October 2020 - Hidden Talents ABA

Functional Communication and Autistic Children

Communication is an essential part of our everyday lives. Though we generally mean verbal speech when we think about daily communication, we all use more than our words to communicate with one another. 

If you work with children diagnosed with Autism Spectrum Disorders (ASD), you are no doubt aware of how much difficulty children on the autism spectrum may struggle with verbal communication.


It is often estimated that over 90% of communication is non-verbal. The aspects of communication other than verbal speech include tone, facial expressions, gestures, and body language. Unfortunately, for those on the autism spectrum, their challenges in communication aren’t limited to their difficulties using verbal speech.


Many children struggling with autism fail to make visual contact with the person speaking to them. This means that they are likely to miss many non-verbal cues that most of us use to understand when someone is speaking to us. Children on the autism spectrum also often experience difficulty in reading or providing facial expressions and body language as well.

Girl playing with bubbles | Functional Communication and Autistic Children

What is Functional Communication?

Simply stated, functional communication is the way in which a person communicates their wants and needs to others. This is also the way that people socialize with those around them. Functional communication isn’t limited to verbal speech. It may include verbal speech, gestures, non-verbal cues, sign language, the use of picture exchange communication system, and the use of assistive devices.


For those on the autism spectrum there is often difficulty engaging in functional communication. If your child is on the autism spectrum, they may suffer with difficulties in communicating. They may also struggle in social and educational engagement due to their communication challenges.


Children on the autism spectrum often suffer from bullying due to poor communication skills. They may also find themselves struggling to form meaningful relationships with peers. Children on the autism spectrum often struggle to read social cues and can appear rude to people with rigid expectations for how others behave socially. Children who struggle to follow verbal instructions may also fail to thrive in educational environments. 

How does Functional Communication relate to ABA therapy?

Applied Behavioral Analysis (ABA) therapists use functional communication training to teach children on the autism spectrum to replace problem behaviors with socially acceptable ways of communicating their needs and desires. 

If your child’s ABA therapist determines that your child is resorting to problematic behavior because of the anxiety or frustration associated with difficulty in communicating, they will use functional communication training to help your child replace their problem behaviors with appropriate communication.


Identifying the reasons a child resorts to problem behaviors can be challenging. A professional ABA therapist is trained to identify problem behaviors and to determine the reasons that these behaviors have become part of your child’s behavior patterns. A professional ABA therapist is also able to understand how to help reduce your child’s problem behaviors and to teach your child more appropriate ways to communicate and engage. 

Is Functional Communication Training Evidence-based?

According to the literature on Functional Communication Training, the practice of using Functional Communication Training meets the requirements to be considered an evidence-based practice. This practice has proven effective for children from preschool age through high school age. Literature indicates that Functional Communication Training is helpful in helping children with social concerns, communication challenges, behavior issues, play behaviors, adaptation to their environment, and school-readiness. 

Relationship Between Communication and Behavior

Children struggling with ASD will often display behaviors that are unacceptable to others. Many times these behaviors occur because of the levels of frustration children on the autism spectrum struggle with due to their inability to make their needs and desires known to those around them. Children on the autism spectrum often struggle with language skills. Children on the autism spectrum often have difficulty with the meaning and rhythm of sentences and words.


Some children with ASD have difficulty stringing together words in a meaningful way. Other children may experience difficulty in using gestures to communicate with others. Not only do children on the spectrum struggle with issues associated with speech, but their attempts are also often met with ridicule. All of these individual issues can contribute to an autistic child experiencing high levels of frustration in social situations and can result in the child behaving in ways that are ineffective and/or problematic. 


If your child struggles with communicating, you have no doubt watched your child try to communicate their needs with others. This can be a heartbreaking experience for parents who have often developed a way of communicating with their autistic children. The reality is that your child needs to be able to communicate with people who aren’t as motivated to understand them as you are. Your child needs to be able to communicate and engage socially with people who are busy, distracted, and often uninterested in being particularly helpful.


Boy playing in the water | Relationship Between Communication and Behavior

What does a Functional Behavior Assessment Look Like?

If your child exhibits problem behaviors, they may benefit from a Functional Behavior Assessment (FBA). An FBA may be performed by an education specialist, a psychologist, an Applied Behavior Analysis therapist, or a counselor.


