Functional Communication Training

Written by Irina Risteska, Team Leader 1:1 ABA Therapy

In last month’s article, I wrote about Functional Behaviour Assessments (FBA), and spoke about the 4 functions of behaviour. Suppose we conducted a FBA on a young learner and discovered that every time the learner wants to eat a biscuit, they start crying and throwing things around in the kitchen. Now that we know the reason why the behaviour is occurring, we need to replace the problem behaviours and teach new and desirable behaviours. This could be teaching the young learner to ask for a biscuit when they want a biscuit.

As we discovered in last month’s article, there are two reasons why an individual with ASD cannot communicate:
i) due to a language delay, and
ii) due to a speech and language disorder.

When an individual cannot communicate due to a language delay, we remark that they cannot communicate because they have not learnt the power of language. So how do we teach individuals with ASD the power of language? How do we teach our young learner that when they want a biscuit, they need to ask for a biscuit, instead of crying and throwing? We do so through Functional Communication Training or FCT.

What is Functional Communication Training?

FCT is the procedure through which individuals are taught that communication ‘gets them stuff.’ FCT teaches individuals how to use communicative responses in order to have their needs and wants met. Notice that I have used the term ‘communicative responses’ and not ‘language’.

I use the term ‘communicative responses’ because not all communication is verbal. Communication takes a number of various forms. The most common form is vocalisations or spoken language. However, communication can also take the form of gestures such as pointing, signs such as sign language, exchanging of pictures or compics such as through PECS, and augmentative communication devices such as vocal output devices.

With FCT, the form of the communicative response is not important. Rather FCT focuses on the occurrence of the communicative response. FCT starts by teaching the learner how to request for desired items and activities. FCT utilises the teaching of requests to teach learners that communication gets them what they want.

Skinner, B. F. (2014). Verbal behavior. Brattleboro, VT: Echo Point Books and Media, defined the communicative response of gaining desired items as the ‘Mand.’ Mand comes from the word ‘demand’ and is the first communicative response that develops in neuro-typical individuals. FCT and Manding go hand-in-hand. Both teach the power of language, and teach the individual that ‘when you ask for something, you can have it’.

What can Functional Communication Training be used for?

FCT can be used to teach a number of things. FCT can teach a learner to request for items (i.e. biscuit, bubbles), for actions (i.e. tickle, cuddle, pick me up), for assistance (help me), for attention (look at me, Mum!), for the removal of an aversive stimulus (stop, let go, turn it off), and for information (who, what, where, why).

Let’s revisit our young learner from the example above. Using FCT we would teach the learner to communicate ‘biscuit’. When they vocalise, sign, exchange a picture, or press a button indicating biscuit, we would give them the biscuit. Sounds simple enough right? But how do you get a child with very limited to no communicative responses, who is crying loudly, and throwing everything in sight to communicate ‘biscuit’?

How is it facilitated?

This is done in the 1:1 ABA sessions. The child is presented with a biscuit and taught a communicative response, whether this is to vocalise the work ‘biscuit’ or to exchange a picture or compic of a biscuit. When the child emits the response, they are given the biscuit. FCT works because it utilises the preferences of the individual. The individual is motivated to emit the response because by doing so, their demands are met.

As the child gains proficiency with requesting for ‘biscuit’, other requests are introduced. This can include teaching the child to call “Mum!” when they want Mum’s attention, teaching the child to say “hurry up” when a peer on the slide is taking too long, teaching a child to say “this work is too hard” when presented with challenging work in the classroom, and everything else in between.

As the child builds up a bank of requests, we then teach them longer communicative responses. When the child can ask for biscuit each and every time they want a biscuit, we then teach them to communicate “can I have a biscuit?” or “I want a biscuit” or even “when can I have a biscuit?”.

A child, who previously had no communicative responses, can now request and negotiate for a biscuit much as in a similar manner as would a neuro-typical child. Once a child learns the fundament elements of communication, we are then in a central position to start teaching them more complex communications such as conversations.

As communication is one of the biggest goals for any family who has a child with limited or no communicative responses, we provide on-going training to parents, grandparents, aunts, uncles, schools, day-care centres and afterschool care centres on FCT, how to elicit the communicative responses from the child and in doing so, replace some of the challenging behaviours.

For more information regarding FCT please contact AES on 9240 5800 or

Functional Communication Training