Behavior Communicates.

a person screaming and another person wondering

People’s actions always express something. There are many ways to communicate a message. We all use our behavior to communicate. Have you ever been angry and slammed a door? Been excited and jumped up and down? What about when you get frustrated. What do you do?

When people can’t talk, they are often frustrated. All behavior communicates.

Here are different ways that a person could say, “I want to stop”.

  • Verbal words “I want to stop.”
  • Throwing body on the 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 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 the palm of a hand

Some of the above means of expression are acceptable in our culture. We think of some of these as bad or “inappropriate” behavior. But ALL are sending the message “I want to stop.”

What are some ways that a person could say “keep doing that” when you are tickling his or her arm?

  • With speech – “do it some more!”
  • With body movements – pulling or grabbing your hand to continue
  • With gestures – pumping upward facing fist in a “gimme” gesture
  • With sounds – laughing and smiling while you are tickling
  • With movement – walking up to you and putting his arm out
  • With a device- Pressing a button that plays a recorded “I want more” message
  • With American Sign Language- sign “again” or “more”

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

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

Marjorie Olney

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


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Deepen Your Understanding

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 is 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.