Oftentimes, when FBA’s are performed as part of the education system, many people may be involved in the FBA process. Although many FBA’s occur when children exhibit problem behaviors in the classroom, it is in your child’s best interest to have an assessment when problem behaviors are first noticed. Regardless of who is performing an FBA, there are specific steps that will be taken.


The steps of your child’s FBA will follow are:


  •       Step 1: Identifying the problem behaviors your child exhibits. The person performing your child’s assessment will interview you, your child, and those important in your child’s life. They will also observe your child. This allows for both direct and indirect assessment of your child’s behavior.


For example, it may be determined that your child yells when they want to ask a question. This problem behavior may have developed as a way of getting needed attention in a classroom because your child struggles to be heard over other children and hasn’t made the connection between raising their hand and getting the teacher’s attention.


  •       Step 2: Determining where these behaviors happen. This information may come from the interviews performed, observations, and written information like school records.


Once it is determined that your child yells to obtain their child’s attention when they have a question, it will be necessary to determine if this happens in every classroom, or only some classrooms. It will also be necessary to determine if your child also yells to get attention outside of the classroom.


  •       Step 3: Collecting information about your child. The person performing your child’s assessment will generally talk to you, your child, and other people important in your child’s life.


The person involved in performing your child’s functional behavior assessment will want to talk to you, your child, and teachers. However, they may also want to read your child’s school records to help them understand when this problematic behavior started. Your child’s doctor may also be beneficial in helping the person making the assessment determine any medical issues your child is dealing that could impact their behavior.


It is possible, for instance, that a child with autism becomes overwhelmed in certain situations and that this could impact the child’s behavior. If, for example, it is determined that your child only yells for attention when the classroom is unruly, it may be due to your child’s hypersensitivity to sound. If your child perceives the environment as loud, they may be yelling out of a belief that this is the only way they can be heard.



It is understood that behavior is intended to fulfill one of four functions:


      Escape: Your child may use behavior to get away from a situation that they find uncomfortable or anxiety provoking.

      Attention: Your child may use behavior to get attention.

      Obtain Tangible Objects: Your child may use behavior to get something physical that they want.

      Sensory Stimulation: Your child may behave in a certain way because it feels good or is in itself some way positive.


In the example we have been using, your child’s yelling is used to obtain attention. It is possible that this same behavior may fulfill other functions for other children.



  •       Step 5: Identifying appropriate behaviors that your child can be taught to use in place of the problem behaviors. The appropriate behavior will be chosen specifically for your child. The appropriate behavior will serve the same function as the problem behavior and be one that your child can easily perform.


With the example we have been using, your child would be taught another way to get their teacher’s attention when they have a question. Your child’s ABA therapist will determine an appropriate behavior for your child to use in place of yelling. If, for example, your child has poor control over their limbs they will not be taught to use hand raising to obtain the teacher’s attention.


Functional Communication Training Examples

Your child’s ABA therapist will use a series of steps to help your child move from exhibiting problematic behaviors to using appropriate and effective communication. To help your child make this transition, their ABA therapist will follow a series of steps. The steps you can expect to see are:


  •       Step 1: Define the challenging behavior and complete a functional behavior assessment. As we discussed above, the FBA is a multi-step process of its own. To define the problem behavior your child’s ABA therapist may interview you, your child, and others important in their daily lives. They will also observe your child in situations where they are working or playing.


  •     Step 2: Identify an appropriate form of communication that will meet the same function as the problem behavior. This information will be based on your child’s FBA. If it has been determined that your child throws a tantrum in class to get their teacher’s attention, for example, their ABA therapist will find a way for your child to communicate their need for attention to the teacher in an appropriate way.


The exact behavior your child will be taught will depend upon their individual needs. The replacement behavior should be:


  •       Easier to perform than the problem behavior
  •       Something that your child can learn quickly
  •       Something that other people will understand


A child who has limited verbal skills may be given an assistive device to use for this purpose or may be taught to use sign language, for example.


  •       Step 3: Teach the identified appropriate replacement behavior. To do this your child’s ABA therapist will create situations where the challenging behavior is likely to occur and prompt the child to use the appropriate communication behavior before the problem behavior occurs. Once the appropriate communication behavior is used, the child will be reinforced.


It is important at this stage that the problem behavior be placed on extinction. This means that your child should not be reinforced for the behavior problem. If your child is using yelling to get attention, yelling can not get your child attention at this point. If your child yells, for example, their therapist may ask the child to stop or use a signal to let your child know that they have to stop yelling. Once the problem behavior has been stopped the child will be redirected to perform the appropriate behavior.


