Giving AAC users the power of independent communication

Our greatest wish for AAC learners is that they will become successful and independent communicators. We want them to have the power to say “what they want; when they want; to whomever they want; wherever they want.” (Quoted from Gayle Porter - link below).

But where do we begin to achieve this? 

Often we are recommended to start with a beginning communication vocabulary, loaded with sentence starters and pre-programmed phrases and loads of choices. With one button press they can say: “I want…” or “I want to go…” or “I like…” etc. An AAC learner can get fast and instant results from this but unfortunately, they get stuck in a pattern of only being able to say what we have programmed in for them. What if they want to do more than make choices? What if what they really want to say is NOT there? What behaviours might result in this frustration? What AAC learner would want to consistently go back to an AAC system where they cannot say what they want? We limit their opportunities at communication when we give them so few words and no power to combine these words independently.

Instead we should start with the end in mind

If we want an AAC learner to become a successful and independent communicator, we need to give them an AAC system that allows for this. One that gives fast and easy access to powerful core words alongside personalised and fringe vocabulary, as well as a keyboard, is really the best way forward to grow powerful and independent communication for AAC learners.

We talk about core words all the time — and these should be front and centre in an AAC system. They should be alongside fringe words (those extra words that give precision and specificity to our message).  Core and fringe words can be combined together for unique messages.

Speak AAC

AAC learners can learn the power of words by watching how you use and combine them. This modeling is crucial in the learning process. Model on the AAC system as you talk to the AAC learner. Show them how they can combine words and build communication by interacting in everyday situations. Model a wide variety of communication functions so they can learn that words can be combined in different ways for different reasons. We also encourage teaching the words in natural contexts. Through repeated modeling of the words to communicate during real, motivating, everyday activities, AAC users learn the meaning of words and how to use them.

The right way to do pre-programmed sentences

We have talked about core and fringe words, but what about the pre-programmed sentences? Many AAC systems or pages within some vocabularies are built on these scripted sentences (often called “quick fires”). In a robust AAC system, there is a definite place for pre-programmed phrases and sentences. However, we need to look them differently. Ideally, they should be phrases written by the AAC users. Rather than the people around them guessing what they want to say, an AAC user can write the message and then save it onto a button to use later. This is saves them time and ensures successful communication. It also means they are saying their own words, not someone else’s!

My friend Matthew likes to plan ahead- he always wants to know what is happening next! Using his core word vocabulary in Proloquo2Go he started regularly writing out questions for his parents. It started as “what do?”, then “what do weekend?”, and with some modeling, eventually he was able to make seven button presses to ask “what will we do on the weekend?”. He asks this question a lot. We know he can say it. Does he have to prove himself everyday by re-writing this message? No! Instead, we saved this message onto one button in his questions folder so he can say it quickly and easily. And since then we have added lots of questions to Matthew’s vocabulary so he can ask for all the information he wants!

Screenshot of Proloquo2Go in iPad with text "what will we do on the weekend?"

Pre-programmed phrases and sentences can be useful when used in this way. 

Here are some more examples of powerful ways to use them:

  • Recount - an AAC user can write about something they have done. Save this message on a button in their News & Stories folder so they can tell their grandparents, their friends at school or even email it to an aunt and uncle.
  • Something’s wrong - help an AAC user to write about problems or difficulties they may have (eg. “it is too noisy”, “I don’t like that”, etc.). Save these messages on buttons so they can tell people what is wrong quickly and easily when upset.
  • Use recents - when you look at the AAC users recents folder on their AAC system, are there phrases or sentences that they write often? Consider saving some of these onto buttons.
  • Community outings - an AAC user can write a message they will need when they are out in the community (eg. what their food order will be at McDonalds, or what shoe size they need for bowling). Save messages on buttons to save time, so they can say their message easily.
  • Unfamiliar situations/people - Is the AAC user going to an unfamiliar situation, or meeting unfamiliar people? Help them to write some messages of things they might like to say to get started in the new interactions with new people.
  • Medical/therapy appointments - an AAC user can write about problems or questions they may have. Save these onto buttons so they can tell their medical practitioner or therapist easily.
  • Favourite topics - an AAC user may write about their favourite things (places, people, foods, tv shows, movies, objects, etc.) and save them onto buttons to use to start conversations with friends.
  • Favourite books - an AAC user may enjoy retelling parts of their favourite books. They can write sentences for different pages and add them to buttons to tell the story to others later.

Whilst we can see how useful pre-programmed sentences are, they should not be the key focus in an AAC system. Phrases and sentences should be added within the AAC system, alongside their core words, so they can be combined, added to and built upon for more interaction and real communication. When pre-programmed sentences, on their own, are made the priority pages in an AAC system, we are not giving the AAC learner the chance to develop independent communication.

Get started

What vocabulary options are you giving your AAC learner? Give them a robust AAC system and start modeling! Then think of ways you can save THEIR words to build their speed and efficiency. Give them every chance at becoming a successful and independent communicator.

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