Communication partner skills for AAC learners

10 minute read

The people around the AAC user are important. They are the communication partners. Communication partners need to build their skills to support and interact with AAC users. Communication partners must learn to model, wait, prompt and respond.

Anyone can be a communication partner. We can all have a role in supporting AAC. And this is an important job. What we do counts; what we think is important and how we respond matters. Communication partners wait, listen, and respond. Communication partners must use every interaction as an opportunity to grow language and communication.

This article focuses on how we can build communication partner skills in our teams for symbol-based AAC users.

Key values of a good communication partner

Good communication partners have some things in common. Their values include:

  • Presuming competence. We provide opportunities for AAC users to become successful communicators.
  • Being flexible. We are ready to adapt and change in response to the situation and the learner’s communication.
  • Being persistent. We keep working on communication.
  • Being consistent. We use the AAC user’s communication system regularly and reliably.
  • Engaging and interacting with AAC users. We provide real and motivating reasons to communicate.
  • Being patient and allowing time for communication to happen.
  • Providing a balanced AAC system. This allows AAC users to communicate using core words, fringe vocabulary, and the alphabet for various reasons.
  • Make AAC always available.
  • Being Respectful. Focusing support to meet the AAC needs.

6 ways to build communication partner skills

There are many ways that we, as communication partners, can build our skills so we better support an AAC user.

1. Learn how to model

AAC users must see what it looks like to communicate with their AAC systems in real conversations. To do this, we need to talk to them using their AAC! We point to words on AAC as we speak. This is called modeling. Being a good communication partner means that we model AAC. It might feel difficult initially, but the more we model, the easier and more natural it will become. Regular and reliable modeling also improves the chances that the AAC user will learn to use their AAC system to communicate what matters to them.

Here are some tips to get started modeling:

  • Model regularly and consistently.
  • Model across different contexts and environments.
  • Point to the key words in the sentence. We do not need to model every word we say.
  • Model a wide range of communication functions. For example, not just requesting but also giving opinions, telling news, having conversations, etc.
  • Use a slow pace as we show the AAC.
  • Use self-talk as we model. Talk about what we are doing and what folders we are opening to find the word.
  • Have printed paper-based AAC available to model on. This is good for situations where the communication device might not be appropriate or available. (e.g., at the pool).

Common mistakes when modeling:

  • Continue modeling even if the communicator is not watching you.
  • We may need to model the same words in the same situations often. One is not enough.
  • The AAC user may not always respond or reply. Continue modeling.
  • We don’t need to make the AAC user copy what we modeled.

The AssistiveWare Core Word Classroom may help if you are just starting modeling. Look for Core Word Planners and Core Word 5-Minute Fillers for ideas on what to model.

    Watch this video for short explanation of modeling and some examples.

    2. Make comments rather than asking questions

    As we interact with an AAC user, think about your language or sentences.

    Do you always ask question after question? And what type of questions do we ask? Yes/No questions? Or questions we already know the answers to?

    Asking lots of questions puts an AAC learner in a passive role. They learn to respond but not to initiate conversations. They may even feel they are being tested. They are less likely to see and practice using words for real communication. If we think about our day, our most rewarding conversations probably don’t have right or wrong answers.

    Instead of always asking questions, we can comment on what we see, do, and think. Describe things! Make comments! Let AAC learners see other language.

    3. Pausing and waiting

    Using AAC takes time! We need to allow more time for communication. We must learn to pause and wait.

    • Allow time for the AAC user to make their message.
    • Wait for a message to be composed before talking.
    • Pause for the AAC user to take a turn or respond.
    • When we do pause, pause expectantly. Look toward the AAC user with an open expression that invites them to take up their turn if they wish to.
    • It can be a great idea to count in our head for at least 5 seconds. This is a useful strategy to help us to pause.
    • Some AAC users take more time to start their body moving to communicate. Count how much time they need. Make sure everyone knows.(eg.Communication Plan should include: “Sally can take 4 seconds to start her communication, make sure you allow her time!”).
    • Don't jump in with prompts or help if they have not responded immediately.

    4. How to provide prompts

    Naturally, we often provide prompts and clues to AAC users. We use prompts to help them use their AAC system.

