Functional Communication Training in ABA

Discover how functional communication training in ABA empowers your loved ones with autism to express themselves.

judah schiller
Judah Schiller
July 4, 2024
Published On
July 4, 2024

Understanding Functional Communication Training

Before delving into the application and techniques of Functional Communication Training, it's paramount to understand what it is and why it's used in the field of Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA).

Introduction to FCT

Functional Communication Training (FCT) is an approach that was introduced by Carr and Durand in 1985 to address problem behavior in children with developmental disabilities, including autism spectrum disorder (ASD). Over the years, it has gained prominence for its effectiveness in significantly reducing problematic behavior.

FCT is an antecedent intervention that can be used with all types and levels of communication. It involves teaching appropriate replacement behaviors that help learners articulate their needs and wants more effectively.

Purpose of FCT

The primary purpose of Functional Communication Training is to empower learners by teaching them functional ways to communicate their needs and desires. By equipping learners with socially acceptable communication methods such as vocal communication, picture cues, text cues, sign language, or gestures, FCT helps them replace challenging behaviors.

In the context of Applied Behavior Analysis, FCT is often used to teach children with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) and other developmental disorders meaningful and functional communication in a naturalistic way. The ultimate aim is to replace difficult behaviors with suitable communication that is socially acceptable.

By comprehending the core concept and purpose of Functional Communication Training, one can better appreciate its significance in ABA and how it can lead to transformative results in the lives of individuals with autism. To learn more about the goals of functional communication in the context of autism, refer to our article on functional communication goals for autism.

Implementing Functional Communication Training

Implementing Functional Communication Training (FCT) requires a structured approach and an understanding of the specific needs and behaviors of the individual with autism. This section provides an overview of the FCT process and delineates the steps involved in FCT intervention.

FCT Process Overview

Functional Communication Training was introduced by Carr and Durand in 1985 as a treatment for problem behavior in children with developmental disabilities, which has resulted in substantial reductions in problem behavior [1]. It is a three-stage process that includes conducting a functional analysis, strengthening a socially-acceptable communicative response, and extending the treatment across settings and caregivers.

FCT interventions should be initiated by a well-trained practitioner in a setting that minimizes competing sources of reinforcement and maximizes safety. It's also essential to incorporate strategies that promote generalization to important settings and caregivers, and to assess generalization to ensure its occurrence.

Steps in FCT Intervention

The implementation of Functional Communication Training in ABA progresses through the following steps:

  1. Functional Analysis: The first step involves conducting a functional analysis to identify the sources of reinforcement for the problem behavior. This allows the practitioner to understand the circumstances under which the behavior occurs and the rewards it provides for the individual.

  2. Strengthening a Communicative Response: The second step involves teaching the individual a socially acceptable communication response that can replace the problem behavior. This response should serve the same function as the problem behavior but be more socially acceptable.

  3. Extending Treatment: The third step involves extending the treatment across different settings and caregivers. This ensures that the newly learned communicative response is used consistently and that the changes in behavior are long-lasting.

  4. Implementation of Consequences: Throughout the FCT process, three generic classes of consequences can be arranged for problem behavior: reinforcement, extinction, and punishment. The effectiveness of FCT relies on the communicative response competing with problem behavior, and the selection of consequences should be based on a direct assessment of their likely effectiveness.

By following these steps, FCT can be effectively implemented to address problem behaviors in individuals with autism. For more information on setting functional communication goals for individuals with autism, refer to our article on functional communication goals for autism.

Types of Problem Behaviors Addressed

Functional Communication Training (FCT) in Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA) is a versatile strategy that can be used to address a wide range of problem behaviors. These behaviors can exhibit in various forms and are often maintained by several sources of reinforcement.

Behaviors Targeted in FCT

FCT interventions are designed to address problem behaviors which often include aggression, self-injury, motor and vocal disruptions, bizarre vocalizations, stereotypy, inappropriate sexual behavior, self-restraint, and inappropriate communicative behaviors [1].

These behaviors can manifest in individuals of all ages, from young children to adults, with the majority diagnosed with developmental disabilities or mental retardation. It's important to note that the specific behaviors addressed may vary from one individual to another, depending on their unique needs and communication challenges. For more information on functional communication goals for individuals with autism, visit our article on functional communication goals for autism.

Sources of Reinforcement

Problem behaviors are often maintained by various sources of reinforcement. This can include attention from others, access to desired materials or activities, escape from demands, or escape from aversive events.

Understanding the source of reinforcement for a specific behavior is essential in the FCT process. This knowledge allows for the development of effective intervention strategies that not only reduce the occurrence of problem behaviors but also promote the use of functional communication as a more appropriate alternative.

By comprehending the types of problem behaviors addressed and the sources of reinforcement, one can better understand the potential of functional communication training in ABA. This insight is crucial in creating personalized interventions that can significantly improve the communication skills of individuals with autism. For more information on why functional communication is important, check out our article on why is functional communication important?.

Strategies in Functional Communication Training

In the context of Functional Communication Training (FCT), there are strategic aspects that significantly influence the effectiveness of this approach. These strategies pertain to the management of consequences and the use of reinforcement techniques.

