Behavior and Communication

Behavior IS Communication

“I can remember the frustration of not being able to talk.I knew what I wanted to say, but I could not get the words out,so I would just scream.”

-Temple Grandin

People’s actions always express something. There are many ways to communicate a message.

Consider how each of the following could tell you: “I want to stop”

  • Verbal words “I want to stop”
  • Throwing body on floor and kicking
  • Gesturing “STOP” (as a police officer does when directing traffic)
  • Sitting down and crossing arms
  • Yelling loudly while pushing away nearby people or items
  • Walking out of the room
  • Pressing a button on a communication device that plays a recorded “I want to stop” message
  • Using American Sign Language to sign “all done” or “I want to stop”
  • Crying and hitting self in head with palm of hand

Some of the above means of expression are acceptable in our culture. Others are labeled as “inappropriate behavior.” But ALL are sending the message “I want to stop.”

“Careful attention to communication reveals that behaviors that on the surface appear to be random, maladaptive, or challenging, are purposeful…”

    • Olney, M. F. (2001). Communication strategies of adults with severe disabilities: Supporting self-determination. Rehabilitation Counseling Bulletin, 44, 87-95.

For a deeper understanding, one must look past the behavior itself to find the communicative intent behind it.  When we look no further than trying to “extinguish” what are perceived as inappropriate behaviors, we miss an opportunity to provide that individual with a more functional, robust means, of communication, and to have their needs met.  

The effectiveness of providing augmentative communication as a means to reduce negative behaviors is seen in analyses of existing studies.  This effect is notable across disability types, works well when paired with a functional behavior assessment (FBA), and when started early (Walker & Snell, 2013) .  Positive effects are seen for adults as well, though not as strong.

This points towards a way by which behaviorists and speech-language pathologists can work together to improve the lives of people in need of AAC.  We need to understand the function of  “negative” behavior, and we need the knowledge of communication development, core vocabulary, and aided language stimulation that an AAC specialist can bring to the table.  

“To communicate is like breathing air in and out. It is impossible not to do. It is the heartbeat of our own existence! It is the cornerstone upon which everything is built.”

                                                                                                           –Paul Marshall

Mirenda, P. (1997). Supporting Individuals with Challenging Behavior Through Functional Communication Training and AAC: Research Review.  Augmentative and Alternative Communication, 13(4), 207-225. doi:10.1080/07434619712331278048

Walker, V. L., & Snell, M. E. (2013). Effects of Augmentative and Alternative Communication on Challenging Behavior: A Meta-Analysis. Augmentative and Alternative Communication, 29(2), 117-131. doi:10.3109/07434618.2013.785020

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Kathryn Helland

Kathryn is a certified speech-language pathologist and works with children and adults with complex communication needs. She has been with the TechOWL team since 2015 and is currently working on her doctorate. She would like to examine how to best support AAC users in higher education.

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