A functional use of language is something that is difficult to teach in the classroom, but it can be managed through appropriate procedures and strategies. We often “measure” language by asking parents and staff to identify how many words a particular child may speak; programs are then developed to increase the number of words which children on the spectrum speak.
However, this measure of assessing language in children on the spectrum (i.e., a total amount of vocabulary) gives an incomplete picture of the nature of the child’s strengths and weaknesses – it is a good start to teach vocabulary, but we need to go beyond that.
Our studies of evolutionary psychology indicate that humans are a species that uses tools; it is this tool use that sets us apart from other mammals and other species. Language is another tool that we use to obtain what we want from the environment.
While some children speak too little and others too much, what all these children on the spectrum share is the inability to use language effectively as a tool to actualize their goals. Some children do not have enough words to express themselves – these students need to be taught more words and when these words should be used. Others have so many words that they do not know which ones to choose to express themselves – these students need assistance in choosing their words and using them at appropriate times.
In the absence of efficient methods of communication, many children on the spectrum resort to other means to actualize their goals. These means are often interpreted by many of us in the schools to be destructive, rude or disrespectful. But, using words as tools to actualize their goals is a concept that is difficult for them to understand. So, they often perform other actions to obtain their goals. In the most severe cases, they will injure themselves in horrific ways. In other cases, they may yell, scream, throw things or perform any other set of actions that would be considered a “meltdown” or “tantrum”.
Fortunately there are many guides out there that are easily written and can help the practicing school psychologist. Mark Durand’s Severe Behavior Problems: A Functional Communication Training Approach is an excellent book that has helped me tremendously when implementing Functional communication training (FCT).
FCT is a set of procedures that teach communication skills to the child as a replacement to the inappropriate actions with which he is engaging. Central to FCT is the idea that child perform challenging responses to the environment when they: 1) lack the communication skills to convey their intent or 2) do not know which specific communication patterns should be used to convey their intent.
For example, one of the children with which our team is currently working had a goal of using the word “no” to stop activities which he did not enjoy. While this goal may appear to be counter-intuitive, we wanted the word “no” to replace what his current response at the time was: biting staff members until their skin broke. Conceptually, it was important for us to understand that while his reaction was extreme, his biting was the tool he used to stop activities . Our goal was to teach him how to use another tool, which would actualize the same goal (stopping activities) better and more efficiently.
Typically, when this student was presented with a task that he usually avoided (i.e., math), he often bit staff. What we had done initially is as he would lean in to bite, we gave him the command “Say no”.
At first any sound was rewarded with a cessation of the activity and a loud proclamation from the staff member indicating “OK, all done!”. We walked away quickly and gave him a break for 2 – 3 minutes. After he learned to just make a sound and not bite, we required that he approximate the sound “n”. Soon after we ratcheted up the demands and required he say “no”, which lead to “no more” and then “no more, please”.
Our next step was to identify what aspects of the activity (math, in this instance) was so aversive, and we worked to teach him the component skills that he lacked so that he may perform the activity in the future.
Visual strategies can be used in addition to FCT or instead of FCT. For example, with another child, our team has developed a visual strip of common phrases that one particular child can use (e.g., “No thank you”, “Yes, please”, etc.). When the targeted child is asked a question, he is pointed to the particular menu of phrases that he can use. The student then can scan the phrases and can select the one he can use. Our team does require that he use the words; failure to do so would have him too dependent on the strip. Two very useful resources for these sets of procedures are A Picture's Worth: PECS and Other Visual Communication Strategies in Autism by Andy Bondy and Lori Frost and Visual Strategies for Improving Communication: Practical Supports for School & Home by Linda A. Hodgdon.
Overall, teaching children with autism better alternatives for communication can greatly enhance their social skills, advocacy and overall life satisfaction.