Functional Communication

The Importance of Functional Communication Training

Imagine how you feel when you’re on the telephone and have a bad connection. Or when you’re trying to talk and someone keeps interrupting you. Or when you are trying to remember a word and just can’t grasp it. I know when these things happen to me, I sometimes exhibit behaviors such as stomping my feet or yelling. On occasion, I may even curse.

Whenever we’re unable to communicate with ease, we experience frustration, and the way we express that frustration may vary from situation to situation and dependent upon our needs in that moment. But imagine if you were unable to communicate all day every day. This is where functional communication training comes in.

Let’s look at an example. Serena is a non-vocal, five-year-old girl with autism. When her teachers try to implement academic activities, she frequently bites them. This typically results in the activity ending or being delayed. After completing an assessment of Serena’s biting behavior, her teachers find that the behavior of biting functions for escape, meaning that in the past, when Serena bit she was able to escape the demands associated with academic activities. To help reduce biting, it is imperative to teach Serena a more appropriate, functional way to communicate her desire to escape. So what might this look like?

Right now Serena, is consistently communicating for three items using her SuperSpeak AAC app on her device: crackers, fruit snacks, and water. We will now add “Break” and teach her to touch break when she wants to escape a task. This may look like the screen pictured below:

Serena’s SuperSpeak AAC

When you’re first teaching this, you will have to provide prompting. Here are a few things to consider:

  1. The response effort for functional communication should be less than the inappropriate behavior. In this case, it requires less effort to touch the space on the screen than to bite. However, for lower level learners, it may require too much effort to select the “break” from a field of our items.
  2. Take a little data on how long your learner works before engaging in the inappropriate behavior. For instance, if we find that Serena typically works for about 30 seconds then begins biting, we want to introduce the functional communication training at about 20-25 seconds. This way, we’re teaching her how to ask appropriately for a break before the biting begins.
  3. Use most-to-least prompting. When you begin training, you may use hand-over-hand guidance and help your learner touch the correct spot on the screen. As they begin to do well with this, you’ll fade your prompting. Perhaps you will just lift their hand, then let them complete the motion. Once they’ve mastered that, you might just tap their elbow or point. Avoid vocal prompts because they are the most difficult to fade.
  4. Your goal is to have your learner independently using appropriate requests (or functional communication) without any instances of the inappropriate behavior. Once they have mastered this, then you can begin to make it more difficult. Perhaps you let them know they get the break after 5 seconds, or after completing the next task. You should systematically build in delays before they receive the item/activity/break they have asked for.

There is a lot of great research about functional communication training, and this post just provides the most basic outline of implementation. Ultimately, we want to provide our learners with the same assets most of us have: ease of communication that is both appropriate and safe.

You can view research about functional communication training here:

  • Durand, V. M., & Carr, E. G. (1991). Functional communication training to reduce challenging behavior: Maintenance and application in new settings. Journal of Applied Behavior Analysis, 24(2), 251-264. (Link:
  • Durand, V. M. (1999). Functional communication training using assistive devices: Recruiting natural communities of reinforcement. Journal of Applied Behavior Analysis, 32(3), 247-267. (Link:
  • Fisher, W., Piazza, C., Cataldo, M., Harrell, R., Jefferson, G., & Conner, R. (1993). Functional communication training with and without extinction and punishment. Journal of Applied Behavior Analysis, 26(1), 23-36. Link:
  • Kahng, S., Hendrickson, D. J., & Vu, C. P. (2000). Comparison of single and multiple functional communication training responses for the treatment of problem behavior. Journal of Applied Behavior Analysis, 33(3), 321-324. (Link:
  • Lalli, J. S., Casey, S., & Kates, K. (1995). Reducing escape behavior and increasing task completion with functional communication training, extinction and response chaining. Journal of Applied Behavior Analysis, 28(3), 261-268. (Link:
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