basic idea that people behave in certain ways because they get a paycheck. And a lot of times, we see with individuals who do not have traditional means of communicating that they start getting into what was referred to on the other definition as maladaptive behaviors. We will see things like tantrum, tantrumming. We will see screaming, we will see biting, we will see hitting, kicking, all of those different things, those are considered maladaptive. They're not efficient at getting what you want. But if you don't have a choice, you will go to that. Because you have no other ways of getting your needs met.

And when we start to work with an individual who's on the autism spectrum who has found those ways of communicating... And by the way, it's a natural phase for people to go through those ways of communicating, we just normally call it the terrible twos, which happens to be the period in time when children are clear about what they want, typical children, clear about what they want but don't have an efficient way of communicating it. And so we get those terrible twos.

For an individual on the autism spectrum who isn't getting better, functional communication choices, they're going to stay in that method because sometimes it works. Sometimes it does. Sometimes if you throw a tantrum, grandma gives you a lollipop. Sometimes if you throw a tantrum, mom soothes you. So if it works and you have nothing else to do, you're going to continue to do it.

So functional communication training takes all of that away and says what we're going to do is reward when the person is communicating and usually you decide based on the person's current skills and their current communication abilities what is the thing that you're going to reward.

In some cases, people start out with a picture exchange communication system, PECS, for short. Where they have these little icons that have a picture on them. The old traditional form. So it might have a picture of a drink on it and they have little books with Velcro and they can take that picture out and they can hand it to you. And once they do, that's when they get the drink. So they don't have to throw themselves on the floor. They don't have to throw a fit. They don't have to bite you. They have a way of getting what they want. That's functional communication training. Rewarding when somebody does that appropriately. Of course you have to teach it.

As I said, before you can teach it you have to decide what you are going to teach. And different folks, different things. If you've got a child who has absolutely no communication skills whatsoever, they're not making any sounds, they're not pointing, picture exchange system might be something that you go to to start with because it's an easy way for somebody who doesn't have those skills to get it onboard.

For others, if you've got a child who's pointing and grunting, you might decide to go with something else and start with echoics, as we talked about, the verbal operants the other day. And for a child who is making enough sounds so they're trying to get to words, we would move that a little bit further along. But it is essential, it doesn't matter who you're working with, if they do not already have a functional communication system, that before we do anything else, we really have to get functional communication onboard.

One of the things that we talked about the other day is the mand. And for kids who have a little bit of language, manding is one of the things that we start with and hit hard. If they've got sounds and they got echoics already, they're mimicking sounds... And they may not get it exactly right, but we move to mands and ask them to request whatever it is they want, and that's when we give it to them. What we see on a chart is before that, a child's challenging behavior is way up here. It's like so many different tantrums and different challenging behaviors, really, really high. And their language and being able to request things, their mand is here.

And if we were to look at it in a chart, if we're not changing it, they're clipping along like this. It's much more of this and too little of this. But as we increase this on the chart, it makes on the chart what I call the magic X. Because what happens is is that this starts to go up, this starts to go down, and they cross each other on the chart, on every kid's chart, as we see those mands go up. The challenging behaviors go down. It's not a coincidence.

If I had to throw a tantrum everyday to get my lunch, it would be exhausting. I don't want to have to do that. I would rather save my energy for something else. And I know we think that kids have endless, boundless energy, they never run out of it. But the truth of the matter is they'd rather spend it playing and be happy. They would. But if the only way you can get it is by tantrumming, you will, you'll spend the energy on that.

If we give them the way to ask for the thing that they want, the challenging behavior goes down. By the way, if we were to put that on another chart and put the parent's happiness or the caregiver's happiness, it would go up in direct proportion to how much the mands were going up and how downward the challenging behaviors were going. So functional communication training, we really can't get a lot done until that is in place.

Remember that our old ideas about what communication is, we need to broaden and expand that so that we include things that are nonverbal because it's going to be different for everyone. By the way, though, don't get trapped into the idea that if you begin teaching someone with an assistive device, like an iPad or an augmentative device, or you begin with the PEC system, that that means that they're never going to get to verbal speech. That just isn't the case. The research does not bare that out.

There are children still and adults on the autism spectrum that we have not been able to figure out how to get them to vocal speech. But by and large, much, much more than 50% of the people that get good functional communication training will get to vocal speech. And that's a wonderful thing. Functional communication training, FCT, something very important to know.

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