Identifying when a non-speaking student is communicating

Identifying when a non-speaking student is communicating

Our goal as an SLP should always be to prioritize communication, rather than verbal speech. For each child to “say” what he wants to say, when he wants to say it. But it isn’t always easy to tell when a student is communicating with us.

When I first started working with students with significant cognitive disabilities, it was kind of scary because I didn’t know what to do when a student didn’t have a way to respond. Or at least I thought they didn’t have a way to respond.

As I’ve spent more time working with these students, I’ve learnt that they do have a way to respond. I just need to work out what that way is and use it to develop a system of communication that works for the student AND that more people in their environment can understand.

I learned that what you do is keep investigating and going back and trying things. Working to identify both speaking and non-speaking methods the student may be using to communicate.

Understanding the student’s baseline

One of the best ways I found to do this is to talk to the student’s family. Ask them things like, “How do you know when your child is uncomfortable?” or “What does he do when he is hungry?” Then you learn that there might be different cries, or that the child communicates he wants something by looking at it. 

What we’re figuring out is the student’s baseline. Once we have that then the next step is working out how to build on it. We try to teach them a system of communication that we all understand – something that can take them throughout their lives.

With one student, we started noticing that he makes clicking sounds with his tongue and that means “I’m talking.” If you click back, he’ll click back. Now we’ve got a little conversation going on and we’re trying to build on that. 

I also encourage you to share with your student’s parents and caregivers what they can do. Too often we are constantly telling parents and carers what their students can’t do. I share an example of how to do this in this Instagram post. In this example is a student I have who is starting to communicate by looking at people at they come into the room. I wanted to share with this student’s mother that there are things her daughter can do and that her daughter is starting to communicate.

And remember if you think a child may benefit from AAC, try it. There isn’t a need to wait. It won’t stop a child from developing speech. Actually, early implementation of AAC can help in the development of language and natural speech. (Romski et al., 2010; Luke, 2014; Wright, Kaiser, Reikowsky, & Roberts, 2013)  It doesn’t need to be high tech. It can be as simple as a printed core board. You can get my Big Core Vocabulary Board here.

Looking to find out more about AAC? Learn more about my experiences with AAC in my interview with WIDA.

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Identifying when a Non-speaking student is communicating with us

6 Strategies for Getting Started with AAC from the Very Beginning

6 Strategies for Getting Started with AAC from the Very Beginning

Augmentative and alternative communication (AAC) refers to a range of methods and tools that can be used to help people who have difficulty speaking or communicating effectively. (For more, read What is AAC?). But getting started with AAC can feel daunting. If you’re looking to help a child to get started with AAC, here are a few strategies to consider:

#1 Identify the child’s communication strengths and needs: It’s important to assess the child’s communication abilities and needs before choosing an AAC system. You should, if at all possible, work with a speech-language pathologist (SLP). SLPs are trained language experts and will be able to provide a full assessment. If you are somewhere where this isn’t possible, The Communication Matrix is an online assessment tool created to help families and professionals easily understand the communication status, progress, and unique needs of anyone functioning at the early stages of communication.

#2 Explore different AAC options: There are many different types of AAC systems available, including low-tech options like communication boards and high-tech options like speech-generating devices. It’s important to explore different options and choose one (or more) that are appropriate for the individual’s needs and abilities. If you are getting funding through Medicaid or insurance, it is common for these providers to require AAC trials on a minimum of three devices. Here are a few options to explore:

  1. Quicktalker Freestyle has a very informative website and they will help check if your insurance provider covers AAC.
  2. You can try low tech core communication boards. Pop over here to download my guide to core boards which includes links to popular AAC core boards. Additionally, here is a core board and farm themed activities
  3. You can try the TouchChat app for free for 30 days: TouchChat Discover.
  4. Many AAC apps are on sale for ½ price in October for AAC Awareness month

#3 Involve the child in the decision-making process: It is important to involve the child in the decision-making process when selecting an AAC system. This can be as simple as using an AAC app during an activity, then trying a different app and then offering a choice between the two. This can help to ensure that the system chosen is one that they are motivated to use. 