    There are two key helpful prompts:

    1. Verbal prompts, such as saying “Find your chat words if you want to tell us what you think!”
    2. Gestural prompts, such as pointing to their AAC system to remind them to use it.

    Both are useful and can be used as needed.

    Another prompt sometimes used is Physical prompting. It includes hand-over-hand prompting. This is when we take the AAC user’s hand and make them point to the word. Physical prompting is less helpful.

    Some people are tempted to grab an AAC user’s hand to help them say words on their AAC device. It is better to avoid this. It has been shown that modeling is more effective than hand-over-hand prompting for learning skills effectively. In addition, using physical prompting does not support those safe practices important to protect vulnerability.

    Lastly, we should try to avoid providing too many prompts. Think of ways to fade prompts over time.

    Remember, regardless of how often we provide prompts or what type of prompts we provide, providing a model is still the most useful strategies we can use.

    And when allowing time and providing prompts gets no response from the AAC user, just provide a full model of the possible words suitable in the conversation.

    5. Consistent responding

    How we respond to an AAC user's attempts at communication is also really important. Responding to all communication attempts encourages interaction and the natural flow of conversation. It also gives us more chances to model and more opportunities to build and extend language.

    Four key response strategies include:

    • Acknowledge:

    We acknowledge all attempts at communication.

    • Attribute meaning:

    We treat the AAC user’s communication as meaningful. We should do this even if we don’t immediately understand how it’s relevant. We should also do this even if they use a word for something that’s not currently available. Avoid assuming that communication we don’t understand is an accident.

    Watch this video on Attributing meaning for an explanation and some examples.
    • Expand:

    We expand the AAC user’s message. For example, if the AAC user says “more”, you can model back “WANT - MORE” on the AAC system.

    • Recast:

    We restate the AAC user’s message. We show different ways of saying messages. eg. If the AAC users says “My turn”, we could say “Oh! you are telling me you want a go”, while pointing to “YOU” and “GO” on the AAC system.

    6. Accept all forms of communication

    Good communication partners accept that AAC users communicate using different ways, not just their communication device. AAC users may use a combination of vocalizations, words, word approximations, pointing to pictures or photos or objects, sign language, natural gestures, body language, and facial expressions, as well as their AAC system.

    Often, AAC users will choose the fastest and most efficient means of communication available to them in the moment. Every method of communication has its place. Each one should be valued, respected and responded to.

    An AAC user can choose when to use their AAC system. In some situations, they might choose to communicate in another way. They may say some words using their AAC system (e.g. “I want that”), while pointing to the desired object. They may point to a picture on their visual schedule (e.g. “library”), while pointing to the door. They are asking about when they are going to the library. Maybe they use their AAC to say something when their communication partner doesn’t understand their unclear speech. There are so many combinations and solutions that can make communication successful.

    Remember, AAC is not a test. Most people don't like to unnecessarily repeat themselves. AAC users are no different. Often an AAC user will give their message to us, using any means they have available to them. If we have understood them, then it is unfair to then expect them to say it again using their AAC system.

    Here is an example: A child verbally attempts to say “more” and then points to the bottle of bubbles. They have clearly communicated that they want more bubbles. What do you do?

    A. Push their AAC system in front of them and say “And now say it on your talker!”, expecting them to generate the same message - “more bubbles”, but this time on their AAC system, or…

    B. Do you use it as an opportunity to model and expand their language? You pick up their AAC system and say “Oh! You are telling me that … you want more bubbles”, while pressing “WANT MORE BUBBLES” on the AAC system. Or even model more language in a comment like “BUBBLES are such FUN”, or “Let’s BLOW them UP high”, or “You GET the BUBBLES!”.

    Of course, choice B is the best choice! Use every attempt at communication as a chance model language. And respect every mode of communication. It all plays a part in becoming an effective communicator.

    Communication partner skills training

    Make small but powerful steps toward being a better communication partner. Think about how you model, prompt, respond and allow for all forms of communication.

    Watch our "Communication partner skills" video on demand for an easy step by step introduction to the crucial strategies that communication partners can use to support AAC users.

    You can find this and other training videos in our Online Training section.

    Follow the links below for more strategies to get communication started:

    Links & References


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