Definition of Communication and Appropriate Targets

Defining Functional Skills

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When children and adults can functionally communicate, they also are ready to learn choice making and increase their independence. Functional communication varies in its expression and may include personalized movements, gestures, verbalizations, signs, pictures, words, and output from augmentative and alternative (AAC) devices. The communication forms a person uses must be understood by all communication partners, particularly if these forms are not conventional or only approximate conventional words and signs. For individuals who have severe disabilities, the best times and places for teaching functional communication skills are everyday routines and contexts and the best teachers are familiar adults and friends. Instruction, however, needs to be planned and systematic, extend across the student's whole day, and include ongoing support for using the new skills. Naturalistic methods, such as milieu teaching, have proven to be effective for teaching functional communication.

Bottom Line: Functional communication skills are forms of behavior that express needs, wants, feelings, and preferences that others can understand. When individuals learn functional communication skills, they are able to express themselves without resorting to challenging behavior or experiencing communication breakdown.

The Individual Appears Disinterested

Lack of interest may actually indicate that the individual is not being exposed to preferred activities and events during the times that communication is being evaluated. It may be worth spending time doing what are called preference assessments to identify more activities that interest the individual. A good way to start a preference assessment is to interview parents, teachers, or others who are know the individual well. Ask about any and all activities that the individual seems to like or prefers to do when given a choice. Then follow up the interview by providing opportunities for the individual to participate in activities familiar partners have suggested. Watch for any indication that the individual is interested in these activities. Preferred activities are ideal contexts for teaching individuals to request. An alternative strategy is to identify activities that an individual really doesn't like. These activities can be appropriate contexts for teaching communication responses that indicate "I don't want to do that." Caution must be exercised when teaching rejecting, however. No activity that is harmful to the individual should ever be used in evaluations or instructions.

Bottom Line: A seeming lack of interest on the part of an individual may actually be traced to a lack of identification by service professionals of activities about which the individual might be motivated to communicate. The appropriate response is to examine carefully the ways in which motivation can be enhanced and opportunities for communication provided.

Teaching Yes/No

Although it is generally accepted that teaching "yes" and "no" in response to questions can be useful, yes/no instruction can be a difficult task and may not be an ideal starting point in treatment. Here are some reasons why. First, typically developing children often confuse the meanings of "yes" and "no" well into their 4th year. This may be because "yes" and "no" have many different meanings. For example, a child may use "yes" to indicate that he or she wants something, as in response to "Do you want this cookie?" But "yes" is also used to answer fact-based questions, such as "Are you done?" Similarly, "no" could indicate that a child doesn't want the item offered or be a negative answer to a fact-based question.

The appropriate use of these words is in response to a question. A child may wait for his or her communication partner to ask a question, which limits the child's ability to initiate a request or a refusal. Furthermore, sometimes an early goal in a language intervention program is for a child to indicate "yes" when presented with something he or she likes and "no" when offered something the child doesn't like. Individuals who have learned these responses are easily confused when faced with different situations. For example, consider what might happen if a child begins to fuss while the parent is bouncing the child on his or her lap. The parent might ask, "Do you want me to stop?" The response might be "no" if the child has been taught to indicate "no" when presented with something he or she doesn't want.

Bottom Line: "Yes" and "no" are important concepts that all of us express often. However, it may be difficult for individuals with severe disabilities to learn conventional yes/no responses at the beginning stages of communication. Alternative symbols and signals that indicate a desired or an undesired object or event may be easier to learn.

More Information

  • Beukelman, D. R., & Mirenda, P. (2013). Augmentative and alternative communication: Supporting children and adults with complex communication needs (4th ed.). Baltimore, MD: Brookes.
  • Fritzley, V. H., & Lee, K. (2003). Do young children always say yes to yes-no questions? A metadevelopmental study of the affirmation bias. Child Development, 74(5), 1297–1313.
  • Sigafoos, J., Drasgow, E., Reichle, J., O'Reilly, M., & Tait, K. (2004). Tutorial: Teaching communicative rejecting to children with severe disabilities. American Journal of Speech-Language Pathology, 13, 31–42.