Imagine not being able to communicate your most basic wants/needs. The blank stares. The misunderstanding. The confusion. The frustration. When working with people who have limited to no verbal expression, they tend to demonstrate that frustration through behaviors. This can be seen as screaming, hitting, withdrawal or self-injury. When this is the case, the person needs to be taught how to replace those behaviors through functional communication.
So what is “functional”? We often see shapes, colors, numbers, or letters being taught, but do these categories really have meaning to a person? The word “functional” in relation to a person’s day-to-day life can vary. What is functional to one person, may not be functional to another. As professionals or parents we need to consider what is meaningful to that specific person. Functional communication requires the person to express a variety of communicative functions (request, deny, socialize, seek information) quickly and independently across all listeners using the most efficient means.
Whether the person is using spoken or written words, sign language, or an augmentative communication system, the message should be easily expressed and understood. If a person learned “bathroom” in sign language, but the receiver did not know sign language, communication would not be functional. If a person is not able to type/spell fast enough to say where they are hurting, the means of communication is not functional. Teaching a person to ask for their glasses (request), say they don’t want to swim because they are scared of water (deny), to say “good morning” as part of a morning class routine (socialize), or to ask where a misplaced backpack is for school (seek information), would all be considered functional.
Let’s all presume that everyone has something to say and help give everyone an opportunity to have a voice.