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Building Communication-Rich Environments: Practical Strategies for Success

Throughout your daily life, consider how frequently you communicate your wants and needs and the various tools you use to do so. Now imagine that you lost your communication abilities. Conveying even the most simplistic messages about your thoughts, feelings, and basic needs would suddenly be much more difficult. Many individuals with Autism Spectrum Disorder experience similar challenges with communication and may at times rely on inappropriate behaviors to convey their wants and needs.

One common example of inappropriate behavior as a means of communication is a student ripping his or her paper in half when a worksheet is presented in class. The child may be trying to communicate that he does not want to complete the worksheet. Is there a better way for the child to communicate this? How can we teach him to communicate effectively? One of the most effective ways to do this is by functional communication training, with a focus on teaching specific “mands.” A mand, also known as a request, can be something as simple as a child asking for a cookie or as complex as an adult asking for directions to a coffee shop.

Functional communication training

The first step in teaching functional communication is to identify the specific situations in which the inappropriate behaviors occur to determine why they are occurring. Essentially, how is the behavior “working” for the individual? Is the individual using the behavior to escape or avoid a situation or to obtain attention, for example? When we carefully analyze the conditions that surround a behavior to determine why it is happening, we are performing a functional behavior assessment. After behavior is assessed, the team can identify a new behavior to replace the less appropriate behavior. In the example above, the team might determine that the child should be initially taught to say “break” or “just five problems” or “help me” (or use an augmentative tool to convey these messages). In the early stage of learning the replacement behavior, it is important to reinforce the replacement behavior every time the individual displays it.

Increasing motivation to communicate

  • In the home, place items out of reach but still visible so your child needs assistance from you and must communicate to access the items.
  • Give access to preferred toys and games only when they are requested, rather than freely throughout the day.
  • When a chore or activity is underway, the individual may be motivated to escape it. Target a request for a break or help from an individual to complete these activities.
  • When a family member arrives home for the day, the individual may be excited to see them and will be particularly motivated for their attention. Teach them to request your attention appropriately with a communication response that makes sense for them. Make sure to reward their efforts by providing high quality attention!

Some communication modalities

  • Non-vocal behaviors such as reaching, pointing, eye gaze to person, etc.
  • Vocal communication
  • Sign language
  • Picture Exchange Communication System (PECS)
  • Technology apps for the iPad such as Proloquo2go
  • Dynavox

Learn more about functional communication training.


ASNC’s Clinical Department staff is composed of PhD and master’s-level licensed psychologists, Board Certified Behavior Analysts, and former special education teachers. We provide individualized intensive consultation using evidence-based practices to support children and adults across the spectrum in home, school, employment, residential, and other community-based contexts. We also deliver workshops to professionals on a wide range of topics including but not limited to, strategies to prevent and respond to challenging behaviors, best practices in early intervention, functional communication training, and evidence-based practices in instruction for K-12 students with autism.

To find out more, contact us at 919-390-7242 or clinical@autismsociety-nc.org.


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