#4 Start small and build up: It can be overwhelming for both the individual and the communication partner to try to learn an AAC system all at once. It is often helpful to start with a few core words or phrases and gradually build the child’s communication skills over time. Choosing core words to use during activities that occur everyday is a great way to get started. A few examples:

  1. Brushing teeth: PUT on the toothpaste
  2. Getting dressed: PUT on your socks
  3. Going to school: let’s GO, time to GO to school

#5 Model, model, model: What is modeling? It’s you as the communication partner, using AAC to help the child learn AAC. You can learn all about it here. It takes time and practice to become proficient at using an AAC system. Think about how many times a baby hears the word “mama” before they say it. We’re building an understanding of language and a new way to communicate.

#6 Seek support, don’t do it alone: There are many resources available to help individuals and their families learn how to use AAC effectively. These may include speech-language pathologists, support groups, and online resources. Don’t be afraid to reach out for support if you need it. 

If you would like ongoing support then come and join us in the AAC Academy. This membership-stye group AAC “coaching” program will build your SLP skills, increase your confidence, and allow you to help ALL of your students strengthen their communication skills.

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What is AAC?

What is AAC?

What is AAC? AAC stands for Augmentative and Alternative Communication. It refers to a range of methods and tools that can be used to augment or replace spoken communication for people who have difficulty speaking or expressing themselves. 

Are you a parent considering AAC for your child? Maybe your pediatrician or speech language pathologist recommended having a look at AAC.  But you feel hesitant because you don’t know much about it.  Or maybe you’re worried that it will stop your child from talking. Let’s start with some basic facts and information about AAC and exactly what it is.

The first “A” in AAC  is for augmentative. To augment is to increase or to add to. Augmentative communication is when you add something to your speech (eg. a core board for pointing or a speech generating device). This can make your message clearer to your listener.

The second “A” is for alternative. This is using an alternative to spoken voice to communicate. This is for individuals who cannot speak or who can speak but it’s very difficult to understand them. AAC will help others understand their message.

AAC can include things like gestures, sign language, communication boards or books with pictures or symbols, and assistive technology such as speech-generating devices or apps. It is used by people of all ages who have a wide variety of communication needs, including those with autism, cerebral palsy, Down syndrome, childhood apraxia of speech, developmental delays, stroke, and other conditions that can affect language development or production. 

The goal of AAC is to enable individuals to communicate more effectively and participate more fully in their daily lives. Communication is a fundamental  human right .

AAC allows people to communicate more fully.

There are many different types of Augmentative and Alternative Communication (AAC) tools and methods that can be used, depending on the needs and preferences of the individual. Here are a few examples:

  1. Gestures: Simple hand gestures, such as waving or pointing, can be used to communicate basic messages.
  2. Sign language: Formal sign languages, such as American Sign Language (ASL) or British Sign Language (BSL), can be used to communicate more complex messages.
  3. Communication boards or books: These can include pictures or symbols that represent different words or concepts. The individual can point to the appropriate symbol to communicate their message.
  4. Speech-generating devices (SGDs): These are electronic devices that allow the user to select pre-programmed words or phrases, or to type out messages using a keyboard or other input method. The device then speaks the message out loud.
  5. Apps: There are many apps available for smartphones or tablets that can be used for AAC. These may include pre-programmed phrases or allow the user to type out messages, which are then spoken out loud or displayed on the screen.

While It’s important to note that there is no one-size-fits-all solution for AAC,  the best approach will depend on the individual’s needs and abilities. It’s also important to build upon the communication skills each person already has. AAC is truly multimodal, permitting individuals to use every mode possible to communicate. 

To learn more about AAC come join me on Instagram, where I share daily AAC tips and stories of inspiration. Are you curious about using a low tech core board? You can get my free core board resource or my Big Core Vocabulary Board and see for yourself today.

Would you like to learn more about what AAC is? Download my guide.

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Why I love Core Boards

Why I love Core Boards

Technology and all the wonderful tech tools that are out there to help our students is amazing. But I’m not giving up my printed core boards any time soon. 

