How To Help Your Child Functionally Communicate

June 3, 2021 - Victoria Oliver, MA, BCBA

How To Help Your Child Functionally Communicate

By Victoria Oliver, MA, BCBA
Board Certified Behavior Analyst

Many children on the autism spectrum struggle with the ability to communicate in a functional and appropriate manner. Some might utilize words to communicate. Some may engage in maladaptive behaviors, such as tantrums or physical aggression, as a way to communicate with their caregivers. There are several aspects that a parent or caregiver should consider when working with their child on communication skills. Below are some frequently asked questions from parents and caregivers regarding functional communication. We have included some advice from a Board Certified Behavior Analyst (BCBA).

What method of communication should my child be using?

There are various methods of communication that might be right for your child.  Some of these methods include: vocal communication, American Sign Language (ASL), a Picture Exchange Communication System (PECS) or an Augmentative Alternative Communication (AAC) device. Please ask your team lead or BCBA if you have questions regarding which method of communication is appropriate for your child. It also might be helpful to seek out a Speech Therapy Evaluation for a more in-depth outlook on your child’s communication. Check out our YouTube channel for more information on AAC devices as well as various videos about ASL.

How long should the phrases be that I’m prompting?

After determining which method of communication is right for your child, it is important to know how many words are appropriate for your child to use at their developmental level.  Depending on your child’s individual level, you can prompt them to use pointing (e.g. pointing to a bubble wand), one-word phrases (e.g. “bubbles”), two- to three-word phrases (e.g. “want bubbles”), or full sentences with appropriate grammar, syntax and manners (e.g. “I want more bubbles, please”).

It is often appropriate for young learners to utilize pointing to desired items as an effective beginner means of communication. If you notice your child is continuously gravitating towards a specific item or area and they do not yet spontaneously communicate, you can have them point to the desired item or area that they are gravitating towards. Observe your child in the natural environment to help identify their current communication capabilities. You can also ask your clinical team for their opinion on what is best for your child.

How do I know what to prompt?

Whether your child engages in maladaptive behaviors, vocal communication, ASL, PECS, or an AAC device to communicate, it is important to understand their true motivation or the function behind their behavior. In the world of ABA, there are four functions that underlie the “why” behind behaviors. These functions can be remembered by the acronym, EATS.

  • Escape
    • You can prompt your child to appropriately escape undesired objects or activities by prompting them to say words and phrases such as “all done,” “no thanks,” “don’t like,” or “I don’t want to right now.”
  • Attention
    • You can prompt your child to appropriately get your attention by tapping your shoulder or saying phrases such as “excuse me” or “look at me!”
  • Access to Tangibles
    • You can prompt your child to appropriately gain access to something that they want by prompting them to point to the item, or prompt phrases like “I want ___,” “Can I have the ____,” or “my turn!”
  • Self-Stimulation (aka Automatic Reinforcement)
    • You can prompt your child to appropriately ask for various sensory activities when they are engaging in self-stimulatory behaviors, by prompting phrases such as “squeezes,” or “I need a hug.”

Once you understand the function behind your child’s behavior, you can prompt appropriate and functional communication. Check out our blog to learn more about functions of behavior!

Now that I know what I should be prompting, how do I do it?

In some cases, your child might try to communicate, but might not say exactly what they mean. There are various ways that you can help your child communicate appropriately and accurately–these are referred to as “prompts.” If your child uses ASL to communicate, you can model the appropriate signs that you would like them to emit by showing them yourself how to do it. You might also need to utilize hand-over-hand prompting to help them emit the appropriate sign. If your child utilizes vocal communication, you could prompt your child by telling them what they could say– for example, “It looks like you want the bubbles, you can tell me ‘want bubbles!’”

If your child uses PECS or an AAC device to communicate, you can help them find the picture or button they are looking for by gesturing or pointing to the area they need. Once they appropriately communicate, reinforce this communication by giving them what they were asking for! Check out our Prompt Training Video on YouTube for more information.

Helping your child to communicate functionally is a huge step towards more appropriate behavior and language growth! Feel free to reach out to your child’s lead or BCBA for more information regarding functional communication training.

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June 3, 2021, Victoria Oliver, MA, BCBA

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