Critical Steps for Starting Strong with Functional Communication Training

Every day we communicate to one another in some form.  It may be a verbal conversation, a gesture, or a picture.  Communication plays a large role in our daily lives.  Communication for individuals with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) may develop aversive behaviors in order to communicate.  The goal of Functional Communication Training (FCT) is to find an appropriate way for the message to be received.  However, the first and most critical step is to know where to begin with the individual.

To start, in past interviews, when given a choice between FCT and other interventions, both the individuals and the caregivers preferred FCT.  This is one reason it has become common practice in working with individuals with ASD (Hanley et al., 1997).

One of the first steps is to find the function of the behavior.  What is it that the individual wants?  Do they want something to eat? A certain toy? Attention (Harding et al., 2009)?  Knowing what the motivation is for the individual will create a foundation for obtaining it appropriately.

The second step is to know the individual’s learning history.  If the person is able to say one-word phrases, it is recommended to start with that word and add more to the sentence at a later time.  For example:  An individual pushes items off a table.  They do this any time they want to have a glass of milk.  The individual has repeated the word milk in the past.  You see them head to the table to push the items off, you block them and then give them the instruction; say “milk”.  The child repeats the word and you immediately hand them the milk (Tiger, Hanley, & Bruzek, 2008).

Prompting is used to reach the appropriate behavior.  The caregiver needs to be sure the individual is successful in obtaining the item with the correct response.  Prompts will assure that the appropriate behavior will encounter the item before and more frequently than the aversive behavior.  It may be a physical prompt (assisting the individual to reach for a picture card instead of grabbing the item), or a verbal prompt (“Instead of whining, you can say ‘break please’”).  Depending on the individual’s learning history, different prompts may be used.  Once the behavior is displayed independently, thinning the prompts is the next step.

Having the wanted item ready is a critical step. In order to teach the new behavior, the item to access must be easier to obtain with the new behavior.  It also has to be delivered immediately after the new behavior is displayed.  This should reduce the aversive behavior.  As in the example above, saying “milk” should be easier than pushing items off a table. The item will also be delivered more frequently if it asked for appropriately.

FCT also focuses on the end goal of the individual.  The individual may start with one picture card and at the end use a full sentence strip.  The goal should be socially appropriate and understood by anyone the individual comes in contact with.  The individual may use a certain sign to indicate a specific item, but out in the community they may not be understood.  Shaping up a phrase is also one of the end goals for an individual.  A parent or provider can work on using a one word phrase and focus on shaping it until it is clear.

Using generalized or simple word may also help an individual obtain their want.  A word like “toy” or “snack” will help to reduce the aversive behaviors by then offering a choice of different toys or snacks.   Motivators change over time.  A cookie will not always be motivating, especially if they have already had five of them and are full.

Another important step is to make sure the person wants the item.  If they do not want it, they will not ask for it.  Studies have looked at both contrived and natural environments for teaching FCT.  Both showed increases in responding, but the natural environment showed better generalization and enhanced motivation.

In summary, to effectively teach FCT, you must:

  1. Know the function of the behavior.
  2. Know the individual’s skill set
  3. Prompt for beginning success
  4. Have the motivating item ready so the individual may obtain it faster, easier, and more frequently than when they engage in the aversive behavior.
  5. Know your end goal.
  6. Use generalized words to promote generalization.
  7. Know if the item is still motivating.


Hanley, G. P., Piazza, C. C., Fisher, W. W., Contrucci, S. A., & Maglieri, K. A. (1997). Evaluation of client preference for function-based treatment packages.Journal of Applied Behavior Analysis,30(3), 459-47.

Harding, J. W., Wacker, D. P., Berg, W. K., Lee, J. F., & Dolezal, D. (2009). Conducting functional communication training in home settings: A case study and recommendations for practitioners.Behavior Analysis in Practice,2(1), 21-33.

Tiger, J.H., Hanley, G. P., & Bruzek, J. (2008). Functional communication training: A review and practical guide.Behavior Analysis in Practice,1(1), 16-23.