We can do fantastic work with our students using AAC but as I’m sure you know AAC is something that has much more impact if it is happening everyday. Which means we need to get colleagues at the school onboard with supporting students with their devices and other resources. But getting other team members onboard with AAC can be challenging.
But if your school is anything like the ones I work with this can be tough. We all know how busy teachers are and asking them to do something extra can be hard. But the rewards for our students make it so worthwhile.
It’s a slow process, so the more you can connect with other team members and build trust, the more they’ll be open to your suggestions. It’s not a one time thing showing them how a device works. Our student and often the staff are learning a new language.
The teachers are going to need support. If we can follow up, listen, collaborate, and create a shared vision, our AAC users will benefit. Set a goal. In 3 of the classrooms I work with we’ve recently set a goal to have devices out daily, modeling a core word or two every day during the daily routine of the teacher’s choice and setting aside time each day for the student to explore their device. You can get my support material for the classroom to help with this here.
Encourage them to keep it simple when they are just getting started with a student with AAC. If they can start by modeling when talking to a child and not worrying about selecting every word that’s a great place to start.
Something that’s been super successful in one school is AAC Club – I have all sorts of info about it on my Instagram. It all started with a student who had a device and was learning yoga. The student expressed an interest in leading yoga; however, nobody could understand her. So, we programmed some yoga poses into her device. Then, we brought in another student who uses a device and… another student… After a while it became a club. Students who use devices get together for 30 minutes a week and the physical therapist and I model different words and then the kids get to check out other kids’ devices. They love it!
Getting people used to seeing and using devices
Fear of the devices and worrying about messing up plays a part in the reluctance of others to use the devices. So we’re making sure that devices are seen in use in a fun way.
This isn’t just with the teachers in the school. We’ve gotten other staff involved with AAC Club., For Halloween one year, the kids took their devices and offered candy to the office staff. The office staff were able to respond on a device, which was a huge win! It was great to see the kids being able to interact with people outside of their classroom.
We are also working on the devices being used in the playground. Working with the physical therapist, we started taking the devices outside for recess, so people see them more. As people see the devices and get to know them better, you can make “gentle” suggestions, like “Why is their device over there on the shelf? It needs to be right here.”
Supporting teachers when they are struggling
Even with the most engaged teachers, they can struggle with AAC. Students using their devices when they should be listening is one of reasons I see teachers putting devices away. The problem with this is that the teacher is effectively silencing the student. If this is happening then can you support the teacher by teaching your students not to “talk” during certain times. You can also make sure that time is scheduled for your students to explore their devices daily.
Getting parents involved
I’ve had less success with parents. They often have so much they are trying to juggle and the device can feel like just one more thing to learn. I’ve led parent support groups and I offer to show them how to use the devices and how they can support their child at home. Unfortunately, very few people take me up on that. But I keep trying and I’ve some parents who are superstars at this! In the ideal situation, the child would have a parent modeling the device at home and then we would be modeling at school, and we would be communicating back and forth. Like, “he touched the ‘go’ when he wanted something to go, and that was incredible!”
You are nearly guaranteed you are going to get at least one teacher who is resistant. Keep persisting! I promise it’s worth it for your students. Don’t forget to listen to what staff and teachers know and think about AAC. This can be easy to do with our enthusiasm as SLPs!
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 thisInstagram 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.
One of my strongest beliefs is that all children with complex communication needs should have access to support regardless of their background. As SLPs we have an important role to play in ensuring this.
But I know it can feel intimidating at first. Particularly if you’re also navigating AAC for the first time. I recently did an interview with Tamara Anderson from Building Successful Lives on this topic. You can find the interview here:https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zeVMsp3xv-4
If video isn’t your thing, I’ve summarised why this is important to me and ways to support your students.
Why is getting AAC to all children who need it important?
It’s not just Alternative!
AAC has two AAs. But we focus on the alternative rather than the augmentative. It’s supporting the child with what they already have. If the child has very limited verbal speech then using AAC can be a bridge to developing bigger language skills.
It can also provide an alternative way for the child to communicate when they’re having a communication breakdown or when they’re really tired. I often see students with autism who under times of great stress or during times of sensory overload find visual communication easier than using verbal speech.
It’s important not to wait. We want to get AAC into a kid’s hands as soon as we think they need it. They can start building those important language skills straight away so they’re not behind.
Advocating for and creating diverse materials for AAC users with complex communication needs
There is so much you can do as an SLP in advocating for and creating diverse materials.
1.View the child as a whole. The first place I like to start is by creating a climate and environment where we’re viewing each child as a whole. This means not just looking at his disability or where he needs help with communication. It also means what environments are they communicating in at school and at home. This is going to be a way for them to communicate wherever they are, so thinking about that is a great place to start.