Ideally, your child’s therapist will notice your child’s agitation and ask if they need help before they yell for attention. Your child’s therapist may intentionally teach your child something likely to cause confusion. Rather than allow the child to struggle, the therapist may ask the child if they have a question and cue them to use the identify appropriate behavior to get attention. When they use the appropriate behavior, the reinforcer will be provided.


If your child starts to yell out in the classroom, the therapist will stop the negative behavior. The therapist will prompt your child with a reminder of the appropriate behavior. When your child uses the appropriate behavior, it will be immediately followed with a reinforcer. The reinforcer will be determined by the therapist specifically for your child.


  •       Step 4: Create opportunities for the learner to practice the new behavior. To help your child generalize the new learned behavior to multiple situations, they will need to see that this new behavior is rewarding in multiple situations.


To this end, you will often be encouraged to reinforce your child’s use of a new behavior when it occurs in spaces outside of therapy, or if the learning takes place at school, outside of the classroom. If your child has multiple teachers, they will all be taught to reinforce the use of this new behavior whenever it occurs.


  •       Step 5: Maintain the new behavior. Initially your child will be reinforced every time the appropriate behavior is used. Slowly, and over a course of time, the level of reinforcement will be reduced.


As the new behavior becomes a habitual response, and the original problem behavior has stopped occurring, the new behavior will become your child’s default response for getting their needs filled. If reinforcement is discontinued too quickly, the new behavior may also stop. So, this step in functional communication training is slow and intentional.


The Best Atlanta Based Applied Behavior Analysis Program that Offers Functional Communication Training

If you are located in the Atlanta area, you will find that the best Atlanta based ABA program offering Functional Communication Training is Hidden Talents ABA. Hidden Talents ABA works with children from birth through age 12 helping them to become the best they can be.

The Four Functions of Behavior

In Applied Behavioral Analysis (ABA), therapists believe that all behavior happens for a reason. Heather Gilmore, MSW, BCBA, identifies the four basic functions that motivate behavior in Reflections on Applied Behavior Analysis.

What are the four functions of behavior?

1) Escape

One of the major reasons a child will behave in a certain way is to get out of doing something they don’t want to do. This is the definition of the escape function.

For example, a child who feels anxious in social situations may hide to avoid doing things in groups. The child may find novel ways to get out of doing things with others. Or a child might avoid eye contact or place their head down on a desk during a lesson to get out of school work.


Behaviors you may see when children are motivated to escape include:


  •       Avoiding physical discomfort
  •       Avoiding social situations
  •       Running away
  •       Avoiding people or situations
  •       Hiding


2) Attention:

An individual may also behave in negative ways to draw the attention of parents, teachers, or others to them. Again, attention seeking behavior can be appropriate or problematic, depending on the situation. For example, a child might raise their voice or talk over those around them to draw a parent or teacher’s attention. A child might complain or scream to draw attention away from others in a classroom setting.


Although we generally think about attracting attention to ourselves as it is a means of having positive engagement with others, children may behave in negative ways to get attention even if the attention isn’t positive.


Things you may see when children are motivated to attract attention include:


  •       Raised voices
  •       Whining
  •       Being overly loud
  •       Raising a hand or waving hands

3) Tangible Items:

A person may behave in a problematic way to obtain an object they want or to get to participate in an activity that they particularly enjoy. Behaviors that may be used to get tangible items or experiences can be either positive or negative in nature. For example, a child may throw a tantrum in an attempt to get a toy or to go to see a movie.


Behaviors you may see that are intended to obtain something tangible include:


  •       Throwing a tantrum to get a toy
  •       Ordering a pizza
  •       Stealing a desired object from a store or another person
  •       Buying a desired object


4) Sensory Stimulation:

The best way to describe the sensory function is that a child might do things that in and of themselves are pleasurable. For example, you will often see children twirling their hair around their fingers. Some children will twirl themselves around or pick at their skin or hair. Others may hum or crack their knuckles.


Behaviors you may see that are reinforcing in themselves:


  •       Picking at hair or skin
  •       Cracking knuckles
  •       Twirling
  •       Twisting hair
  •       Humming or making noises that vibrate within the child’s chest or throat


Clearly, the function of a particular behavior may not be obvious. Sometimes a parent may assume that a particular behavior has one function, when in actuality it is found to fulfill a less obvious function. 

