For all of human kind, communication is vital! Whether it is in a classroom, a personal relationship, on a professional sports team, or a working environment, the key to success will always be communicating effectively. For some people, functional communication comes naturally. For others, such as those on the Autism spectrum, it may not. Many children who have Autism have difficulty using their words to communicate effectively and this can be a reason for anxiety, meltdowns and many other behaviours. Simple things like asking for help, expressing emotions and making choices are not innate and need to be taught at a functional level.

So what does functional communication mean? This phrase is actually kind of redundant. If someone is communicating properly, there is always a function. That means that the information is being properly expressed and received, and there is an exchange. On the other hand, if information is being expressed and not received, then there is not an exchange and it doesn’t qualify as communication. Commonly, a child with Autism may be trying to communicate something (by making a noise, pointing using words inappropriately etc) in a way that others can’t understand, so no one receives the information. This can be extremely frustrating for the child, their parents and their teachers.

So how do we teach someone to communicate? This will always vary between individuals and the answer may not always be speaking. In my primary classroom at The Lighthouse we have several students using assistive communication technology and we also have students that use their speaking voice. Regardless of how my student may be communicating, they need to understand how powerful their words can be. This is why when we start teaching someone to communicate in a particular way we focus on manding. If you ask, you shall receive! When students understand the contingency of asking for something properly and receiving it, they will be more likely to default to proper communication, instead of choosing unwanted behaviours, if they want or need something. Eventually, if fostered correctly, these skills can become more abstract and used to express feelings, demonstrate knowledge and socialize!

It is important to remember that pairing language (whether it’s spoken words, ASL or an iPad program), with proper context is what will teach a child how to communicate. Although being able to echo language is important, it doesn’t teach a child to communicate functionally. For example, prompting the language “I won the game” after the student has actually won a game that we played in the classroom or prompting, “I feel sad” when a child is crying are ways of teaching communication incidentally at school. Ideally, the student will learn to use communication like this without being prompted and it will transfer to environments outside of the classroom.

Finally, it is important for everyone who works on a child’s team (parents, teachers, therapists etc) to be on the same page about what the expectations are in regards to communication for that child. If a child is expected to use a full sentence to request something at home, it has to be the same at school and reverse. Words a child already knows how to use should be expected without prompting and words that a child is learning how to use should be prompted at a consistent level. Consistent expectations will push the child to use communication functionally across any environment! This will set the child up for success in the future, whether they are in a classroom, a marriage, a work environment, or even a professional sports team!

Written by:  Jenna Williams – Primary Teacher at The Lighthouse