🧡🧡🧡 I love core boards because:

  • They help make an abstract word visible by giving it a symbol and a location
  • Visuals can focus a student’s attention and help them filter out distractions
  • Many kids with disabilities have strong visual skills
  • They help give language visible structure and a visual pattern
  • It gives a visual foundation of frequently used words
  • They work
  • A big board is great for everyone in preschool classrooms, special education classrooms and in your speech rooms too.

If you are looking for help with core boards, then download your condensed guide to core boards here. You’ll find links to popular AAC boards, along with tips to get started.

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Patience is an SLP Super Power

Patience is an SLP Super Power

During the pandemic I did a lot of walking in my neighborhood. What else was there to do?

Every time I walked by this one house on the corner there was such a beautiful fragrance in the air. One day the owner was outside and I asked him about it. He said his wife was magical with plants and had all sorts of jasmine growing in the back yard. 🌱🌱🌱

So I of course decided I needed some. I went to Lowe’s and bought a nice little jasmine shrub and Brad helped me plant it.

I watered it and waited for the flowers and the fragrance.

No flowers. No fragrance. And actually very little growth.

I kept watering and checking…watering and checking.

Nothing. But it did stay alive, it just basically looked the same.

A year went by.

No flowers.

I thought maybe I’m doing something wrong? Maybe I don’t have the right touch?

Almost another whole year goes by but at the end of March, I look and the plant has tripled in size with tons of shiny green leaves. 🌱🌱🌱😊

And now after 22 months my jasmine plant is flowering. 🎉🎉🎉

Lots of little star shaped blooms and they smell heavenly.

Jasmine flower being held in a hand

I feel like there’s an analogy here between this jasmine plant and working with AAC.

A student gets an AAC device and we expect greatness. But nothing happens.

What we forget is that things are happening beneath the surface!

Things that we can’t see and sometimes don’t understand.

Your student might be busy growing receptively or having a physical growth spurt.

The expressive piece, or the output, WILL happen but usually not on our timeline.

So while you are nurturing and giving him access would you like some extra tools to help?

I’ve got you covered.

Click here to download your free core word activity

This is for you if you want to build your confidence and begin the journey to empowered AAC modeling but need a few additional strategies, tips and tools. All you need to do is add bubbles!

I believe in you (and my jasmine plant).


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Patience is an SLP Super Power
When, Why & How to Use Guided Access for AAC

When, Why & How to Use Guided Access for AAC

iPad’s Guided Access feature for an  Augmentative Alternative Communication (AAC) user is an important option. Guided Access limits an iPad to a single app and lets you control which features are available. If you have a young AAC user, most likely you will want him to only use the iPad as a communication device.

Especially when he’s first learning how to use AAC.

I can’t tell you how many times school staff or parents have let a student use the iPad to play games or watch movies only to have the iPad become associated with only those activities. Then it no longer gets used for communication.

We definitely don’t want that to happen. Much better to have a separate iPad for recreation and keep the other one as a dedicated communication device.

Another reason to use it is so a student doesn’t accidentally go into the app menu or vocabulary and delete items.

Of course none of this applies for an older AAC user that is capable of editing and adding words. They can use their device however they want too.

In this video I’ll show you how to use guided access with your students when you’re using an Augmentative Alternative Communication (AAC) app on an iPad.

As a speech language pathologist (SLP) working with students, you’ll find some of your students will know their way around an iPad. A student might decide he doesn’t want to be in the AAC app any more so he clicks out of it to go exploring. Maybe he’d rather play a game or use the camera app. It’s easy to limit this access using settings that are available on iPads.

I’ll walk you through the steps to set this up on your iPad including using a passcode to limit access to different apps and functions in apps on the iPad. Remember, this isn’t being mean or controlling. It’s all about helping your student be successful with his AAC device. He can use a different iPad to access games and other activities.

Click on the image below to access the video.

Would you rather have a written guide on how to use Guided Access?

You’re in luck, I’ve created one for you here.  Just click here for your Guided Access for AAC guide.