How to Teach Your Child with Autism to Express Themselves Appropriately

Functional Communication Training

Communication is a fundamental skill that enables us to express our wants and needs effectively. Children with autism and other developmental concerns often have difficulty expressing themselves in appropriate ways. They tend to replace language, such as “I need help,” “Play with me,” “Too loud,” and even shaking their head “no,” with maladaptive behavior because they lack the communication skills that we take for granted.

Here at The Behavior Exchange, we use Functional Communication Training (FCT, a form of ABA therapy) to help children learn communication skills, so they can express their wants, needs, thoughts, and feelings effectively and appropriately. The purpose of FCT is to replace maladaptive behaviors with appropriate and functional communication responses.

This blog is written with parents in mind. We outline five basic steps of FCT and how to apply them with your child at home. Please keep in mind this guide should only be used if your goal is to replace non-dangerous, challenging behavior with effective communication skills. 

If your child exhibits any unsafe behavior that causes harm to themselves, others, or property, please contact The Behavior Exchange or an ABA therapy provider in your area. Such cases require the professional help and expertise of a Board Certified Behavior Analyst.

Ok then, let’s get started. 

The 5 Basic Steps of Functional Communication Training

1) Identify the challenging/unwanted behavior.

What specifically is your child doing that needs to be replaced with functional communication? For example, are they crying, screaming, or running away? Then, write the behavior down.

2) Identify the function, or purpose, of the unwanted behavior.

  • • Attention – Positive or negative. Remember, attention is attention.
  • • Escape/Avoidance – Removal or avoidance of something or someone.
  • • Access to a Tangible – A cookie, toy, or any other thing they want.
  • • Sensory – Music or TV is too loud or lighting is too bright or dark, for example.

3) Identify the replacement behavior or functional communication response.

Once you know the function or purpose of the unwanted behavior (see #2 above), you can determine what functional communication response to teach your child. Once you know what that is, you’re ready to teach it.

The key is to find a functional way to communicate the response you’re after is easier to do than the maladaptive behavior. So, start small either at or below where your child is currently communicating. If your child has limited vocal language, give them a picture card or a sign/gesture they can use immediately instead of the unwanted behavior.

4) Teach and reinforce the functional communication response.

Create opportunities for your child to learn and use the functional communication response or use teachable moments when they occur naturally.

You can prime and/or use a prompt immediately after presenting the antecedent (a.k.a. what happens before a behavior occurs). For example, say, “I’m going to ask you to turn off your game. When I do, say, ‘More time, please.’ Let’s practice. Time to turn off your game. Say, ‘More time please.”

When your child responds, reinforce or reward them for asking appropriately.

5) Fade your prompts until your child communicates independently.

Keep presenting the learning opportunity and gradually fade your prompts until your child is using the functional communication phrase on their own. This may take several times, days, or a few weeks, depending on your child. Don’t give up or reinforce the challenging behavior without using functional communication.

What if my child uses functional communication, but answers “no”?

Then the answer is “no.” However, there are things you can do to help keep your child from escalating. A few ways you can respond is by first praising them for using their words, and then:

  • • Use a “First, Then” statement. For example, “Put your toys away, then you can watch TV.” 
  • • Offer alternatives. For example, “Not right now, but you can have (blank) or (blank).” 
  • • Respond without using the word “no,” especially if it’s already a word associated with escalation. Say, “Yes, after (blank),” or “We can do (blank) or (blank) instead.”

In addition, learning to accept a “no” is another critical skill for children to learn. More information on that topic can be found here, or you can just contact us. We offer help and hope that make a difference!

This blog entry was written by Jayden Conte, BCBA.





Ashvina attended University of Bombay and graduated with a Bachelors of Commerce. She got her Montessori Diploma in 1985 and taught ever since. Ashvina came to TBE in January of 2016 as Admin Assistant. During the years she got the opportunity to learn and work in different departments such as HR, Finance, Office Manager and Executive Assistant. Last summer TBE bought billing in house and her current focus area is Revenue Cycle Management. She is detail oriented and enjoys working with people. Ashvina volunteers to deliver meals to seniors and local shelters on the weekend. She loves to spend time with her family and grandkids. Ashvina loves her job because she enjoys hearing different points of view, and she feels her contributions help fuel the direction of our company.

Working with children comes naturally to Angela. Her mom was a special education teacher for 30 years and often had Angela join her for Take Your Child to Work Day. And in high school, Angela spent every summer as the nanny for a little boy with an autism spectrum disorder. It was this experience where her passion for working with children with autism started to blossom.

From there, she went on to graduate from Oklahoma State University with a Bachelor of Science in Human Development and Family Sciences. She learned about Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA) in a non-normative development class and from that moment knew that ABA would be her life’s work.

Angela moved to the DFW area shortly after and began working at The Behavior Exchange as a therapist. She worked on her Master’s in Behavior Analysis at the same time. A year after graduating, she earned certification as a Board Certified Behavior Analyst.

