How Functional Communication Training Empowers Individuals with Autism

Discover how functional communication training in autism is transforming lives and enhancing communication skills.

steven zauderer
Steven Zauderer
April 30, 2024
9 min read
min read

Understanding Functional Communication Training

In the realm of autism support strategies, Functional Communication Training (FCT) stands out as an effective method for enhancing communication skills. This approach empowers individuals with autism to express their needs effectively while reducing challenging behaviors.

Definition of FCT

Functional Communication Training, or FCT, is a behavioral intervention strategy that focuses on teaching alternative and functional communication skills to replace challenging or problematic behaviors. The approach was introduced in 1985 by Carr and Durand, who suggested that behavioral problems can often be a form of nonverbal communication [1].

The process of FCT involves three key steps. Firstly, it involves the functional communication assessment, which identifies the purpose or function of the problematic behavior. The second step is the identification of a suitable communication response that the individual can use instead of the challenging behavior. The final step involves ignoring the challenging behavior while rewarding the positive replacement behavior. This entire process is designed to guide individuals with autism in using more effective and appropriate communication methods [2].

Importance of FCT in Autism

The significance of functional communication training in autism cannot be overstated. FCT recognizes that challenging behaviors often stem from difficulties in communication. For individuals with autism, expressing needs, wants, or feelings can be a significant struggle. This training helps them learn alternative, more effective ways of communication, thereby reducing the need for challenging or problematic behaviors.

Through FCT, individuals with autism are empowered to communicate more effectively, reducing frustrations and enhancing their social interactions. This training is thus a crucial tool in supporting their overall development and improving their quality of life.

The use of FCT in autism is not only beneficial for the individuals themselves, but it also positively impacts their families, caregivers, and educators. It enables a better understanding of the individual's needs, leading to more meaningful interactions and a more supportive environment.

The Process of Functional Communication Training

Implementing functional communication training (FCT) in autism involves a methodical process designed to improve communication skills and reduce problematic behavior. This process includes functional communication assessment, identification of a communication response, and ignoring negative behavior while rewarding positive replacement behavior.

Functional Communication Assessment

The first step in implementing FCT is to conduct a functional assessment. This evaluation identifies the environmental events that maintain problematic behavior. Functional assessments are critical for accurately pinpointing the reinforcer for the communicative response. Most studies use a functional analysis model, which involves manipulating potential controlling variables for problem behavior.

Identification of Communication Response

The second phase involves selecting a communicative response topography. This selection should consider factors such as the effort required to engage in the response, the likelihood that others will recognize and respond appropriately to the response, and the individual's current behavioral repertoire. Effortless and recognizable response topographies are generally preferred, but the selection may vary depending on the individual's abilities and needs.

When selecting a communicative response topography for FCT, factors such as response effort, social recognition of the response, and likely speed of response acquisition should be considered. In the initial stages of treatment, effortless and recognizable response topographies are recommended. More complex forms can be considered once initial responses are acquired and problem behavior is reduced [4].

Ignoring Negative Behavior

The final step in FCT involves ignoring negative behavior while reinforcing positive behavior. This approach encourages individuals to use their new communication skills instead of resorting to problematic behavior. FCT should be implemented by well-trained practitioners in settings that minimize competing sources of reinforcement and maximize safety. Strategies should be used to promote the generalization of behavior changes to other environments and caregivers. Caregivers should also be trained to implement FCT, although the ideal training method has yet to be determined.

By implementing these steps, FCT can be an effective tool in improving communication skills and reducing problematic behavior in individuals with autism. However, it's important to remember that each individual is unique, and the specific approach to FCT should be tailored to their specific needs and abilities.

Effectiveness of Functional Communication Training

Functional Communication Training (FCT) is a proven strategy for empowering autistic individuals to express their needs effectively, reducing challenging behaviors, and increasing social communication and task completion. It is widely recognized for its effectiveness in managing problematic behaviors and improving the lives of those with autism.

Success Stories of FCT

Over the years, many success stories have emerged regarding the implementation of functional communication training in autism management. These stories often involve individuals who, through FCT, have been able to replace challenging or problematic behaviors with more effective communication strategies, thereby improving their overall quality of life. These narratives provide anecdotal evidence of FCT's effectiveness and showcase its potential to transform lives.

One such example is the story of a young boy with autism who previously expressed his needs through tantrums and aggressive behavior. After implementing FCT, he learned to communicate his needs using sign language, which led to a significant decrease in problematic behavior. This story, along with countless others, underlines the transformative power of FCT when properly implemented.

Research Studies on FCT

Scientific research also supports the effectiveness of FCT. A study published in PubMed Central, using a randomized controlled trial (RCT) design, found that FCT conducted via telehealth achieved a mean reduction in problem behavior of 98% compared to limited behavioral improvement in children receiving "treatment as usual" during a 12-week period. The study also found improvements in social communication and task completion.

In addition to its effectiveness, FCT treatment via telehealth was highly acceptable to parents, as indicated by their ratings on the Treatment Acceptability Rating Form-Revised (TARF-R). This suggests that FCT is not only effective but also well-received by those implementing it.

In conclusion, both anecdotal evidence and scientific research strongly support the effectiveness of functional communication training in autism management. By focusing on teaching alternative and functional communication skills, FCT has the potential to significantly improve the lives of individuals with autism.

Implementing FCT for Autism

To make a difference in the lives of individuals with autism, it's essential to implement functional communication training (FCT) effectively. This involves considering modern delivery methods, such as telehealth, and the crucial role of therapists in the process.

