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Functions of Communication

Female teacher directing young male student using a computer

We all communicate for a variety of reasons. Sometimes we want to get something or relay information or even share an experience. Individuals with ASD also communicate for a variety of reasons. It is important to understand the functions of communication so that we can teach students with ASD to communicate for different reasons so they can also have their wants and needs met and be more independent.

Case Study: Nathan

Nathan is a first grade student with an Autism Spectrum Disorder. Nathan receives special education services which support him in the areas of academics, communication, and social skills. Nathan is able to follow multi-step directions. He can count items in a group and is able to match and sort items. Nathan has some verbal abilities and is able to speak in short one to three word phrases. Nathan is more likely to verbalize around people he knows and usually verbalizes to request items that he wants. However, he will label items when asked and is able to ask for help.

Functions of Communication

Now that we've met Nathan, let's look further at the functions of communication before we decide how to support him. Often, individuals with ASD will begin with requesting as their primary reason for communicating. As we work with individuals with ASD, it is important to remember that we need to consider why a student would want to communicate and teach the different functions of communication.

Below you will see a table that includes different functions along with a brief description and examples.

Function Explanation Examples
To Request (Mand) Communicates a desire for someone to give an object, perform a service, or give permission to take an object or to do something.
  • Points to an object and says its name: "Cookie" or gives an approximation: "ee-ee".
  • Pulls teacher to the closet to show where a desired item is and says, "Want puzzle."
  • Touches object and looks for consent to play with it.
  • Uses a word or phrase to indicate wants or needs: "Bathroom" (when wanting to use the bathroom).
To Get Attention Communicates a desire to have someone's attention when not already getting it or to maintain someone's attention.
  • Touches teacher on shoulder.
  • Says, "Mom" to get her attention.
  • Vocalizes sharply and repeatedly until teacher looks and responds.
  • Says, "Excuse me."
To Refuse / Reject Rejects objects offered, rejects the action of someone, or refuses to comply with a request.
  • Pushes juice away.
  • Says "no."
  • Says "stop."
  • Shakes head "no."
  • Throws items away from him/herself.
To Comment Points out characteristics of self, other people, or objects that are readily apparent to the listener and pertain to the immediate environment.
  • Holds up object to show someone.
  • Says, "That's my coat."
  • Tells teacher, "Finished" (when teacher is watching).
  • Says, "Up" (as someone climbs a ladder to indicate what that person is doing).
  • "Jane's pushing the truck" (pointing at Jane who is pushing a toy truck).
To Give Information Communicates to someone something that is not obvious to that person. May involve reporting on an activity of self or another that happened in the past or is expected to happen in the future. It also may involve answering a question for information that the person asking it does not know.
  • Student says "I watched TV last night"
  • Student asks, "Do you like peas?" and the other answers, "Yes."
  • Teacher asks, "Where did you put your pennies?" and the student points to the place where the pennies are
To Seek Information Communicates a desire for someone to give needed or wanted information.
  • Student asks, "When lunch?"
  • Student searches for an object and looks to the teacher for information.
  • Student asks where an item is located.
  • Student asks for clarification.
To Express Feelings Communicates own physical or emotional feelings such as likes or dislikes.
  • Takes someone's hand and puts it on a part of his body that is hurt.
  • Says or signs, "angry."
  • Says, "stomach hurts."
  • Student retrieves a routine item such as a band-aid.
Social Routines Communication within the context of typical situations.
  • Says "hi" or "bye."
  • Says or signs, "Thank you."
  • Asks "How are you?" or replies "I'm fine."
To Make a Choice Indicates which option they prefer or don't prefer.
  • Choosing a particular activity.
  • Says, "I'd rather play this game."
  • Choosing reinforcement.
  • Pushes away an item presented to them that is non-preferred.
  • Choosing a preferred item.
To Give a Direction Communicates to someone else what to do.
  • Signs, "Sit down."
  • Says, "Throw that away."
  • Says, "Listen to me."
  • Says, "Come here."
To Influence or Persuade Communicates a position to someone in order to try to have that person agree.
  • Tells someone their position and provides evidence of why they are right.
  • Provides factual information and opinions.
To Warn Communicates danger or concern to another person.
  • Says, "Be careful."
  • Says, "Don't drink that."
  • Says, "Stand back."
  • Gesturing to stop.
To Motivate or Encourage Communicates encouragement and positive feedback.
  • Says, "You're doing great!"
  • Says, "You can do it!"

Case Study: Nathan

Now that we've learned more about the functions of communication, let's consider Nathan again. Nathan's educational team has considered his strengths and needs and determined it is appropriate for him to work on requesting items and answering simple questions. His teachers considered how to incorporate these goals into the classroom. Here are some ways that they've done this.

As you can see, these are just some of the examples that Nathan's teachers might use to work on helping Nathan communicate for different reasons. There are many opportunities that can be created during the day in order to practice these skills. It is also important to take advantage of natural opportunities that occur throughout the day.


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