Consequences in FCT

In the process of implementing FCT, consequences for problem behavior can be categorized into three broad classes: reinforcement, extinction, and punishment. The selection of these consequences should be based on a direct assessment of their likely effectiveness in promoting desired behavior [1].

Reinforcement involves strengthening the communicative response as an alternative to problem behavior. Extinction, on the other hand, involves the removal or reduction of reinforcement previously associated with problem behavior. Punishment may be necessary in some cases to deter problem behavior.

Consequence Class Description
Reinforcement Strengthens the communicative response as an alternative to problem behavior
Extinction Removes or reduces reinforcement previously associated with problem behavior
Punishment Discourages problem behavior

FCT without extinction may not result in sufficient reductions in problem behavior. However, the addition of a punishing consequence for problem behavior has been shown to enhance the efficacy of FCT combined with extinction.

Reinforcement Techniques

Reinforcement for the communicative response in FCT is initially recommended on a continuous reinforcement schedule. However, it should be systematically thinned to more manageable schedules that maintain treatment gains. Techniques for thinning reinforcement include:

  • Introducing a time delay between the communicative response and reinforcement.
  • Establishing stimulus control of the communicative response.
  • Being aware of the reemergence of problem behavior during reinforcement thinning [1].

By understanding and strategically applying consequences and reinforcement techniques, Functional Communication Training can be effectively implemented to foster meaningful communication skills in individuals with autism. For more on this, you can explore topics such as functional communication goals for autism and understand why functional communication is important.

Application of Functional Communication Training

The use of Functional Communication Training (FCT) extends to various contexts and populations. Its primary use is in Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA) for individuals with autism, but it's also beneficial for non-verbal individuals or those with limited vocabularies.


Functional Communication Training is a powerful intervention strategy used within Applied Behavior Analysis. It empowers children with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) and other developmental disorders, teaching them to replace challenging behaviors with appropriate communication methods.

The goal of FCT in ABA is to help children communicate their needs effectively in everyday life, reducing frustration and improving their interactions with others. This therapy focuses on teaching children to use suitable communication methods in response to various demands or situations.

For example, a child might replace a behavior like tantrum-throwing with a more appropriate verbal request when they want a specific toy or snack. The aim is to reinforce acceptable communication and gradually reduce problematic behaviors.

Learn more about setting functional communication goals for autism and understand why functional communication is important.

FCT for Non-Verbal Individuals

Functional Communication Training is not limited to verbal communication and can be remarkably beneficial for non-verbal children or those with limited vocabularies [3].

For these individuals, FCT aims to teach them to communicate their needs in various suitable ways. This may include using gestures, sign language, or a picture exchange communication system (PECS). The choice of communication method often depends on the individual's abilities and the complexity of their needs.

For instance, a non-verbal child might learn to point or use a PECS card to indicate that they want a drink. By doing so, they can effectively communicate their needs without resorting to challenging behaviors.

It's important to note that while FCT aims to improve communication, it's beneficial to consider sensory sensitivities, like tactile defensiveness, that can impact a child's responsiveness to certain communication methods. Understanding these factors can help tailor the FCT approach to the specific needs of the individual.

In conclusion, the application of Functional Communication Training can be a game-changer in the lives of children with autism and other developmental disorders. By empowering them with effective communication skills, FCT plays a crucial role in enhancing their quality of life.

Examples of Functional Communication Training

To better understand the application of Functional Communication Training (FCT) in Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA), it can be helpful to delve into practical scenarios and success stories that illustrate its impact.

Practical FCT Scenarios

Consider a child with autism who frequently displays tantrums to avoid completing a task. By using FCT, a therapist can teach the child to communicate their discomfort or need for a break in a more appropriate manner, such as signing "break" or saying "I need a rest." The therapist would then reinforce this communication by allowing the child to take a short break, thereby reducing the need for tantrums.

Another example might involve a non-verbal individual who engages in self-injury to gain attention. In this case, FCT could be used to teach the individual to use a communication device to request attention. This could involve pushing a button that says "Play with me" or "Talk to me," which would then be reinforced by the caregiver providing attention in response to the request.

The selection of these communicative responses would, as per NCBI, consider factors such as response effort, social recognition, and speed of response acquisition.

Success Stories with FCT

FCT has been successfully implemented in a variety of contexts and with a wide range of individuals. For instance, a young child who exhibited aggressive behavior to escape demands was taught to request a break using a picture exchange system. After the implementation of FCT, the child's aggressive behavior significantly decreased, and they were able to use the picture exchange system to communicate their needs effectively.

Another success story involves an adult with developmental disabilities who engaged in self-injurious behavior to gain access to preferred items. Using FCT, they were taught to use sign language to request these items. Over time, the self-injurious behavior was virtually eliminated, and the individual was able to request their preferred items using sign language.

These examples demonstrate how FCT can be used to replace problem behaviors with more appropriate and effective forms of communication. By teaching individuals with autism alternative ways to communicate their needs, FCT empowers them to interact positively with their environment and reduce negative behaviors.

For more insights on Functional Communication Training and its applications in autism, you can explore our articles on functional communication goals for autism and why is functional communication important?.