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What is “Functional Communication” anyway?


The following article was submitted by Leica Anzaldo, Training Manager for the Autism Society of North Carolina.

Mark has been at the same job now for two years and certainly knows what the expectations are. Or does he? Every time his manager adds new tasks to his job list, Mark seems to ignore them. Mark has never indicated to his manager that he doesn’t know how or when to do the new tasks, so she assumes he is being lazy. The question is does Mark know how, when and why to ask for help?

Often our assumptions are what lead many individuals with Autism Spectrum Disorder to use less desirable behaviors to communicate their message. Imagine the stress and debilitating effects of not having an effective and practical way to communicate when you need a break, don’t understand something, want someone’s attention, etc. Many individuals on the autism spectrum are in that exact position. Even individuals who have lots of words or systems, such as the Picture Exchange Communication System, often haven’t been taught when and how to use them. This is why ongoing teaching of “functional communication” is so important.

First, look at the behavior that the person is using and identify its function. For example, Mark’s “ignoring his work” behavior could indicate that he doesn’t understand the work yet and isn’t sure how to ask for help. Another example is a child who, when playing in a group, hits and scratches other children. Let’s look at this objectively: is the child hitting and scratching to get the attention of the children who aren’t sharing the toys with him? If so, what can we teach the child to use to get the other children’s attention with more positive results?

Keep it simple:

  • Select a communication strategy that the person is capable of using: a word, a phrase, a gesture, a picture cue, an object.
  • Make sure it can be taught easily and in all environments.
  • Initially teach the new skill while incorporating those people, places or things that are most reinforcing, so the child is motivated to use the new behavior.
  • Prompt the person to use the new behavior before he or she resorts to using the less desirable behavior.
  • Make sure that EVERYONE responds positively to the person when they use the communication strategy. Reinforce all attempts initially. Your positive responses will make this strategy more powerful than the old, less desirable behavior.
  • Ignore the less desirable behavior so it loses power as it is no longer being reinforced.
  • Keep in mind that this will take time, and you will probably see the negative behavior increase initially before tapering off.

If you are interested in more training or information on this subject, please keep an eye out for the release of the Training Department’s newest workshop, “Functional Communication,” later this summer. To contact Leica Anzaldo, send an email to

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