Telehealth Applications of FCT

Modern technology has opened up new avenues for providing effective treatments like FCT to individuals with autism. One of the promising areas is telehealth, which involves delivering health-related services and information through telecommunications technologies.

According to a study published on PubMed Central, FCT treatment delivered via telehealth significantly reduced problem behavior in children with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) and moderate to severe behavior problems. This was in contrast to ongoing interventions, which typically did not produce significant improvements.

The study also highlighted the high acceptability of FCT treatment via telehealth among parents, as indicated by their ratings on the Treatment Acceptability Rating Form-Revised (TARF-R).

These findings underscore the potential of telehealth as a viable platform for delivering FCT for individuals with autism, particularly in situations where in-person sessions may not be feasible, such as in rural areas or during public health crises.

Role of Therapists in FCT

Therapists play a critical role in the successful implementation of FCT. Their responsibilities include conducting a functional communication assessment, identifying appropriate communication responses, and effectively ignoring negative behavior.

In addition, therapists are instrumental in working with families to integrate FCT into daily routines and activities. They provide ongoing support and guidance, helping parents and caregivers understand the principles of FCT and how to apply them consistently.

The effectiveness of FCT as a behavioral treatment for severe problem behavior exhibited by children with autism has been demonstrated in various studies. This success can be attributed to the expertise and dedication of therapists who are trained in FCT strategies and techniques.

In conclusion, the implementation of FCT for autism involves a combination of innovative delivery methods and the pivotal role of therapists. Together, these elements contribute to the successful application of FCT, helping individuals with autism enhance their communication skills and improve their quality of life.

FCT in Behavioral Interventions

In the realm of behavioral interventions for individuals with autism, Functional Communication Training (FCT) has demonstrated considerable effectiveness.

Comparison to Traditional Therapies

Traditional therapies for autism often focus on managing problematic behaviors through various strategies. However, FCT takes a distinct approach. It involves teaching an individual an alternative response that achieves the same reinforcement as their problem behavior, while the problem behavior is ignored or discouraged.

The alternative response promoted by FCT is typically a recognizable form of communication, such as a vocalization or manual sign. This approach is designed to handle a variety of problem behaviors, including aggression, self-injury, motor and vocal disruptions, inappropriate communicative behaviors, and more. These behaviors are often maintained by different social sources of reinforcement, such as attention, materials, escape from demands, or escape from other aversive events. FCT has been shown to result in substantial reductions in these problem behaviors across various populations [4].

Generalization of FCT

FCT interventions progress through three stages: conducting a functional analysis, strengthening a communicative response, and extending the treatment across settings and caregivers. The goal is to promote generalization of behavior changes to other environments and caregivers, which is a key advantage of FCT over traditional therapies.

FCT has been developed for individuals ranging from young children to adults, primarily those diagnosed with developmental disabilities or mental retardation. However, some individuals without these diagnoses, such as those with traumatic brain injury or attention deficit disorder, have also shown potential benefit from FCT.

For FCT to be effective, it should be implemented by well-trained practitioners in settings that minimize competing sources of reinforcement and maximize safety. Caregivers should also be trained to implement FCT, although the ideal training method has yet to be determined.

In conclusion, the use of functional communication training in autism interventions is a promising approach that focuses on promoting positive behavioral changes by emphasizing effective communication. Its adaptability across different age groups and problem behaviors, as well as its ability to be generalized across settings, makes FCT a valuable tool in the toolbox of autism interventions.

Enhancing Communication Skills in Autism

While Functional Communication Training (FCT) plays a significant role in autism treatment, it is often used in conjunction with other strategies to enhance communication skills in children with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD). Early intervention is crucial to maximize the effectiveness of these strategies.

Additional Communication Strategies

Therapists, including applied behavior analysts, utilize a combination of techniques to address the varying symptoms of ASD and improve the communication skills of children with ASD.

Among these strategies is Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA) therapy, a recommended approach for children with autism that focuses on managing and modifying behaviors through rewarding positive behaviors and ignoring negative ones. Experts suggest 20 to 40 hours of ABA therapy per week.

In addition to ABA therapy, strategies like using Communication boards, Picture Exchange Communication Systems (PECS), Speech Generating Devices (SGDs), and Sign Language are employed to help nonverbal children with ASD express themselves and improve communication skills.

Another behavioral therapy, Relationship Development Intervention (RDI), focuses on social behaviors to enhance skills like interpreting body language, making eye contact, and interacting with others in children with ASD.

Importance of Early Intervention

Early intervention is crucial in improving communication skills in children with ASD. The best treatment program begins during the preschool years and should be tailored to the child's age and interests. It should address both the child's behavior and communication skills and offer regular reinforcement of positive actions [7].

Communication training for children with ASD teaches basic speech and language skills, such as single words and phrases. Advanced training emphasizes the way language can serve a purpose, such as learning to hold a conversation, which includes staying on topic and taking turns speaking [7].

Some children with ASD may never develop oral speech and language skills. For these children, the goal may be learning to communicate using gestures, such as sign language, or a symbol system using pictures to convey thoughts [7].

NIDCD-funded researchers are studying various aspects related to ASD, including improving the lives of people with ASD and their families. This includes workshops dedicated to children with ASD who have limited speech and language skills, resulting in groundbreaking articles and recommendations for evaluating language skills in a standardized way [7].

Early intervention and the use of multiple communication strategies, along with FCT, can significantly enhance communication skills in children with ASD, enabling them to better express their needs and interact with the world around them.









steven zauderer

CEO of CrossRiverTherapy - a national ABA therapy company based in the USA.

Table of Contents