I’m often stuck in the middle.
Whether you’re a parent or a professional who cares deeply about a child who uses AAC as a voice, does any of this sound familiar?
I work with parents who complain that the school isn’t doing enough to support their child’s communication growth. Parents cite bars that are set too low, limited opportunities to practice conversation skills and inadequate time spent on aided language input (or modeling) using the device throughout the school day. There, the emphasis might be on programming an answer box used to assess the child’s grasp of academic content, rather than mastery of language that permits communication across settings and conversational partners. Teachers are overwhelmed trying to address the needs of too many students and there is limited time to practice “talking” in the classroom.
On the flip side, I also work with school personnel who complain there is little or no carryover at home. Speech generating devices are returned to school the next day untouched and uncharged. And exhausted parents complain they are just too tired at the end of the day to work on communication after juggling homework time, dinner and personal care tasks — or managing challenging behaviors that place a strain on everyone at home.
Communication cannot be compartmentalized.
It simply doesn’t work for schools to treat an AAC device only as a tool for assessing what a student grasps of the curriculum. Aided language input must happen across pragmatic functions beyond answering questions and requesting preferred items and activities. Children need to learn to greet, request information, reject, protest, complain, ask questions, inform and comment. We know there is so much pressure placed on teachers to provide instruction directly related to the curriculum and to verify understanding. However, aided language input CAN be provided within the context of that instruction using the student’s own vocabulary. Time to practice “talking” must be carved in throughout the school day.
Simple examples include:
- Expect a greeting when entering the room
- Assign students to take turns making announcements
- Ask for opinions on everything from lesson activities and reading assignments to the lunch menu and happenings in the news
- Initiate brief conversation time (think “speed dating”) each morning on various topics (favorite movie, biggest fear, weekend plans, etc.)
- Send students on errands throughout the school building that require meaningful interaction with various school personnel (provide staff training!)
- Post a daily question for students to think about while settling in at the start of the school day, allowing time for the AAC communicator to formulate a response
- Set up barriers that promote asking for help (“forget” to open that milk container or pass out crayons needed for that art project)
- Using randomized turns (like popsicle sticks with student names pulled from a cup), preselect students who will respond to questions (Tommy, your question will be _____. Let me know when you’re ready to answer.)
- Formulate curriculum-related questions so they can be answered using core vocabulary on the device while providing a word bank for fringe academic vocabulary (terms like metamorphosis, cumulonimbus and electoral college don’t need to be on a communication device)
- Model, model, model
It simply doesn’t work when parents say to school teams that they don’t need AAC at home because they know what their child wants, needs or feels. I’m not a mind reader and neither are you, as Dana Neider wrote so vehemently in her blog (http://niederfamily.blogspot.com/2013/07/i-am-not-mind-reader-and-neither-are-you.html). Yes, it takes time to model language on an AAC device. Yes, it takes time to listen when the words come together slowly. Yes, it takes time to educate family members, friends and neighbors on active listening strategies. Yes, it takes time to ask your child to elaborate on what’s said to elicit more language. Yes, it’s faster to present a choice of two (Do you want burgers or pizza for dinner?) than asking an open ended question (What do you want for dinner?). When children are very young, I think it’s especially tough for parents to imagine their AAC communicator on their own–engaged in adventures apart from them–especially when that child is dependent on family for all personal and medical care.
Learning to ask for help, to communicate with confidence and to direct one’s own care is empowering even for individuals who rely on others to have their needs met. I ask parents to imagine sending their child to a camp (like Camp ALEC / http://www.campalec.com). Would that child be able to tell his counselor that he detests broccoli or has a gluten intolerance? What if that child is hospitalized and parents had to step away to get some rest. Would that he be able to tell a nurse he needs more pain medication or is afraid?
Here I am in the middle, which is exactly where I am meant to be — I think — in this crazy world of mine. Why? Because I’m standing beside that child who is struggling to communicate EVERYWHERE to EVERYONE about EVERYTHING. When a child is not expected to use AAC throughout the day, every day, I believe we are unintentionally sending a message that we don’t always value that voice. In effect, we are silencing that child in one context or another.
When children are encouraged to communicate in every setting, they gain confidence in making themselves heard. When children watch us communicate using their devices, they not only learn language. They see us embrace their words. When children are encouraged to practice communication with new listeners in new environments, THEY become the teachers and begin to change the world. It’s all part of the journey that is AAC.
Let’s change the world.
Every AAC journey has its ups and downs. Mateo is no exception. Initially, he was most comfortable communicating with our immediate family at home while school reported that he was less than eager — sticking with single words and short phrases whenever possible. As his confidence grew, so did his utterances and his personality, most notably his sense of humor, began to shine. For quite a while, Mateo was very reluctant to use his Dynavox in the community, refusing to order his meal at restaurants or to ask someone for assistance. Gradually, he became more and more courageous. That’s a tough thing to do when you’re the only kid in town who uses AAC as his voice. Nowadays, he strikes up conversations with people he meets everywhere and he’s singing the National Anthem any chance he gets. He’s still learning how to use that voice of his — aren’t we all?