Little Leaps Group Therapy transitioning to year-round school: What you should know
March 28, 2017
Functional Communication: What exactly does that mean?
June 29, 2016
In the behavior and language world, we use term “functional,” frequently. Functional tasks, functional communication, functional language, functional skills, etc. But what does that really mean? All things considered, it’s not as easy to define as one may think. What is “functional” to one person, may not be “functional” to another. When we consider something to be functional, we look what will greatly increase a child’s (or adult’s) ability to complete tasks and communicate wants/needs independently. Items that have meaning to someone or that are needed on a daily basis. For instance, spoons, cups, clothing items, specific food items, or family member names. For children, toys and comforting items are often important first words. A child who has a favorite car may need to speak that word before learning the word “blocks,” which they may not even know exist. Another example would be; if I am allergic to or never drink milk, learning to ask for it would not be functional. On the other hand, someone who only drinks milk, could absolutely benefit from being able to communicate that word or request.
Functional communication is often referred to when working with early or delayed talkers. Especially those who have already identified learning challenges or medical diagnoses. It is important to take into consideration how difficult it may be for them to learn and retain words, and to therefore choose wisely. Parents and caregivers are often essential in this stage, as they typically know the child best. They will be able to list the most common items their child wants or needs, thus providing a great verbal starting point. Finding toys, foods, or drinks that a child enjoys, are common first words. Colors, shapes, numbers, and letters, could be important at some point, but to a non-verbal child, may serve no purpose. Animals are another category of words that can sometimes be questionable. Of course imitating animal sounds and names, putting the animals in a barn and feeding them, are excellent pretend play skills and a great way to improve vocalizations. However, again for a talker who is never exposed to animals and is slow to make progress, functionality may be limited.
In children with apraxia, hearing impairment, or an overall significant articulation impairment, functional communication comes hand in hand with speech intelligibility. Intelligibility can be defined as the overall percentage of speech/communication understood by a listener. It has nothing to do with intelligence, which is a common misconception. Speech intelligibility can change listener to listener. A Mom who spends all day every day with her two year old son, is going to understand much more of his speech than Grandma, who may only see him once a month. Functional communication in children with reduced intelligibility, may look a little different than in those who are easier understood. This is compared to those children who are not yet attempting to use any words. Goal focus is still on commonly used words, but it may begin with imitation of only part of the word. For instance, getting a child with apraxia to consistently use “wa” for requesting “water,” could be a big step. Another example is getting children to include final consonants on words (i.e. saying /t/ on the end of “cat”). These children often know exactly what they want to say, but cannot correctly produce the sounds or words, and in turn decreases their ability to communicate functionally because no one can understand them.
On a final note…we often put much of our teaching vocabulary emphasis on nouns (cup, ball car, block, tv, etc.). However, there have been studies shown that a small set of words including (but not limited to): I, me, my , the go, it, is, and a, can provide just as much function as specific item names. These core words are also much easier to combine into phrases and sentences, as those begin to develop.