For example, you may initially assume that your child always cracks their knuckles when you are driving to school in an attempt to get your attention. Although this is a possibility, and may be true for some children, your child may actually find the act of cracking their knuckles physically rewarding.

How the Four Functions of Behavior are used in ABA Therapy

ABA therapists will identify the function of problem behaviors they see your child exhibit. Understanding the reason that your child is behaving inappropriately, will help the ABA therapist determine a way to help your child meet their needs without having to resort to negative behavior. 

Once an ABA therapist understands why your child is exhibiting problem behaviors, they can develop intervention strategies to discontinue this behavior.


Understanding the reason your child performs a particular behavior will not only help the ABA therapist understand the needs that the behavior fulfills for your child. This information will also help your child’s therapist understand how to help your child stop this problematic behavior. If the problem behavior fulfills a needed function, the ABA therapist will work with your child to help them develop a positive alternative behavior to fulfill this function.

How Reinforcement can be used to Stop Negative Behaviors

ABA therapy looks at learning as occurring due to a sequence. According to learning theory, learning occurs due to A – an antecedent, which is followed by B – a behavior, and results in C – a consequence. 

According to learning theory, negative, or problem, behaviors occur because they have been reinforced by a positive consequence. Therefore, an ABA therapist must determine why the problem behavior occurs and what is reinforcing it.


Reinforcement can be used both to increase positive behaviors and to reduce negative behaviors. Once an ABA therapist understands the function of a behavior, they can determine how to use a combination of positive reinforcement and negative reinforcement to reduce or stop these negative behaviors.


To stop a problem behavior, an ABA therapist will identify the consequence that is reinforcing the behavior. Reinforcement that is provided for a problem, or negative, behavior is then stopped, by removing the reinforcer from the Antecedent-Behavior-Consequence sequence. This process is referred to as extinction.


The extinction process will depend upon the functions of the behavior your child is engaging in. If a child’s problem behavior is being reinforced by positive reinforcement, the reinforcer must be discontinued. For example, a child may yell out for attention in the classroom. Attention garnered by this behavior may be reinforcing and must stop. 


However, this same behavior may be fulfilling the escape function. Say for example, that the child is being removed from the classroom due to the outburst. The removal from the classroom, and class work, may be reinforcing the behavior. 

In this instance, the negative reinforcement of being removed from the classroom must be discontinued, or if avoiding the work is the issue, the work must accompany the child when they are removed from the classroom.


If the problem behavior is fulfilling the sensory function, it will be reinforced automatically. It may be a stretch of the imagination, but let’s say we determine that the child in question is actually yelling because their voice reverberates against the blades of a nearby fan, and that the child finds this sound reinforcing. To extinguish this behavior, the physical environment would need to be rearranged so that the yelling would no longer be rewarding the child with their reverberating voice.


How Reinforcement can be used to Increase Desired Behaviors

ABA therapy also uses aspects of reinforcement to replace negative behaviors with positive ones. Once an ABA therapist identifies the functions of negative behaviors, they will develop a plan for diminishing negative behaviors. When appropriate, an ABA therapist will help your child replace problem behaviors with desired behaviors.


For example, if your child is using problem behaviors to obtain attention in the classroom to ask a question, the problem behavior needs to be discontinued, but your child also needs to know how to obtain the attention they need appropriately. Your child’s ABA therapist will develop a strategy to help your child replace problem behaviors with desirable ones in instances like this.


The first step, in this instance, would be to obtain your child’s attention when the negative behavior occurs. If your child yells out for attention when they have a question, the goal would be to teach your child an appropriate way to get the needed attention. First, the problem behavior would be stopped. This may be done simply by asking the child to stop or through the use of nonverbal behavior.


Once the negative behavior has been stopped, the child is redirected to replace that behavior with a positive behavior. For example, a child who is interrupting during a lesson, may be asked to stop. The child would then be cued for the appropriate positive behavior. In this example, the therapist may simply remind the child to raise their hand. The positive behavior, in this case hand raising, is then immediately followed by a reinforcer.


Positive reinforcement occurs when a positive, or motivating, stimulus is presented after a behavior occurs. ABA therapist will provide positive reinforcement directly after a desired behavior occurs. Often a desired behavior will be immediately followed by verbal praise, non-verbal praise, for example a smile, or a reward. An ABA therapist may reward a child by providing access to a toy or food that the child has previously identified as reinforcing. Your child’s ABA therapist will work with your child to determine appropriate reinforcers.