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Supporting Functional Communication Training


Communication is the process by which we assign and convey meaning to create a shared understanding. Communication should be viewed as a 2-way process in which there is an exchange of ideas, thoughts, and feelings. A significant number of students with autism are non-verbal and therefore it is important to encourage functional communication, regardless of approach. Students with ASD often use less-conventional means to communicate. Auditory information may not be the most to meaningful way for them to learn and communicate.

Functional communication has three key components:

Function- what is the purpose of the communicative exchange (e.g., comment, request, reject)

Example of functional communication:

  • A student says truck while looking towards the person who is holding the Thomas truck.
  • A student gives teacher a pic symbol with a picture of a cookie on it to request a cookie for snack.
  • A teacher gives a student a sticky note/white board that says “Open Math textbook, turn to page 12 and do questions 4,6,8. The student then does what is asked on the sticky note/white board.
  • Form- what means or mode works best? (e.g., pictures, photos, objects, sign, verbal)
  • Fit – does the communication mode suit the student’s needs in a variety of different environments and contexts

Communicative Functions:

  • Behavioural Regulation- requesting, protesting
  • Social interactions- greetings, requesting permission, engaging with peers
  • Joint Attention- commenting, requesting information, providing information
  • Expressing emotions, thoughts, and feelings


How to help students with little or no functional communication:

  • Present the student with a desirable or interesting object (e.g truck, food item, bubbles)
  • Create familiar routines and situations and structure the communication interactions around those times (snack time, during centers time)
  • Wait expectantly for the student to indicate their desire for more
  • “Tender loving sabotage”- sabotage the environment (e.g. move desired item out of reach of the student, forget to put out a spoon for their soup or paintbrush for art)
  • Initiate and direct the students behaviour towards other people (e,.g, getting the students coat and giving it to the E.A. to request going outside)
  • Use consistency- people have the tendency to just give the student what they want because we know them well. However, this will create dependency and will stop the student from gaining better functional communication skills with a variety of different people in a variety of different settings.
  • Use fewer gestures and more symbols to request, respond and reject
  • Focus on teaching joint attention skills
  • Provide the opportunity and need for the student to request in a wider variety of situations and activities
  • Expand their symbolic repertoire (look at communication programs such as Picture Exchange Communication Systems)
  • Use social scripts and rules for conversation
  • Use visual supports; which can include
  • Body language (e.g. gestures)
  • Tools for organization/giving information (e.g. calendars, schedules)
  • Use environmental cues ( e.g., objects, signs, labels,)
  • Social scripts, choice boards, reinforcement