Augmentative-alternative communication has become more available to families as both they and schools access iOS technology and apps. But, sadly, what is not readily available is the knowledge of how best to teach their children how to use these systems to communicate.
It’s a myth that you can give a child an AAC system, whether a device or paper-based solution, and the child will automatically be able to use it right away. While there are some individuals for whom this may be true, it is not the case for most. An AAC system is a tool, and only with direct instruction about how to use the tool can the child be successful.
So, where should you start?
“It is critical for an individual to not only have symbols, but also to have experience with those symbols in a symbol rich environment/print rich environment. The typically developing child will have been exposed to oral language for approximately 4,380 waking hours by the time he begins speaking at about 18 months of age. If someone is using a different symbol set and only has exposure to it two times a week, for 20-30 minutes each, it will take the alternate symbol user 84 years to have the same experience with his symbols that the typically developing child has with the spoken word in 18 months!” —Jane Korsten (2011)
All children need to experience language input before they begin to use it. For our AAC users this means that they need to experience language input in the mode of communication we are going to ask them to use; g., picture-based communication. To do this, we use a concept called Aided Language Stimulation (ALgS).
Aided Language Stimulation (also called Aided Input or Partner Aided Input) is the strategy in which a communication partner teaches a child what the symbols mean, how to find them and how to use them by simultaneously pointing to the symbols while speaking the words. This does not mean pointing to every word spoken; but rather highlighting the key words.
We aim to provide ALgS at one step above the child’s current communication level. So, if the child is not using words/symbols at all, we begin with modeling the use of single words. When he begins using single words, we model two-word phrases, etc.
Continue to model use of the system, encouraging the child to attend to what you’re doing.
You need to engage the child with something desirable. What is something he likes to do that will keep him interacting with you? Alternatively, use his unwillingness to engage by modeling “Go away,” “Leave me alone,” or “I need a break.” I once followed a young man around his house as he moved from room to room to get away from what I was asking him to do. I told him I would leave if he asked me to go away, and persisted until he did so. Then I left him alone.
Activities should be child-led. Follow the child’s lead to what engages him. Then you can begin to engage him in an interaction within something that encourages him to communicate.
And, don’t just model asking for items needed in the activity. Model making comments (“I like it”) and other intents, too.
3. Use core words
Research tells us that a small number, around 200-300 words, are used for about 80 percent of what we say. If you look at any given sentence, you will find that 80 percent of the words within it are core words. Core words are primarily verbs, pronouns, and adjectives. Toddlers, who are often very chatty, use only 25 core words for more than 96 percent of what they say. None of these words is a noun/label.
Use these words in multiple contexts and for multiple meanings. Teaching this small number of core words to children gives them the tools to build language. For example, if I were going to begin with just one word, I might choose “GO.”
I could then use it to:
- Ask to go somewhere
- Ask you to make it go (turn it on)
- Tell you I need to go on the potty
- Tell you to go away
That last one can be very powerful, and we need to remember to honor that request whenever possible.
More information about AAC can be found in the book, Make the Connection!: A Practical Guide to Parents and Practitioners for Teaching the Nonverbal Child to Communicate With AAC.
This article was featured in Issue 88 – Knowledge is Power