Communication happens when we are engaged and interested. Communication allows real interaction to happen. When the Augmentative and Alternative Communication (AAC) user is engaged and interacting, we can build language and meaningful communication. When we focus on the strengths and interests of AAC users, we can find so many opportunities to engage and build language.
AAC is not a test
Unfortunately, many AAC users are given fewer opportunities to engage and build their language skills than children learning to speak. Often, AAC learners are tested using their AAC system. They are asked questions to show what they know or don’t know. They are asked meaningless questions. AAC users are made to use their AAC system to prove themselves. Where is the motivation to use your AAC system in this way?
AAC is not a test. AAC should not be used this way. AAC should not be used to do boring and repetitive drill exercises. All this may make an AAC user hate their AAC system, rather than see the value and strength in it.
Engage and motivate
Instead, we need to engage our AAC users. To do this, we find common ground and build on their strengths and interests. Choose interesting and engaging activities. Have real conversations. Give the AAC user the motivation to communicate real messages.
Every AAC user is different. There are many different ideas and activities that may interest them. Work with the AAC user and the team to find engaging ideas that give opportunities to build language.
Balance the amount of effort required
Each time we try to engage with an AAC user, we can consider at the effort and reward. The effort is how hard or easy it is to achieve success in the activity. And the reward is seeing natural reaction that comes from communicating a message successfully to make something happen. We need to keep effort and reward in balance. AAC users may chose to not engage if the task is too hard or too effortful, especially if they cannot see any reward or benefit. Equally, if the task is too easy, then the AAC user may quickly lose interest.
So, check your planned activity. How can you make it so the AAC user has the best chance of engagement and success?
Create real reasons to communicate
Engagement is not about making an AAC user look at us, nor is it about making them follow a set of instructions or “testing” what they know. Instead, we need to create real reasons to communicate. Look for opportunities to show them how to use words on their AAC system or use it to communicate something interesting and fun.
Doing interesting activities will create reasons to make comments and ask questions. Keep a list of things that the user likes or does not like. Keep a box of motivating books, objects and activities ready to go at any time. Try new things all the time. Hunt out cheap toys and games wherever you go.
Always be age respectful. Always choose activities, games and books that are in line with what other people their age would do and enjoy.
Sometimes, we can be a little creative and sabotage situations so that communication may happen.
Here are few examples, each of which may create opportunities for communication:
- Giving an incorrect item (e.g. give someone a fork to eat yogurt, etc.)
- Items out of reach (e.g. place high interest items on high shelves, or in boxes that are hard to open, etc.)
- Omitting a step (e.g. put on shoes without socks, give paper but no pencils, etc.)
- Be mischievous (e.g. do pranks and tricks, put bugs on Dad’s pillow, put a whoopee cushion on sister’s chair, etc.)
- Make mistakes (e.g. put a shoe on your head, get salt to put in coffee, etc.)
Use these strategies with caution and respect to the AAC user.
Conversations and opportunities for interaction
Often AAC users are given their AAC system to participate in a planned activity. They can use their device to make comments and requests during that activity. But can the AAC user have an conversation?
More often than not, a person who can speak does not only talk about the activity in front of them. They also share news about their lives or their interests. They ask questions of the people around them. They take turns with others to have a conversation about anything at all.
In some instances, AAC users are given far fewer chances to have conversations. However we can support AAC users to develop their conversational skills. Conversations are a wonderful way to build language and real connections with others. An AAC user can learn how to have conversations using their AAC system when it is modeled by the people around them. They can point to words on the AAC system as they chat. It can also be helpful to support an AAC user to learn how to start or initiate conversations. Follow the AAC user’s lead and help them to start conversations about interest areas. Conversations can happen any time. It may be during the transitions and breaks between activities. What is important is to find opportunities for interaction, and then model the language for conversations.
Look for incidental opportunities to start conversations in any activity. These incidental opportunities are the interesting comments that may happen on the side. In many cases, they can start a whole conversation about something different. For example, while you are doing a farm puzzle, the AAC user may remember the story about a time they went to a farm. Use this side conversation to model about the farm trip (eg. We went to a farm, Farm was fun, I liked the chickens, We fed the pigs, etc.). So much language happens when follow the natural flow of conversations with AAC users. If a different or related topic of conversation comes up, go with it and see what extra words and interaction happen.
Language of conversations
In the table below we can see some of the different ways we can use language to enter into conversations.