Teaching Communication to Children with Emerging Verbal Skills

10/22/2019 by Megan Moore, BCBA

A person’s ability to express their thoughts and feelings is imperative in order for them to functionally and appropriately access things that they not only want but need. Children with autism may engage in maladaptive or challenging behaviors because they do not know a better way to achieve their goal, whether it be to obtain something they want, stop an activity, or let you know that they are in pain. Functional Communication Training (FCT) and shaping can be used to help teach individuals with emerging verbal skills how to achieve their goal in a more functional, safe, and appropriate way. For example, if an individual usually gets a cookie when they scream, they should be taught that they can receive a cookie by saying “want cookie” instead. After they have learned a better way to ask for a cookie, there is no reason to scream when they want one.

FCT is the actual process of teaching individuals to communicate their wants and needs, and can be implemented with many different modes of communication such as American Sign Language (ASL), speech devices, vocal words, writing, and Picture Exchange Communication System (PECS). When implementing FCT, you and your child’s BCBA will work together to determine a starting goal (this goal will be an approximation of the end goal), and then use shaping to gradually reinforce closer and closer approximations of that end goal until they meet their target.

Here are some examples of how shaping could be used to teach functional communication to a child with emerging verbal skills:

Vocal Words

Your end goal is for your child to use three words when requesting an item. She currently uses one word to ask for things, but doesn’t do so consistently. This will be your starting goal, and you will provide the preferred item and praise when (and only when) she uses one word, like “iPad.” After she consistently uses one word, you will only provide the item and praise when she uses two words, like “want iPad.” You will withhold the iPad until she provides those two words. After she consistently uses two words, you will move to your end goal and only provide the item and praise when she uses three words, like “I want iPad.”

Vocalizations to Words

Your son loves popcorn, but right now he can only produce easy, one-syllable vocalizations. Currently, he cries and points when he wants popcorn, but you teach him that he will receive popcorn if he says “puh” (your starting goal). After he consistently says “puh” when he wants popcorn, you will only provide popcorn for a closer approximation, like “pop.” After “pop,” you could move to “pop-cuh,” then “pop-con,” until you achieve your end goal of “popcorn.”


You want to teach your daughter the sign for “milk,” which is opening and closing her fist. At first, you praise her and give her milk just for making the fist, as she doesn’t yet do that consistently and it is a close approximation to your end goal. After she makes a fist every time she wants milk, you will only give her milk when she opens and closes her fist, making the correct sign.


You want to work on handwriting with your child, so you give him tracing worksheets. Previously, you praised him if he remained within ¼ of an inch off the line. He can now do that consistently, so in the future you will only give him praise if he remains within and 1/8 of an inch on the line. After he demonstrates consistency with that, you will only provide praise when he remains completely on the line without straying.

Speech Device

Your child has just received a speech device and there are icons for his favorite foods. You want him to eventually use the icons that say “I want” and “please.” At first, you praise him heavily and provide the food item just for pressing the icon of that particular item. After he does that consistently, you require him to press the “I want” icon and then the food item icon so that he produces a full sentence. After consistency is gained with that skill, you will require him to press the “I want” icon, the food item icon, and the “please” icon.


Currently, your child is on a phase of PECS where two pictures are present and she must discriminate between those pictures, handing you the picture of the item that she wants. Ideally, you would like to be able to have all of the pictures of her preferred items available, but she’s not able to discriminate between more than two right now. After she can consistently choose the picture of the item that she actually wants from an array of two, you can increase the array to three pictures, then four pictures, etc.

In summary, we all engage in certain behaviors in order to achieve something. If your child is engaging in a challenging behavior, find out what they are trying to achieve and then teach them a better way to express it or ask for it!