Functional Communication Training (FCT) in ABA Therapy

Reviewed by:
Hannah Andreasen
M.Ed BCBA

December 28, 2022

Functional Communication Training (FCT) is a type of therapy that helps teach children with autism meaningful ways to communicate. It can also help reduce frustration and anxiety associated with communication.

FCT is often used alongside applied behavioral analysis (ABA) therapy to help children replace disruptive behaviors with new ones. If your child needs help communicating in new ways, FCT can help.

What is Functional Communication Training in ABA therapy?

ABA therapy is based on learning and behavior applied in real-life situations. It is one of the most common interventions for autism used to teach communication and social skills. The basis of ABA therapy focuses on the “A-B-Cs” of behavior. This stands for “antecedent, behavior, and consequence.”

An ABA therapist will work with your child to identify the:

  • Antecedent: What happens right before the behavior.
  • Behavior: A response to the antecedent, whether it is a verbal response, action, or lack of response. 
  • Consequence: The result of the behavior.

FCT is used by ABA therapists to recognize a disruptive behavior and replace it with a more socially acceptable form of communication. Children with autism may use disruptive behaviors as a way to ask for something or use them in response to a certain situation. They may also become frustrated or anxious when they cannot communicate their needs.

Examples of disruptive behaviors used to communicate include:

  • Grunting
  • Yelling
  • Hitting
  • Tantrums
  • Destructive behaviors

To replace these behaviors, ABA therapists use positive reinforcement to help your child build communication skills. Communication is not only done using words—your child may learn to use sign language, pictures or icons (picture exchange communication system, PECS), or gestures as well.

Functional Behavioral Assessment in ABA therapy

The ABA therapist will perform a functional behavioral assessment (FBA) to figure out why your child uses a disruptive behavior. This assessment can be done at home or at an autism treatment center. This is also known as determining the function of a behavior.

ABA therapists follow a program using Function, Form, and Effort.

  • Function: What was the function of the disruptive behavior? Does your child use it to gain something, or to avoid a situation they do not like?
  • Form: What form of communication does your child use? This may be verbal, sign language, PECS, or a voice output device. 
  • Effort: How was the interfering behavior replaced with a communicative behavior?

Once the function of the  disruptive behavior has been identified, the ABA therapist will choose a new behavior that serves the same function to teach your child. The ABA therapist will then make sure that everyone who interacts with them understands what they are trying to ask for and what the new behavior is.

Positive reinforcement is key to helping your child continue to use new behaviors. ABA therapists may also ignore disruptive behaviors to avoid reinforcing them.

For example, your child normally screams when they want a cup of juice. The ABA therapist teaches them to tap their cup on the table in order to get juice. Once your child learns this behavior, the ABA therapist will ignore screaming and will only give juice when they tap their cup. This helps reinforce the new behavior while blocking the disruptive behavior.

What Are the Benefits of Functional Communication Training?

FCT is an effective method to help children with autism learn to communicate. It has been used for several years and is backed by science as an evidence-based practice. Studies show that FCT can help those with autism aged between 3 to 22 years old.

The benefits of FCT include:

  • FCT is proven to help address not only communication problems, but also social skills, behavior, play, and school readiness as well.
  • FCT helps reduce disruptive behaviors while providing more appropriate replacement behaviors. This helps limit aggression, tantrums, running away, or other behaviors that interfere with daily activities.
  • The new behaviors learned in FCT can be used by parents, caregivers, teachers, and others in the child’s life to help reinforce them. Practice at home outside of ABA therapy sessions is especially helpful.
  • FCT is generally a low-cost therapy that can be added alongside ABA therapy.

What Are the Limitations of Functional Communication Training?

FCT is extremely beneficial, but there are some limitations.

For example, if your child makes a request using their new behavior but it is not successful, they may go back to using their disruptive behaviors. It is important that everyone who interacts with your child learns the new behavior and what they are asking for so it can be positively reinforced.

During FCT, your child’s request is typically reinforced right away so that they learn to correct their behavior. However, some children may request reinforcement too much, or at times when their request cannot be successful right away. For example, your child may want a cup of juice, but you are busy. This may also cause them to use disruptive behaviors again.

If your child begins to use disruptive behaviors again, ABA therapists will work more with them to find and learn new behaviors.

It is also important to remember that FCT takes time. During FCT, your child is learning an entirely new communication skill and behavior. This may take weeks to months, but when done correctly, FCT is often successful.

Support for Functional Communication Training

FCT was first proposed in 1985, and it continues to be widely used today in ABA therapy. The National Professional Development Center on Autism Spectrum Disorder (NPDC) recognizes FCT as an evidence-based therapy.

Research over the years shows FCT can be used in preschool-, elementary-, middle school-, and high school-aged children.

Conclusion

FCT is often used alongside ABA therapy to help children with autism learn effective ways to communicate. Giving your child new strategies for communicating their needs and desires can help them become more confident and less anxious in social situations.

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