Core Words

#2 Mistake: Mateo must answer questions in school like everyone else
Lesson: Core vocabulary means providing the child with communication for life

Under the guidance of one of our school district’s SLPs, we set up his AAC device so that he could participate in school like everyone else.  Or so we thought.  I programmed circle time comments so that he could report on the weather and say the date.  I programmed the preschool centers so that he could tell a teacher he wanted to read a book, play dress-up or do a craft during free time.  I asked his teacher to tell me what books she was reading each week so that I could program some of that vocabulary in there and coached his teacher to ask him specific questions he could answer.

For the most part, the entire device was programmed with nouns.  Why? Because we can get nice symbols with nouns.  Do we actually use a lot of nouns in our communication? Absolutely not.

We created a responder in Mateo.  He was a good one too.  He learned how to navigate his device to answer the questions we asked of him, but he rarely initiated a conversation, asked a question or just interjected something on his own.  That’s why core vocabulary is so important.

I had made the same mistake as many, many other parents and even SLPs.   I did not program his device in such a way that he could achieve spontaneous novel utterance generation or SNUG.  He could simply respond.  What’s the fun in that?  What’s motivating about that?  How will that help him connect to his friends and family in a meaningful way?  How will that get him to be independent?

AAC devices must be built around core vocabulary–words that we all use all the time every day.

We want AAC communicators to create spontaneous novel utterances. They can learn to do that if they have access to these core words, receive the right therapy and many, many opportunities to practice across all of their environments and with all the people in their lives.

Core vocabularies consist of words identified as being important for an individual to express across activities and environments.   With a few words, a person can say just about anything he wants to say.  Add the ability to spell words that aren’t in the core vocabulary, and you have a competent communicator who can tell it exactly like it is!  Roughly:

50 words represent 40-50% of totals words communicated every day
100 words represent 60% of totals words communicated every day
200 words represent 70% of totals words communicated every day
400 words represent 80% of total words communicated every day

Mateo didn’t originally have access to these words, but he could tell his teacher if it was snowing outside.  What we really wanted for him, we’d realized then, is to tell his friend next to him. “Cool!  If there is no school tomorrow, wanna come over and play?”  All core vocabulary words.  Totally spontaneous.  Who cares if he can say it’s snowing like the rest of his class?  Everyone KNOWS it’s snowing.

My first word

I’ve been thinking about starting a blog quite a while ago.  For some, taking that first step is the toughest.  For me, it’s that first word.  I share that in common with my students, I guess.

Recently, I’ve been cleaning out our home office.  That means shredding old bills, wading through papers and artwork for the kids and generally procrastinating while I walk down memory lane.  When I found a presentation that I delivered while in graduate school, I knew where I wanted to start my blog.

Back then, I was just a wife, mom and graphic designer taking graduate courses in the area of communication disorders.  I had the crazy notion that I might become a speech-language pathologist.   I was asked by one of my favorite professors to talk to her class about my experiences as a mom of a child who uses an augmentative and alternative communication (AAC) device to communicate.  Today, I AM a speech-language pathologist and I’m still a little crazy–maybe even more than I was back then.  I continue to learn from Mateo every day.  Similarly, I learn from my students every day.  Most of my students have moderate-to-intensive needs and struggle to find their voices just as Mateo does.  My worlds collide every day and I am one lucky lady.

Mistake #1: We have a bright kid, so this will be a piece of cake
Lesson: AAC communication is learned and unnatural to the user

First, I assumed that if someone wants to talk, but can’t, they’ll be so highly motivated to communicate that they quickly learn how to use an AAC device.  Well, that most certainly is not the case.

Mateo IS bright and will do everything he can to make himself heard.  But even now, he still prefers to use his voice, despite the fact that most people, sadly, do not understand him.  He will not give up on being understood.    It’s just not natural to go to a box and make it talk.  Other parents who have been on this journey longer have told me that it took about 5 years for it to really sink in with their child.

However, we got a glimpse very early on during our assessment process during a meeting with a Dynavox sales representative with Mateo’s many teachers, SLPs, occupational therapists and myself.  Mateo was given a few different devices and just asked to explore.  Within minutes, while I was asking the sales representative questions.  From across the room, I hear “mom” and Mateo is sitting by himself grinning at me.  Once he had my attention, he added, “I love you” and ran over (nearly dropping the device) to give me a giant hug.   I knew then that he was ready and it was really a beautiful thing.

Fast forward to today–I witness first words every day while I’m working my students.  They take the form of a PECS symbol exchange, the press of a button on a NovaChat or a glance (and smile) at a PODD book.  Mateo is on his third AAC device–a beautiful Dynavox Maestro with Wordpower 100 as his vocabulary. He is 14 years old now and has finally accepted his alternative voice.