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  • OOTKS Contributor

Functional Communication: Practicing at Home

Updated: Jul 3, 2023

In the previous blog (Functional Communication: Building a World), we discussed what communication is, what it looks like, and why we need it in our lives. The next step in our world-building journey is creating motivation at home for our children to practice their communication skills. Our goal is to steadily increase their functional communication so we can expand the parameters of their world.

1. What makes communication functional?

Functional communication is how a person independently conveys their wants or needs and socializes with others. It serves a purpose and can be clearly understood.

My child crying as soon as I place their lunch down in front of them might tell me they are unhappy with the food selection, but it doesn’t exactly relay what they want. Alternatively, shaking their head no, pointing to what they do want, or using some form of words (“want apple” or “not hungry”) instead gives me a clearer idea of how to meet their desire in that moment.

2. How do I teach functional communication?

Before being able to teach, we need to create opportunities where our children will need to use their communication skills.

As a parent, we are the utmost authorities on our kids. We know mostly what they want or need and understand their nonverbal body language when others may not. Contriving opportunities gives them a chance to practice a skill they need for when we are not there to act as interpreter. We can do this by sabotaging the environment! No… I don’t mean setting up traps or full obstacle courses for children to have to duck and weave around to get what they want. Instead, intentionally place things out of reach, in closed/locked boxes, or other hard-to-reach places. That way they have to get help and use their communication skills in order to obtain what they desire. Just be careful if your kiddo is a little daredevil and tries to climb instead of communicate!

Once the opportunities are set, use visual supports, such as picture cards or communication boards to teach how to express their wants and needs. Model appropriate communication for the child through words or gestures to request something or express emotions. Lastly, provide positive reinforcement when the child uses their new communication skills! Everyone appreciates a pat on the back when they’ve done something good.

3. How do I motivate my child to increase their language skills at home?

When we want something, the motivation is already present! Whether it is someone’s attention, a tangible item, or to simply be done with an activity, receiving it is reinforcing in itself. All that’s left is to figure out what behavior is going to get us what we want the fastest. If it is tantruming and hitting, we would do that every time. If it is calmly pointing or using pictures, then (over time) that will become the behavior of choice.

Be consistent and patient: Children with autism may need more time and practice to acquire new skills. Be consistent and patient in providing opportunities for the child to practice their communication skills and acknowledge their progress. Don’t be afraid to wait out challenging behaviors and uphold your expectations.

Use naturalistic teaching: Have them practice during daily routines and activities. For example, use mealtime or playtime as opportunities to practice requesting and labeling items.

Make it meaningful: Children are more motivated when activities are relevant and meaningful to them. Use the child's interests and preferences to create communication activities that are meaningful and engaging for them.

It’s important to note that teaching functional communication is a process that takes time and effort. Working with a qualified professional who can guide and support through the process can make the difference. That’s where our staff at OOTKS come in. Our experienced BCBAs provide in-depth training for all caregivers and family. We are here to support you and your child’s progress every step of the way.

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