Now, as a Clinical Director at The Behavior Exchange, she brings a life-long passion to her work, holding a special place in her heart for children with limited language skills and working closely with families to develop healthy sleep habits.

Danielle’s passion for working with families is deeply personal and from the heart. Her younger brother has an autism spectrum disorder, and through their journey as a family, she found her purpose in life as an advocate for individuals with special needs.

After graduating from the University of North Texas with a degree in Human Development and Family Studies, Danielle began volunteering at The Behavior Exchange. She saw passionate therapists, meaningful change for clients, and families with hope for the future. After a summer of volunteering, she officially joined the team as Director of Admissions and found her home with The Behavior Exchange family.

With her extensive experience working as a client advocate with insurance providers, Danielle perseveres to help individuals of all ages and abilities receive the services they need to reach their full potential. She feels truly honored by each and every family who entrusts The Behavior Exchange to be part of their journey and is committed to the organization’s core values, mission, and goal of being a beacon of hope for the community.

Adam has always had a passion for helping individuals of all ages thrive and reach their full potential. He’s also an enthusiastic musician, songwriter, leader, and devoted family man, who has been helping children and team members grow with The Behavior Exchange since 2010.

Prior to joining the team at The Behavior Exchange, Adam was a mortgage loan consultant and grad student, pursuing his master’s degree in Education at the University of North Texas. He graduated in 2013 and also earned a graduate academic certificate in Autism Intervention. The following year, after years as a Behavior Therapist and seeing first-hand the power of ABA and the meaningful impact it can have on children and their families, Adam became a Board Certified Behavior Analyst. He then commenced from the Stagen Leadership Academy after completing the Integral Leadership Program (ILP), a 52-week practice-based program designed to develop executives serious about transforming themselves, their teams, and their organizations.

Adam is truly grateful to be a part of a dynamic, inspiring and compassionate team, and he’s dedicated to bettering the lives of all children and their families through the delivery of the highest quality of ABA services, while supporting the amazing team at The Behavior Exchange.

Soraya is from South Africa and moved to Texas in 1996. She graduated from The University of Texas and pursued a career, at that time, in Education. Soraya taught at a Montessori school for a few years and then took on a leadership role.

During her time in the education system, Soraya realized her passion was to assist children with special needs. So she joined The Behavior Exchange as a therapist, transitioned into a supervisory role in 2017, and a year and a half later, was promoted to Clinical Operations Manager.

She quickly learned the ins and outs of ABA operations and scheduling and successfully collaborates across departments to ensure The Behavior Exchange continues to provide quality services to clients and their families. She’s thankful to be part of such an amazing organization and excited to see what the future holds.

You could say Walter’s career started when he spent hours as a young child drawing superheroes and coloring maps. This passion, along with extraordinary swimming skills, landed him a full swimming scholarship at Texas Christian University, where he graduated in 1997 with a Bachelor of Fine Arts in Communication Graphics.

During the next 13 years, his design and art direction skills, conceptual-thinking abilities, and marketing-savvy know-how were honed at a few prestigious advertising and marketing agencies around the Dallas area. In the mid 2000s, he helped his wife Tammy Cline-Soza (founder and CEO of The Behavior Exchange) create a unique and concise brand for her new business. From logos and websites to uniforms, brand voice and visuals, Walter has been the main creative force for all things The Behavior Exchange.

Aside from giving birth to The Behavior Exchange brand, Walter is helping Tammy raise two amazing, beautiful children, River and Sierra. In his spare time (the two minutes he’s got per week), you can find Walter illustrating iconic landmarks of Dallas and Texas or looking around for this next open-water swim. Once he gets back in shape.

After 20 years of building The Behavior Exchange, literally from the ground up,
Tammy couldn’t be more proud of the team, culture, and organization that it has become.

As a family helping families, The Behavior Exchanges looks for opportunities that will make the biggest impact and produce life-changing outcomes – for clients, families, and even for team members. Tammy believes that if a team, a family, a community takes care of each other, the possibilities are endless and the relationships built along the way can make life more enriching and challenges easier to navigate. You could say her goal has been to build a kind of utopia full of support, love, and expertise that brings the best services possible to the community and ensures more families have access to those services.

Tammy and her family have dedicated their lives to the mission of The Behavior Exchange and continue to grow, learn, cultivate, challenge, support, and create better models for success. To that end, she is committed to her own leadership development and actively participates in advanced training, mentoring, and deep self-exploration on how to live out her purpose to love and support her family and help others reach their full potential. She takes her position very seriously and tries to serve as a channel for what the universe wants to come to fruition.

She also loves travel, gardening, being creative, MUSIC!, tennis, yoga, meditation, journaling, reading, being in nature, adventures, and more than anything, spending time with her husband Walter and their two beautiful children, River and Sierra.