2.Include language spoken at home. We used to think that it was confusing for the child if they were using multiple languages. Studies have now shown this isn’t the case. Children with complex communication needs can be bilingual or even multilingual. This ties back into viewing the child as a whole. We don’t want to alienate parents from children. We want children to embrace their home life and culture.
Don’t just think about the language but also the different phrases they might use at home. There is a lot to think about. Words don’t always translate directly. You might find it difficult to find a translator if the language used at home isn’t a common language in your community. But I promise your efforts will be rewarded.
3.Appropriate icons and symbols. Can your children see themselves reflected in their apps and core boards? The skin tone of the symbols can play a part in this. In the last year some of the big AAC companies (Touchchat and Proloquo2go) are making it so much easier for us as SLPs to adjust the symbols in one step. Others are coming on board so keep an eye on the website of the apps your students are using.
4.What voice are you using? If you are using computer generated voices can you choose one to sound as much like the student would sound if they could speak? Acapela Group is doing wonderful work to create more diverse voices.
Increasing the language and literacy of AAC users
As well as the bigger picture activities listed above there are simpler actions we can take to increase the language and literacy of AAC users:
· Modelling. I talk a lot about the importance of modelling. That is we as the communication partner use the communication device as well. Even if you only have a core vocabulary board you can point too.
· Incorporating words. Your student may not be able to read, but they can often recognise words. If you’re doing a visual schedule you can still add words as the student can recognise what words are. They can have letter awareness.
We can also encourage playing with letters. This could be through playing with magnet letters or using a keyboard.
· Give them the gift of story. We all have wonderful stories to share and giving students the gift of story is one of my favourite things to do. To start, have some active engagement in books. Get creative and make it fun. If children have been read to in a boring way when they see a book come out they think it’s time to go to sleep.
See if you can figure out how to make it fun and exciting. I like using puppets, the Tarheel Reader site, and interactive books with velcro pieces. It’s all about not being boring. Children understand the power of stories.
Just like with any kid we want to find a book that the child is interested in. For example, If a child likes cars then find a book on cars.
If you’ve enjoyed this blog post and are looking for ways to build on your knowledge then some great ways to do this are:
Reach out to other SLPs in your region or even on social media. On Instagram search on the hashtag #AAC. There are amazing SLPs on Instagram sharing all about AAC.
You can get so hung up on AAC and how complex it is. But at the end of the day… it’s just language and we know what language is. Look at the child and see where they are in their communication skills. All kids are communicating even if not verbal. Figure out what the next step is. Where do you want them to get?
Work out how the device works – google the devices – there are lots of videos out there. Reach out to other SLPs if you get stuck.
If a student needs a device and they don’t have one, do you have an AAC specialist in your district and what is the policy? Start doing the research. We don’t want our students to miss out.
It may all seem very daunting but it’s the best feeling when you can give a voice to a student and a family.
As SLPs we often work with emergent communicators. How we model with them needs to be tailored to their specific needs. Below I share more about what an emergent communicator is and my best tips for using AAC modelling with them.
What is an Emergent Communicator
Emergent communicators can use the following modes of communication:
other non-symbolic modes of communication. For example: smiling, reaching for what they want, taking your hand to what they want. They make wants known indicated by reaching toward something, looking at it, and leg movements.
Introducing AAC to Emergent Communicators
My number one tip for introducing AAC to emergent communicators is to remember beginning communicators talk about what they want to talk about. Make sure what you are modelling is meaningful and hopefully fun to them.
Once you are communicating about something they are interested in, then it’s important to model without expectation. Invite don’t demand that they take part in the activity.
Being prepared as an SLP
As an SLP, it can feel intimidating navigating how to use a device and knowing what to do when using AAC. Particularly if it’s the first time you’ve worked with AAC or a particular device.
If this is you, then quickly get familiar with the device. Most devices are fairly straightforward to use once you’ve used them a few times. I’ve been sharing reviews of devices and apps on Instagram. You can find them in my Instagram feed.
I recommend knowing a few basics and starting with core words like in, put, finished, more, want, like, go. Choose an activity that happens everyday like snack time, circle time, lining up time. That way you’ll get lots of practice every day.
Remembering to keep it fun, simple, consistent and real.
Setting goals is a great way to help you do this. To help you set AAC goals, I’ve created the Ultimate AAC Goal Planning Blueprint which you can download for free here.
Are you a new school SLP who’d like an insider look at Individualized Education Plans (IEPs)? Writing a good IEP and conducting a successful IEP meeting are two really vital skills. This video shares 5 tips that are simple game changers for how to approach your next IEP.